Fresh eyes

Why defining PR is like searching for the Holy Grail

Why defining PR is like searching for the Holy Grail
Andrew Taylor Senior PR & Comms Manager

Written by Andrew Taylor,
PR & Communications Director at Freshfield

For all the talk about the recession’s impact on PR spend, how we manage the proliferation of social media, and how we get our discipline taken seriously at board level, there remains a bigger threat to our profession in my opinion.

That is the ability, or lack thereof, to explain exactly what it is we do. It’s an age old problem for PR professionals when friends and family ask what our job is. In fact it can be a question we dread.

The conversation will go something like this:

Friend: So what do you work as again?

Me: I’m in PR. I work for a public relations consultancy.

Friend: What’s that?

Me: Well we work with different organisations, helping them manage their reputation and improving their communications …

Friend: What like their telephones and stuff?

Me: No, their communications with their customers and other audiences, what they say to them, how they market themselves, how they deal with negative publicity…

Friend: Oh right… So how do you do that?

Me: Well we do it in a number of ways. It could be through the media, through events, or through direct marketing materials like newsletters, or social networking

Friend: So it’s like advertising then?

Me: Well…yeah…kind of…but it’s a lot more than that…

You get the picture. We PROs can end up having a five minute conversation before the other person understands what we do and even then we settle on something that’s not what we do at all. We resort to talking about individual tasks that make up our work, not the job itself.

But whose fault is that? It’s certainly not the other persons’. It’s up to us to get better at how we describe our profession, but chances are it’s still going to be difficult, especially when talking to someone who doesn’t know the industry.

It’s no wonder there’s a Facebook group with almost 5,000 members called “I Work in PR and My Friends and Family Have No Idea What I Do”. The group description just about sums it up: “They know we spend all day at an office and that we are very busy, but no one we know understands what it is we do all day. We are equally unable to explain it to them.”

It’s true, even my dad trembles with fear at the thought of people asking him what his son does for a living.

I once worked in a PR and comms role for a coach transport company. When I told an acquaintance this they thought I was the one that stood at the front of the bus on foreign coach tours explaining to passengers what they were seeing out of their window.

On another occasion the person I was talking to said that they too had worked in PR. “Really, that’s great”, I thought, thinking we were on the same wavelength, only to find out they were referring to their time as a holiday rep standing outside those bars in Greek 18-30 resorts asking people to come in for a drink.

There’s hundreds of academic definitions of our industry, but I’m yet to find one that gives anything more than a broad brush stroke of what PR is. There’s certainly none you’d be comfortable saying down the pub in response to THAT question.

How much easier would life be if people had a better general understanding of what we did? How much more work could we secure on the back of that understanding? How refreshing would it be to have people coming to us on a regular basis proclaiming: ‘Oh, you’re the people who can help me get my key messages to my target audience,’ or ‘you can help me manage my reputation with customers’.

Coming back to the point of all this: the PR industry needs to ‘PR’ itself much better. Of course, there’s always going to be an element of having to explain to people. And for me that’s the key issue here. It’s not just about defining PR, we have to become better at communicating the value of what PR can do.

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