Today’s “What is…” Wednesday will focus again on answering one seemingly simple question: What is public relations?
We welcome a guest blogger to answer this question this week – Andrea Meyer, former director of media and public relations at Career Education Corporation. A graduate of Stanford University, she has provided her communications expertise to some of the best known brands in the United States, including Cartier, Lucasfilm, Marlboro, Sony and Weber. Originally based in California, Andrea began her career with an emphasis on special events. She has contributed to the tenth anniversary of Lucasfilm THX Sound Division; facilitated the North American launch of the Sony PlayStation and marketed Cartier eyewear.
So, Andrea, what is public relations?
I think PR is one of the most misunderstood and/or not known professions. I’ve been asked what I do by friends and family and when I say “PR” the reactions vary but more often than not, I get a blank, somewhat dazed sort of look. Let me explain that since I’ve been working now for more than 20 years, I’ve seen quite a few dazed expressions. So, then I might offer an explanation of the stories in the newspaper or on television were likely set up by someone like me.
We pitch companies/products/services/executives to reporters to tell a story. That is a really simple way of putting it but it provides a tangible example that most people should be familiar with and hopefully understand. In 2010, there were some very clear examples of PR failures that further demonstrated PR nightmares: BP and Toyota.
I should also share that there likely are differences in perspective based on being in an agency vs. on the corporate side of the business. When you work in an agency you are surrounded by like-minded people while in a corporation there are many people who think they know what we do (and certainly like the results) but often do not understand all that is involved. To compound the issue, there are so many facets to the job on a daily basis. And, depending on the company, we can get called upon to help on a myriad of tasks ranging from internal communications, community relations, event planning, town hall meetings, etc. Of course, the growth of the Internet has also helped my job description to expand to a host of other tasks: respond to consumers online, website content management, social media monitoring, etc. The news cycle now is 24/7 and stories can be posted at anytime. The traditional, close-of-business-day deadlines are less common. Bloggers also carry as much, if not more, influence than traditional reporters. Then, there are those crisis management issues that arise out of no where.
My professional counterparts add to the problem by using different terms and insisting upon drawing various distinctions. Marketing communications ("MarCom"), corporate communications, integrated marketing communications ("ICM"), media relations, public relations, etc. Do we really need to argue over "having a seat at the table" where we can "be strategic partners" with the executives in the company when we can't figure out what to call ourselves?
At day’s end, I will continue to review the conversations I had with reporters, or consider how announcements will be received, and I wonder about the impact of my actions. You see, for most people if they screw up on their jobs, they worry about their bosses discovering it. My mistakes will be public. The audience size grows now that articles live on the Internet and they do not go away.
Adding to the confusion, though, is the use of the term “PR” by people in conversation when it may not be pertaining to my profession. How often do I hear “that was good PR.” And often it is a mixture of promotions or advertising being discussed. Certainly situations like the BP Oil spill bring into focus a PR disaster for all to see. The analysis of how the company did or did not address concerns and the missteps along the way might actually educate more about the function. It also shed light on how many moving parts there are to situations. Assuming BP had a handful of PR people on staff, how many more employees were out there in the field? How many consumers or business associates (impacted by the disaster) were out and being interviewed or blogging? The ability to harness all that is communicated about a company is an impossible feat yet we are looked to for just that sort of capability.
Recently, in the New York Times, there was a guest blogger who wrote of his miserable experiences with two PR firms out on Long Island. There were pages of responses with suggestions on how he might move forward and a fair amount of speculation on where some of the fault originated and this also continues the assault on the reputation of PR professionals.
I was reading someone else’s blog and it made reference to a ranking of the most stressful jobs in America. It was actually reassuring that mine is among the top ten according to this study. I’m not sure if that will bring me any sympathy, or better awareness by friends or family, but at least I can validate those nights when insomnia strikes. I’m not alone.