Spinsucks, Chicago-based blog operated by Arment Dietrich, is hosting a discussion of the quest for a new definition of PR by 13 PR organizations. There are 136 comments so far including one by this writer.

Dave Rickey, secretary of the U.S.-based PR Society who is also chair of the “PR Defined Task Force” and SVP of communications of the Birmingham Business Alliance, responded at length to a post by Gini Dietrich on the quest.

Dave Rickey
Rickey said that while objections to the three finalist definitions are not “overwhelming,” they exhibit themes such as “hatred” for the definitions and claims that they’re “confusing,” they don’t come close to “hitting the mark” and critics have done a better job on their own blogs.

We liked this definition by “Soulati”: “PR helps people to say the right things to the right audiences at the right time and in the right way.”

Another definition of PR was supplied by a cartoon in the New Yorker which showed one executive handling a pile of papers to another and saying, “Here’s the unvarnished truth. Varnish it.”

Rickey noted that the use of the term “PR” seems to be in decline.

Only about 15% of the Society’s district, section and chapter leaders use “PR” in their titles, he said.

I posted this response to Dave Rickey on the SpinSucks blog:

Hi Dave:

Congratulations on taking part in this discussion on the quest for a definition of PR by 13 PR organizations.

You note at one point that you are “trying to keep the Alabama legislature happy” while also heading the “PR Defined Task Force.”

You are SVP-communications of the Birmingham Business Alliance. Birmingham has a big PR problem these days, covered in the New York Times story Sunday Feb. 18 on the bankruptcy of Jefferson County, Ala., of which Birmingham is the biggest city. That city is called “a monument to urban blight” where “a quarter of the people live below the poverty line.” Civic and business leaders are accused of “graft and contract padding” and former mayor Larry Langford got 15 years in prison. I think it is relevant to this discussion because PR people can only be as good as their clients.

This discussion of the meaning of PR excludes any input by reporters. None was sought.

There’s no doubt many in the press are angry at PR. We have covered PR 43 years via our website, newsletter and magazine and have never seen such a gulf between PR people and the press.

Instead of trying to define PR, PR groups should be meeting with severe critics of it in the press.

David Carr of the NYT has just said (Jan. 29, 2012) that he is fed up with “slop” delivered to him by PR “underlings.”

CBS-TV on-air editor Andrew Cohen said in 2008 that PR having an ethics code is like a group of burglars having a code against stealing. He said what PR people do is trying to “turn milk cows into race horses and turkeys into eagles.

Gene Weingarten, columnist for the Washington Post, in 2007 called PR people “pathetic dillweeds.” Annoyed at the mountains of e-mail, releases and phone calls he gets from PR people, he tried calling some of them up and asking questions. All he got was juniors who couldn’t answer anything.

PR people, besides angering reporters, are the least trusted people in any company or institutions. They are the corporate “snitches” ready to pounce on anyone who says a negative word about the employer. At major companies and institutions, their every word on the phone or in e-mails is monitored by lawyers. Corporate “PR” has all but disappeared and almost totally resides in the agencies these days which talk to reporters. Check out this gag policy by Viacom: http://bit.ly/bx2FKP.

The PR Society and the Rockefeller Foundation paid $150,000 for research that conducted live interviews with 2,000 Americans. Published in 1999 after five years of work (including two years on the interviews), the study found “PR specialist” to rank 43rd in visibility on a list of 45 sources. The Society did nothing about this finding except to try to hide it and forget it. It never printed the table in the monthly Tactics nor anywhere.

Only when PR groups and PR individuals face the above facts and actually talk to reporters will something be done about the image of PR.

Rickey points out that only 15% of Society district, chapter and section leaders use “PR” as part of their titles. Only six of the 50 largest U.S. PR firms as tracked by odwyerpr.com use “PR” in their titles. Less than five of the 150 blue chip corporate “communications” executives in (PR) Seminar use “PR” in their titles. This 65-year-old group of communications heads at big companies itself dropped “PR” from its title three years ago. There are ten books about PR with “Spin” in the titles.

Who is going to put the PR Humpty Dumpty together again? Actions by PR people, including contact with critics such as Carr, Cohen and Weingarten would be a start. –Jack O’Dwyer