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PR 3.0: Redefining public relations in a digital age

Updated: Apr 8, 2020

Public Relations as we know it dates back to the early 20th century, and Edward Bernays– considered by many the father of modern PR – defined it as “information given to the public, persuasion directed at the public to modify attitudes and actions, and efforts to integrate attitudes and actions of an institution with its publics and of publics with those of that institution”in 1923.

While this definition remains true today, societal changes and technological advances call for an updated version, especially in the age of social media. While established PR definitions focus traditional media like written press, television or radio and determine key stakeholders to be reporters, editors and news directors, adding digital media to this equation gives rise to new participants and dynamics.

To address this need, over 2011 and 2012, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) launched a public campaign to complete and redefine PR in modern terms and achieved the following definition: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. Photo by Gavin Whitner

Current views of public relations seem to focus on ideas of ‘engagement’ and ‘building relationships’ with stakeholders through content, rather than on the information itself. The persuasion that Bernays talked about in the 20th century is now measured in terms of the relationship with the organization rather than the power of the information.

Today’s social media landscape and the rise of new players like bloggers, content creators and digital influencers accurately show this shift: it’s all about creating a relationship between the audience and the company, and keeping it alive.

And the fact that PRSA’s up-to-date definition includes the word ‘process’ is interesting, because public relations is an ongoing effort and the disciplines it encompasses will continue evolving alongside society. Today public relations revolves around engagement, but let’s check-in in a few years to see what changes the next update brings.

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