PR Re-Defined by Richard Edelman

By Alison Lee, Intern

Let’s be honest, most of society perceives public relations in a negative light. Workers in the industry are perceived as manipulators and disingenuous, according to a U.K. newspaper a few years back.[1] But those of us in the industry (or aspiring to be, like myself) truly know the purpose of PR and why everybody—not just big-shot businesses and government—needs it.

Richard Edelman, CEO of the world’s largest PR firm, spoke at the International Association of Business Communicators world conference this week to an audience filled with communication professionals. He created a call to action for people who work in public relations and similar fields to not only advise organizations on communication strategies, but also on the ethics and transparency necessary to maintain the public’s trust. In an Edelman survey, 50% say businesses are unethical and 80% believe government is corrupt. With stats like that, who needs enemies?

The formal definition of PR varies, but according to PRSA, public relations is defined as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Edelman would re-define that definition by adding “advises on ethics and honesty with the publics’ well-being in mind.” Over the past few years alone, the public’s distrust of businesses and government has seriously declined.

In my Intro to PR class, I learned that professionals need to keep targeted publics and the client as the foremost beneficiaries of their work. For example, Bank of America needs to have a healthy and interactive relationship with finance and business people. What Edelman is saying, however, is for organizations to expand beyond their target publics and to follow ethical standards in order to appeal to everybody, not just the people who would utilize a client’s services.

Advances in technology, the Internet especially, permit the average person to gain knowledge and access to information that used to be limited to professionals. This, along with those depressing numbers mentioned earlier, is why the definition of PR needs a makeover. What does this mean for organizations? Appeal to everybody! It sounds like a daunting task, and in many aspects it requires more thought and work than just serving a client. Yet, Edelman’s speech appointed PR people and other professional communicators as the only hope for institutions to regain the trust of the general public.

“It is now about advising on a company’s behavior, strengthening relationships across the entire stakeholder universe, and making sure that we build trust,” says Edelman. Though the task is large, so is the lack-of-trust crisis that is rising over time as people become experts in all fields. And PR people are ready and willing to take on the task.

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