How to explain PR to your friends

TV and movies have conditioned people to think being a PR professional is something different from what it really is.

This article first appeared on PR Daily in December 2015.

Samantha Jones and I have nothing in common.

I don’t own a Fendi bag or bright-pink work suit. I don’t plan parties for celebrities, and I definitely don’t walk the red carpet on a Saturday night.

Unlike Samantha, I’m a public relations professional.

I build comprehensive PR plans. I crunch website analytics numbers. I develop creative initiatives to engage consumers across legacy and digital platforms.

But ask any person on the street what public relations is, and nine times out of 10 the response will entail party planning or spin (or just complete confusion).

Thanks, “Sex and the City.” You really did us a solid.

How should PR pros explain their jobs to non-industry friends?

PRSA suggests the following: Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

But if your friends are anything like mine, that won’t cut it. I can already see the yawns forming.

So this is my jargon-free, less formal approach.

Media relations: “I get my clients on TV, in the papers and featured on blogs to share company news and initiatives.”

Yes, our media relations plans are targeted and strategic. We pitch the right story to the right audience at the right time, but that’s industry speak. It’s not something my medical-industry friends really care to learn about. So I keep it simple.

To better explain, I tell them to think about a recent TV news show.

  • Did the anchor share news about a local event? A PR pro sent that information.
  • Was there a company spokesperson sharing tips on air? A PR pro arranged that.
  • Was there a business leader responding to a crisis? A PR pro shaped that messaging.

If there’s a piece of information about a company on a media outlet, a PR pro almost always had a hand in it. When I explain it that way, it starts to sink in.

Social media: “I tweet, post and pin helpful information, articles, new products and promotions on behalf of clients. I also make sure customers’ questions get answered.”

PR pros know it’s not that easy by a long shot. Social media takes time, planning and constant measurement, among other things. However, with simplicity in mind, this is a more relatable approach.

This is also where I usually uncover the most helpful, honest feedback. When explaining, I ask friends to think about the brands they interact with or see on social media. Frequently, those recollections bring up something along the lines of:

  • “Ugh, I hate when I see updates from companies I don’t know or care about.”
  • “Are you the person who puts ads in my news feed? Those are the worst.”

Sure, it’s not fun to hear that, but it’s also the perfect chance to learn from non-PR people about what they want from brands on social media. This part of the conversation often turns into my own little focus group, and I love it.

Too often we get into a focus-group-of-one mentality, and think about how we like brands to act on social media. But we’re PR pros. We’re biased. Find out what your non-PR friends think about PR initiatives, and you’re sure to uncover some hidden gems.

Content marketing: “I write blog posts, website copy and other things to help clients share news and information with customers.”

SEO is a major part of that equation, and of course, developing brand voice is critical. Again, that gets too lingoy for a quick PR overview.

This is also a good time to remind your friends that yes, you write, but you’re not a journalist. I’ve had a number of people ask if (or infer that) I write for our local paper. How did this start? No idea. But I’m quick to correct before yet another misconception gets spread.

Did I leave anything out about the industry? Sure. A lot. It’s kind of painful, but if we’re getting down to PR 101 for non-industry friends and family, we have to follow the often repeated advice of “keep it simple, stupid.” Otherwise our words will go in one ear and out the other, leading to a lifetime of:

“So you plan parties and play on social media? Now, isn’t that nice.”

Stephanie Vermillion is a senior account executive at Wordsworth Communications, a public relations agency in Cincinnati . Connect with Stephanie on LinkedIn and Twitter (@SMVermillion). A version of this article originally appeared on her blog.


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