Pop Quiz: What Is PR?

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This is a guest post by Nova Halliwell, a communications professional in New York City.

I was recently waiting for a friend at a bar when a man sat down next to me and introduced himself as a doctor on vacation from Serbia.

“What do you do?” he asked.

Before I could even get the words “public relations” out of my mouth, I knew he was going to follow up with, “What is that?”

It’s a question that comes up with alarming frequency. Despite having plenty of opportunities to hone my answer, I still struggle to explain my job in clear, simple terms – and make it sound as interesting and important as it is.

My exchange with the Serbian doctor was no exception. By the end of the conversation, he seemed to think that I was a secretary who sold newspapers and fixed photocopiers for clients who were, for whatever reason, always setting things on fire.

There was a language barrier, to be sure, but that was hardly the problem. As Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” The same goes for foreigners.

PR: The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts


What I find most interesting about the question, “What is PR?” is the tone that often accompanies it. The people asking claim to be unfamiliar with the field and yet they seem to imply that they know it’s not good.

The problem, then, isn’t just answering in a way that’s understandable and relatable. The explanation needs to be compelling too.

“What do you say when people ask you what PR is?” I asked a few colleagues as I was writing this article.

Their reactions were about what I expected from a group of seasoned media relations professionals being approached by a snarky blogger – which is to say that nearly all of them began with some variation of: “Don’t you dare quote me in your post.”

With that detail confirmed, what usually followed was a list of tasks: PR is media relations; event planning and support; research; speechwriting; social media management. Once in a while, someone mentioned having to messenger a cheese plate uptown or complained about making photocopies by the thousand.

That may be an accurate snapshot of the average professional’s to-do list, but it doesn’t much answer the question, “What is PR?”

And it isn’t exactly compelling, either.

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Practicing What We Preach

If my informal survey illustrated one thing, it’s that most PR professionals probably aren’t using this common question as an opportunity to educate people on the significance of our work and the value we add.

When people ask, “What is PR?” and we launch into a list of day-to-day activities without explaining the strategy behind them and the objectives they’re aligned to, we fail to capture our own worth. Even worse, when we joke about cheese plates and photocopiers, we’re perpetuating the misconception that PR is trivial.

This problem is not relegated to junior staff. Some of my mid-level colleagues struggled with their responses, just as I did in my conversation with the man from Serbia. And while I didn’t speak to any senior executives for this article, I once heard a manager quip to a group of people at a networking event that working in PR means that he schedules a lot of meetings. He was joking, of course – but that kind of off-hand remark is precisely how people come to think that PR professionals don’t offer anything more than high-priced administrative services.

The great irony in this situation is that many PR professionals seem to fail to put into practice what we preach to clients day in and day out: be prepared for tough questions; lead with the most important information; have examples and anecdotes ready to illustrate the key points.

Perhaps what some of us need to do is represent ourselves as we would a client… A client who, quite frankly, has a bit of an image problem.

I suppose people reading this article fall into two camps: those who have a strong go-to answer to “What is PR?” and those who do not. If you’re part of the former, please share your best tips in the comments. So many of us could benefit from your wisdom.

If you’re like me and find yourself in the latter group, let’s hope our colleagues give us some inspiration. In the meantime, we should at least shut up about the copiers.

Sound off: How do you answer, “What is PR?”

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Nova Halliwell is a communications professional living in New York City. You can follow her at www.adviceicouldhaveusedyesterday.com and @adviceineeded. Want to read more of Nova’s work? Click here!

Images: Alberto G.Niuton may (Creative Commons)

About Guest Contributor

Cision invites PR and marketing professionals to share their best practices and advice with the Cision Blog audience. To share your story, contact blog.us@cision.com

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