I was at a family gathering not too long ago and an aunt who I haven’t seen in a couple of years asked me about my job. When I explained that I work for a company that sells software that helps PR professionals make data-driven decisions about public relations strategies and tactics, she seemed quite confused. It turns out that she, like many other people, had a very outdated and inaccurate idea about what PR people actually do. In her mind PR professionals pretty much just followed important business or political figures around and told them what to say. “Surely, you don’t need software for that?” Bless her heart.
The conversation got me thinking about what is the best way to explain PR to someone who isn’t at all familiar with the industry or adjacent ones like marketing and advertising. How do you explain your job to your mom, for example? Here’s where I’d start.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but my mom is a big fan of Southwest Airlines. So I’d start there and ask her to describe it. She’d say that it is friendly, relaxed, and affordable. I’d explain that the airline has decided that those traits set it apart from the competition and that the Southwest PR team works to make sure that they are incorporated into the messages that consumers get about the brand from every channel. A campaign, promotion, feature story or uniform that might be perfect for Delta might clash with the Southwest identity. PR professionals keep everyone on point.
I’d also explain that beyond just information about products, customers want to know more about the companies they do business with. They want to understand why the company does what it does, what makes it different, how it impacts its customers, employees and community. PR professionals bring companies to life by answering these questions and finding ways to share the narrative with the public. Sometimes it takes the form of a press release, a case study, a blog post, or a media interview, but it’s really the story that is important. It is the job of the PR professional to understand the best way to share the story in a way that it reaches the right audience.
People don’t just listen to these stories; they talk about them. Sometimes they do it in a way that is favorable to the brand and the PR professional’s responsibility is to make sure those positive sentiments are amplified as much as possible. Of course, sometimes the press or public say negative things about the brand. Then it becomes the PR pro’s mission to react in a way that protects the company’s reputation with dignity, honesty, and without spin.
Yes, I’d tell her. We write press releases, pitch stories to journalists, hold press conferences, have parties, and tell executives what not to say when bad news breaks, but the purpose of all of it is to strengthen the relationship between our companies and the public. We work to create an impression of our brand that is authentic, positive and well known. I think she’d get that.