What is PR? Anyone? Anyone?

“Nice to meet you. So, what do you do?”

“I work in PR,” I say … silence. “Public relations?” I continue. Still, blank stares.

“Oh, you make commercials!” “You must be good with people!” “Do you do a lot of public speaking?” “Are you like Samantha Jones from Sex and the City?” “How are the parties?”

Sigh. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve had this conversation and come away exasperated. How is it that my chosen profession is so hard to explain? It’s clear to me, but not to the friends, family, acquaintances and cocktail party guests I’ve met over the years who just don’t get what I do. Why is that? Probably because there is no singular explanation that defines public relations.

Much like the evolution of news, PR is an evolving field, embracing new media and, with it, innovative ways of sharing a client’s message. Ironically, a PR career path does not lend itself to a succinct sound-bite. Even the organization representing PR professionals across the U.S. – the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) – is struggling to crisply define ‘What Is PR?’ and has asked hundreds of PR professionals to weigh in.

Based on feedback from their task force, three definitions have been proposed.

  • Definition No. 1: Public relations is the management function of researching, engaging, communicating, and collaborating with stakeholders in an ethical manner to build mutually beneficial relationships and achieve results.
  • Definition No. 2: Public relations is a strategic communication process that develops and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their key publics.
  • Definition No. 3: Public relations is the engagement between organizations and individuals to achieve mutual understanding and realize strategic goals.

The public has been asked to comment and react on the above, which will result in a second set of definitions for voting by PR professionals. A final definition is anticipated by the end of February.

Do these definitions truly explain our trade in all its complexity?

We in PR are often the “invisible hand.” You won’t see a PR professional’s name bylined in the client’s feature article, and you’ll rarely see us giving interviews. You’ll find a us behind the scenes (or realistically, the computer or smartphone), exchanging emails, tweets and phone calls with reporters and producers, drafting executive talking points, or researching a news hook to support a product launch. You’ll find us donning hard hats for a client’s factory tour, balancing a laptop while managing an event and simultaneously scratching out those last few lines of the press release, or even finagling a banner behind a podium to up the chances of visual branding during a press conference. You may even find us speeding across town with six acrobats in our car to make a 5 a.m. TV segment (I’ll tell you that story another day!)

To those outside the industry, it’s hard to explain that PR is more than the sum of its parts. We strive to be storytellers, offering our clients fresh perspectives on who they are and further defining what their brand means. And there is no right way to tell a story. Different strategies and tactics work for different audiences. What makes a narrative work? Is it content? What about tone? Does the setting matter? With so many variables, there is no established formula. PR is not an exact science. This isn’t accounting, after all, and thank goodness since spreadsheets make most of us PR folks wince. PR is an art and a creative one at that. Let’s make sure this new definition, whatever it may be, accounts for the creativity and spontaneity that our work demands of us.


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