Two years ago an old woman snailed by my house in Eugene, Ore as I sat on the porch. She started chatting with me, asking, “What are you studying?” I obediently told her that I was studying journalism.
“Are you going to be an honest journalist or a dishonest journalist?” she snarkily asked.
Little did I know that that was only the beginning of my defense of public relations.
I have had to clarify time and again to friends and family the definition of public relations. Many people have thrown out phrases like “spin doctor” or characters like Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones when inquiring about my future in the industry. I was told that even Noam Chomsky, who recently spoke at the University of Oregon, took a stab a PR, portraying it as a manipulative profession to 2,000 of my peers.
Although the definition of public relations does vary across the industry, here is one I like best, from Strategic Communications Planning for Effective Public Relations & Marketing:
Public relations is an organization’s efforts to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships in order to communicate and cooperate with the publics upon whom long-term success depends (stakeholders).
There are constant cases of bad public relations (like the BP oil spill) and good public relations (like the Red Cross Twitter mishap) that pop up, but there is no step-by-step procedure to implementing public relations strategies. Each case is uniquely different, which makes the job so dynamic and creative (and challenging).
This also means that when public relations efforts go awry, the whole industry gets pulled down. The horribly handled efforts of the BP oil spill, for example, identified PR professionals as scheming, dishonest people who have only the company’s, not the public’s, interest in mind.
Unfortunately, good cases of PR don’t boost its reputation as much as it should. I have learned to embrace my defense of PR, lead by example and explain to as many people that ethical public relations does exist.
NPR announced today a month-long series on its Morning Edition examining public relations. I encourage you to follow it – it will be interesting to see how an accredited news channel like NPR covers the industry.