It turns out that PRSA has an official definition of public relations (who knew?) that is about 20 years old, and which the organization is seeking to update. Here it is:
"Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other."
A bit clunky, but it's actually pretty close to my definition: Public relations is a process by which an organization reconciles its interests with those of the public.
Note that what neither definition includes is the word "communications" which too many people, particularly outside the field, think is all that PR people are capable of doing. To them, PR is just communicating an organization's actions -- or trying to hide them, as the case may be. As I've said, my job isn't to try to put a positive spin on your bad decisions; it's to help you make good decisions, based on my knowledge and professional judgment of how those decisions will impact the public. And then we communicate accordingly.
Public relations is a management function -- or it should be -- tied to an organization's strategic goals. That's not to say that every decision an organization makes needs to be popular. Sometimes, for example, a corporation has to downsize, or close a plant, or do something that is going to alienate some constituency. But the public relations counselor should ensure that such decisions are not made by the organization in a vacuum, that such decisions are truly necessary, and carried out ethically and humanely, as much as is possible.
Which brings me to a debate in which I engaged a few weeks ago in which I said, more or less, that my fellow PR practitioners need to toughen up, and quit fretting about the industry's negative stereotypes. Our good work should speak for itself, I wrote.
The problem with that, though, is that often our good work isn't visible to anyone outside the organization, and sometimes not even to those inside the organization. It's about the counsel we provide that helps leadership avoid a mistake. It's the negative story that doesn't leak out to the media. (OK, so sometimes we do try to bury bad news. Sue me.) Which means that the negative stereotypes, and the limited definition of PR that many people hold, will continue to hold us back, keep us from fulfilling our potential as strategic counselors, and stunt our employers in the process.
As any PR person worth his or her salt knows, sometimes it's best to admit you were wrong and move on.