Over the past 7 months, I’ve been constantly amused by the reactions of those friends, relatives, and acquaintances who have unwittingly asked the question “so, what is it you’re studying?”.
There’s those who smile and nod politely before swiftly changing the subject. There’s the ones who elaborate on the initials, “Ah yes, PR, Public Relations”, hoping that the fact they know what P and R stand for will conceal the fact they have no idea what it actually means. At least three people have confused PR with HR and tried to engage me in a conversation about the finer points of human resources. Finally, there’s a small handful, a very rare breed, who after a moments pause find the courage to ask the forbidden question: “What actually is PR?”.
PR is everywhere, its weaved its way into practically every aspect of our lives. And yet, very few people outside of the industry, and indeed not everyone within it, actually understands what PR is, and what practitioners of the mysterious craft actually do.
It is from this lack of knowledge about the industry that the many misconceptions of public relations arise.
Having discussed PR with a group of friends, I discovered many of them associated it with flyer girls and club promoters. No, I’m not doing an MA in how to harass people with leaflets in the street. Another popular assumption was that working in public relations was all long champagne filled lunches, glamorous celebrity parties, and extravagant free gifts. We wish! We can probably thank fictional PRs such as Absolutely Fabulous’ Edina Monsoon and Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones for these perceptions.
At the other end of the scale, others thought of PR as being about spin, propaganda, and telling lies; making people believe things that aren’t necessarily true. ”Aren’t you too nice to be doing PR?” is something I’ve been asked on more than one occasion. Predominate public figures such as Max Clifford and spin doctors like Alistair Campbell are, in part, responsible for these stereotypes.
And the difficulties don’t stop there. Whilst others undoubtedly have problems defining what public relations actually is, the industry itself also seems a little perplexed. Typing ‘PR definition’ into Google brings up hundreds of different definitions, offering mostly similar but very few identical summaries of PR. Whilst bodies such as the CIPR have spent a great deal of time trying to develop a definitive explanation of public relations, how can we expect to bring an end to the countless misconceptions when we aren’t really sure how to define ourselves?
In the words of that inspired philosopher Alanis Morissette, isn’t it ironic that an industry dedicated to communication and reputation seems to be so unsuccessful at communicating its role and creating a positive reputation for itself? How can organisations and publics recognise the true value of PR if they don’t fully understand what it is? And how can PR practitioners hope to be recognised as professionals if there is so many misconceptions about what they do?