It’s a joke in our business that no one outside public relations really understands what we do. In fact, PR has the dubious honor of ranking among the top ten most misunderstood professions by parents of those in the biz, according to a LinkedIn survey. It’s right up there with data scientist and UI designer when it comes to jobs your mom just doesn’t get.
That’s okay in my book. It’s silly to be sensitive about it or to take offense when people ask if you made that hilarious TV ad. But more frustrating than ignorance about the practice of PR are the misconceptions and stereotypes about it. Some date from the birth of the industry, just after World War II, while others are more recent. They just won’t quit.
Here are the top tropes about PR people that I’d be happy to never hear again.
PR is all about spin
The term originated with the expression to “spin a yarn,” which isn’t a bad reference if you think about it. Public relations today is largely about storytelling. In a 1996 Esquire magazine article, ”The Age of Spin,” Randall Rothenberg notes how the meaning of “spin” morphed from a synonym for “deceptive” to something more respectable with the rise of what he calls the political “media spindustrial complex.”
But for most public relations professionals, the word is distinctly negative. More importantly, it mischaracterizes the job. The typical PR engagement is far more ordinary, and more complicated, than the word implies. Most PRs work hard to advance a positioning or point of view, and we usually succeed without any compromise of integrity. In the end, it’s more about solid research, a dash of inspiration, and honest negotiation than legerdemain.
PR is about who you know
Not really, or at least not entirely. When it comes to the media relations piece of PR, having the right journalist contacts is useful. It helps to gain a fair hearing for your pitch, and even a negative response can offer insight on how to make a weak one better. But friends in the fourth estate won’t get you very far unless the idea is solid. Currying favor doesn’t make a career. The relentlessly networking name-dropper is a pretty dated trope in PR, especially these days. The more important set of contacts for agency pros may be the client types who stay loyal to a PR professional even as they change jobs.
PR professionals are “people persons”
This stereotype shows a fundamental misunderstanding of PR. It’s not the kind of customer-facing position that takes a specific personality (although perseverance helps.) A successful campaign is often a collaboration – requiring relationship skills like any other – and a top PR agency executive needs to be able to sell ideas. But there are plenty of introverts in this business. In fact, minutes before I was set to post this, I ran across this piece by Nicole Laoutaris about why introverts actually make superior PR people. Well said, Nicole.
PR people are failed journalists
It’s true that many journalists have crossed over into PR as the traditional media industry has contracted, but the business is neither a dumping ground nor a haven for sellouts. And the skills required for each are distinct. Check out Michelle’s post about the transition between journalism and PR if you don’t believe me. There’s a big difference between between running down stories for a newsroom and advising a corporate client.
PR is about parties and special events
This one’s silly. Of course public relations work can involve special events, like red-carpet premieres or high-profile technology product launches. But they’re in service of a strategy, and the the amount of preparation and planning far exceeds the hours spent flirting and partying. When it comes to stereotypes, the Samantha Jones one dies hard. But while most people working in PR love the variety and find it fun and even inspiring, we tend to take the job pretty seriously.