How Do You Explain PR to People?


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Unlike many professions, most members of the general public have no idea what public relations is or what PR pros do. You know what I mean. You’ve been met with the “I’m going to nod my head like I know what that is but my face will give away that I’m clueless” look before.

Doctors don’t have this problem. Nor do insurance salesmen. For that matter, even our brethren in the marketing mix don’t have this issue. Tell Joe Normal you’re in advertising and he knows exactly what you’re talking about.

Part of that is probably due to the fact that much of the work in PR lies behind the scenes. We pitch the stories, but journalists write them. We write the speeches, but executives deliver them. We plan the corporate social responsibility campaign, but the CEO accepts the accolades.

Our daily professional lives cover such a broad range of strategic initiatives and tactical activities that it can be hard to even know where to start when explaining PR to a non-marketing person. So what do you say when they ask, “What’s that?” I try to make it relevant for them by putting it in terms of what they experience. Something like:

“I help companies communicate with people – customers, employees, legislators. And with you! If you’ve read a story in a newspaper or on on a new product, a PR pro shared that with the reporter and lined up the interviews. If you see a business leader delivering a speech, a PR pro probably wrote it. If you happen across a really cool event in Bryant Park, a PR pro likely played a major part in the idea behind it. We work with executives to figure out the smartest, most effective ways to engage with people, let them know what’s going on with the company, and get their thoughts and feedback.”

What about you? How do you explain PR to your Aunt Martha or the guy sitting next to you on the airplane in a few sentences?

*Image by Keven Law.

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40 responses to “How Do You Explain PR to People?

  1. I don’t explain it to people. I found early on that saying “I work in communications” or “I work in the (x) industry” made for smoother social interaction, avoided arguments with family members and improved my reproductive success.

    After all, it’s not our job we like to promote – it’s the client or the employer, right? Besides, I prefer people to think my boss writes her own speeches.

  2. I blogged a while back about “things I wish they’d taught me in com school” … and an elevator speech about PR as an industry was definitely something I brought up. PR encompasses so much that it’s easy to get carried away — and that’s why I like this:

    “We work with executives to figure out the smartest, most effective ways to engage with people, let them know what’s going on with the company, and get their thoughts and feedback.”

    I think this covers the bases pretty thoroughly. Nice job!

  3. During a presentation for Com Day at Purdue on Saturday I explained PR as:
    Building awareness
    Creating relationships
    Generating News
    Building goodwill
    all for your client/product/organization

    But year, it’s tough – everyone outside of the field instantly thinks 1) tv/news 2) advertising 3) HR

  4. I love this post, because I have felt keely the kind of professional schizophrenia we have around “how come people don’t understand PR?” and “I don’t want to take credit for anything.”
    Because we work with B2B finance and profl firm clients, I have often said “we get people quoted in the Wall Street Journal.” People seemed to get that. But then Murdoch took over.
    Now I say “we help our clients understand their own expertise in a way that helps them market themselves and their firm.” Vaguer but more inclusive of all that we do beyond media relations.

  5. Part of the problem of defining PR is that there are very few “high five moments.” In my experience, PR is more of a flow, and less about milestones. Lawyers get to win(and lose) cases. Salesmen get to look at sales figures. PR is usually about trying to make people feel a certain way about a product, person or service, which is difficult to point to a distinct moment of success or failure.
    Practically though, I usually just say, “I’m that guy on TV when good and bad things happen, but usually bad.” The fact that my TV time only represents about 3 percent of my job is secondary to attempting to explain myself.

  6. I have a slightly different perspective on this. Yes, I work for a communications agency. No, I’m not a traditional account executive. When I tell people I do PR research that really boggles their minds. I just send them to the Web site, it is much easier 🙂

    In all seriousness, I think you actually raise a good point. If we struggle to define what is we do, how can we possibly expect the C-suite to get it? I see PR as a process that helps companies communicate more effectively with key stakeholders – employees, customers, investors, etc…

  7. I too have seen that blank look and the look like I stole candy from a baby. I find that, sometimes, educating people about the PR profession is essential – as we do not always have the best reputation (ahem… “flack”).

    I typically tell people that I help companies and brands communicate with their customers, the general public and the media. And with any marketing initiative, the goal is to help build both brand awareness and their bottom line.

    This typically leads to a discussion about my company and we build the bridge from there. That “elevator pitch” is much more refined 😉

  8. Hmm… I’m wondering if I can fit your descriptive paragraph on the one-line “occupation” space on Doctor’s office and DMV forms? I’ll have to write very, very small! 🙂

    PR is really such a broad field with so many types of functions. I like that you included more than just media relations activities in your description. I consider myself a PR pro, but have done very little media relations work throughout my career – most of my work has been focused on employee communications or customer relations. I agree with Abby and Lexd – PR goes far beyond working with the media all the time.

  9. Brenna Sowder

    I totally agree with the difficulty in explaining what PR means… Its particularly challenging in this economy, when selling what you do is paramount. Its kind of like refining your 30 second elevator speech, the stuff they teach MBAs. I appreciate your breakdown here – good insight on PRs being the “behind the scenes” folks.

  10. Explaining PR is fairly simple. But because its not as identifiable as other professions, as you mentioned, I think people do either one of two things: 1) slowly begin to understand it as they connect their experiences to a PR pro’s expertise or 2) say “Wow, that sounds easy” and begin to think that anyone with a random interest in PR can do it.

    I like your explanation and try to offer something similar to people, something they can relate to that gives them a point of reference.

  11. I’ve taken to simply stating that “PR creates, builds and maintains relationships between a company and the people who determine that companies success or failure.”

    Now, that’s typically vague enough to confuse the people that don’t understand and concise enough to satisfy those who do.

    My agency focuses on government affairs and health care accounts, so we do a lot of media relations. I tell my dad “we get you in the news when you want in, and out when you want out.”

  12. I find it amazing this question continues to resurface year after year. Perhaps PRSA should address it on one of their many blogs! 😉

    What I have posted about in the past is not so much that people do not know the PR function, but all of the negative myths surrounding PR. Say ” I am in PR,” and people give you a look that makes you feel like a snake oil salesman!

    I am a storyteller. I bridge communications between the C-suite and the people. Terry M says it the best above…we establish a “flow.”

  13. This seems to be a trend among PR bloggers. I recently wrote on the topic after a client — a client! — referred to our firm as “the advertising guys.” It’s important to address what we do so that we can properly set expectations.

  14. I tend to use specific examples as you did and also emphasize two-way communication between a company/brand/person, etc. with their audiences.

  15. I have described what is PR as using various tools & my skills to connect organizations with their audiences (from staff and vendors, to members, shareholders, the media and you – the general public’). It’s not ot concrete, so if their eyes haven’t glased over, I add: I help get a story on a non-profit into the newspaper, get the word out about an event (TV, Radio, Newspaper, online websites); and help small businesses know how to present themselves on websites to really showcase who they are and what they do.

    But I like Abby Carr’s newer definition above better- “Now I say “we help our clients understand their own expertise in a way that helps them market themselves and their firm.” Vaguer but more inclusive of all that we do beyond media relations.”

    We write, we research, we connect people and information; we help define goals/objectives for individuals and organizations, and create and implement strategies to achieve them

  16. Guy at a party: “So what do you do?”

    Me: “I work in communications.”

    GAAP: “So, like, you sell cell phones?”

    Me: “Kinda, yeah.”

  17. And frankly, I don’t care. As an engineer, my focus is on the product and process to create it. Marketing, Selling and evangilizing it is someone else’s. PR’s seems to be all smoke, mirrors, feelings and illusions to me.

  18. In regards to PR, I’ve explained it like a theater performance. You have your main actors that are on stage. Then you have your backstage crew – aka PR people… making sure everything is running smoothly, the right lines are read and the scenes are set right. We make sure the performance goes off flawlessly and are vital to the success of the show. 🙂

  19. It is interesting that you bring this topic up. I am preparing to present at a high school career day in a month and have been struggling to answer this exact question; especially considering the younger audience.

    I believe that the point that Lauren Vargas brought up about this question continuing to resurface year after year has something to do with the difficulty of finding a concrete answer. Not only is the spectrum of our work incredibly broad and somewhat out of the view of John Q Public, it is also rapidly and continuously changing. With a communications landscape that is changing so quickly it challenges us to change our tactics, strategies and operations. How can we even begin to explain what we do when what we do is constantly changing?

    (As a side note: With the high school students I plan to give them a few pages out of a magazine and ask them to find stories they think have been influenced by PR and start from there.

  20. While I’m not surprised that people with whom I come in contact don’t understand my job, I am slightly annoyed that my own family doesn’t get it. My brother and I joke around the Thanksgiving table that I need a one-word job description like him: he’s a dentist! Any suggestions for a one-word description for PR pros!?

  21. a friend in PR explains i this way:

    When the circus comes to town and you paint a sign about it – that’s advertising

    Put the sign on the back on an elephant and march him through the CBD – that’ s promotion

    The elephant parades through John Howard’s flower bed – that’s publicity

    You can get John Howard to laugh or comment favourably about it – THAT’S PUBLIC RELATIONS.

  22. I really like this post. The way that I explain PR to my family and friends is by giving them examples of the kinds of projects that I’ve done.

  23. I love how you describe PR. I describe it very similarly: “PR is companies communicating with their publics to build trust. It is a two-way conversation that consists of audiences voicing their concerns, questions, and comments to companies; companies listening to their audiences; and companies responding to their audiences.”

  24. Great post and great comments. What I like about PR is that it is tough to describe which means for clients it can be tailored to their specific needs. PR can take so many forms that if you know even a little bit about who you’re trying to explain it to, you can probably do so in a way that it will fit their world (TV, radio, online, print…).

    @Terry, you hit my own issue on the head. PR does not always have measurable milestones like some other industries and it can be hard to swallow that PR (good or bad) does not happen overnight. It’s an ongoing process to create feelings, develop relationships, and build brand awareness and loyalty.

    Even though it’s hard, if PR is what you do, you should be prepared to describe it to someone. Be proud of what you do.

  25. Pingback: What’s the Perception of Your Industry? » Media Emerging

  26. One thing I’ve always noticed is that my favorite PR campaigns seem to be founded on excellent strategy and consumer insights.

    A frustration? That PR is so often mistaken for being about “fancy writing.” This perception is as prevalent inside the industry as out.

  27. Wow! I come out of all day meetings and there are so many great comments. Thanks for sharing.

    @jrandom – your perception – right or wrong – is shared by many others and points to a larger challenge that the PR industry faces. Think I’ll do a follow-up post in response to your comment later this week. Thanks for the candor!

  28. Celia Sollows

    I like these stories. I once worked on a project with an engineering technologist who was curious why a communications person was assigned to his team. We discussed who would be affected, how to get them involved, how to get input, build interest and so on. At the end of our meeting he said “I get it now, you’re an implementation expert.”

  29. The irony is that it is our job to help clients explain what they do (messaging) simply, clearly and effectively BUT yet WE still fumble with our own elevator pitch.

    I was asked twice last week “Now, what do you exactly?” and I typically respond with: “It’s my job to work directly with clients to counsel, develop and execute strategic PR campaigns to raise awareness on a product, service, issue or event to directly reach the target public in order to drive traffic/revenue back to the client” If they get it, which they often do, then we start discussing it in more detail and I throw out the whole ‘if you were reading a newspaper article on a certain product or call to action, my job is to pitch, blah, etc.” Seems to work and it allows for the discussion to go further along so the light bulb goes off 🙂

    Great entry…thanks for posting!

  30. The label to adapt is that of a communicator. The PR pro’s job is to communicate information though channels that make it easy for the respective audience to understand and come to an informed decision. I find it interesting that PR gets lumped with advertising and marketing to create a bad taste in the consumer’s mouth. I believe it is the responsibility of the consumer to make up their mind about what they want and need and not feel tricked when they make a decision about the given information. (that being said… there are individuals that abuse their privileges and take advantage but that isn’t the community as a whole.)

  31. How about damage control? Ok, I am only half-joking 😉

    I find most people have no problem understanding that, though. In fact, they can probably come up with examples which is probably rather worrying because they’re unlikely to be good ones 😉

    How about this for short and sweet… ” Public Relations is about supporting the relationship between the company and its public?”

    Isn’t that what it’s all about when it comes down to it? It also fits nicely into a 30 second elevator speech.

  32. How we do it has changed over the years, that’s obvious, but essentially I say what I have always said: I help companies and individuals that want exposure or relationships – in the media, or to/with groups or individuals – get it; either by getting them interviewed by the media or by helping them identify and communicate with whoever is important to them and their business, online and off. PR is about storytelling, communicating, and relationships. Helping individuals and companies that want media exposure, get it. And the definition of media is constantly changing.

  33. As an independent practitioner, it is extremely hard to explain PR to not only potential clients but also to family and friends, so I deeply appreciate this post. And I will be bullet-pointing it and committing those points to memory as well as share the link to this post. Bravo and thank you!

  34. I always liken myself to Colt Seavers. The unknown stuntman that makes Redford such a star. 🙂

  35. I’m with you – I usually try to explain it with a media relations reference because it seems the easiest for people to understand.

    The worst, though, is when someone thinks they can do my job because they’re “a people person.”

  36. You know, the real challenge is when you have to explain your superior what PR means. (I am working as an internal communicator so I can say it is more harder to explain what internal PR means to somebody, who doesn’t know what PR means in itself…)

  37. Yes, it’s not easy to explain what PR really is to common man but that goes for many professions. Aunt Martha or the guy in the plane might have some idea but usually they draw their own conclusion. It’s like not all technology people write codes or work for Microsoft.

    I use absolute kindergarten examples explaining what I do and avoid all buzz words, they put them to sleep.

  38. Nice explanation. I too have wondered how to explain Public Relations to people. I am an Advertising & Marketing Communications student, in my final year, so PR is a subject we cover a lot. Even in the first year when our lecturers taught us about PR…they never put it so bluntly and clearly…“We work with executives to figure out the smartest, most effective ways to engage with people, let them know what’s going on with the company, and get their thoughts and feedback.”

    We were still confused about summarising PR even when we reached our third and final year of uni. But, amazing job on doing tha for us!

  39. Great post! As a young (just starting out) PR pro, I have found it difficult to explain my area of study/expertise to friends and family. I have had many say, “You majored in what?”

    So, I understand the frustrations of many. Still, I secretly like the ambiguous nature of my chosen profession. There is nothing wong with staying under the radar. But, I have found that ‘not getting the credit’ that is deserved is just the nature of the business.

    Either way, thanks for the discussion!


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