The smell of soft, buttery rolls wafts into your nose. The aroma comes from the kitchen where your mom is preparing for the family feast. Christmas is a much-needed break from the college grind of microwave meals and little to no sleep. Then the doorbell rings and in comes your distant relatives who you’ve never really talked to. Your blissful state of mind comes to a crashing halt as inquisitive eyes lock onto you. No need for your mind to race, you already know what’s coming. “What’s your major again? What is public relations?” You’re suddenly not so hungry anymore.
The good news is that many students in PR can relate to this experience. The bad news is that none of them have a response that will save you. Over time you may be able to develop some answers to keep those well-meaning relatives off your back. There must be an easier way, right? Well, there is, and it’s as simple as pie. With some slight adjustments you can avoid common pitfalls and declare your passion for PR with the utmost confidence between mouthfuls at that meal.
Public relations, as defined by PRSA, “is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” This sounds great until you’re trying to say it off the top of your head and they ask what that even means. To understand how to explain this better, one must understand why it is hard to explain in the first place. Brigham Young University Public Relations Professor Devin Knighton reasons that it’s difficult to explain PR because when it is done well it takes place behind the scenes, hidden from public view.
In the professional world you help people like CEOs, managers, celebrities and more to communicate well. That credit goes to the communicator, not the PR professional who told them what to say. That is the whole point!
For example, Nike featured former professional football quarterback Colin Kaepernick in an advertising campaign. These ads increased the conversations around Nike’s brand with many praises for their willingness to take on a controversial figure and message. It increased their sales and they had record online engagement. The messaging was also critical in improving their relationships with a key stakeholder: young people living in cities. Nike and Kaepernick got the credit, but none of that would have happened without ad agency “Wieden + Kennedy.” Their advertising and PR team masterminded the whole campaign. They pushed for Kaepernick’s involvement and created the communication around him.
With these thoughts on the nature of PR in your mind, you can now begin to formulate your response to the difficult question that will be posed. As an experienced professional himself, Knighton warns against three very common pitfalls when explaining public relations.
Have you ever had a friend try to explain a new game or activity to you and they ended up confusing you more than helping? In explaining PR, you might be tempted to use an excessive number of words. As you fail to help them understand, you continue to spew jargon that just isn’t doing it justice. The inability to communicate effectively will most assuredly dampen your relative’s confidence in your abilities. Ready your mind with words your relatives can understand, like communication expert, relationship builder and news maker.
There may be a natural tendency to attempt a definition like “we’re kind of like marketing, but also a little like advertising.” PR is so much more than that. Keep yourself out of the habit of constructing a box that is too specific.
Avoidant behavior can have some serious consequences. It may perpetuate myths surrounding the profession and that could mean fewer opportunities to contribute to society. Knighton says that avoidance feeds misconceptions about PR professionals being liars. Nobody wants to be associated with a liar. Take your relative and her questions head on.
Remember when I said the answer was easy as pie? Well, here it is. You just need to practice making conversation on the subject. Like many business professionals, practice perfecting an elevator pitch. The more you share your story in PR, the better you will be. You can use fewer words and find yourself being concise, developing confidence the whole way. As an added bonus, you will learn to naturally avoid those pitfalls.
If he could go back to his early college days, Dr. Knighton says he would give a pitch like this: “I am learning to be a professional communicator for businesses and leaders. I will help them do and say the right things in ethical and effective ways.” However, instead of using Knighton’s statement, find your own simplified way to explain PR. This will give you the power that comes with self-authorship, and the inner peace you need to stare into your great aunt’s eyes while she digests your professional future, and you digest that pie.
Devon Olsen is a senior attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He is pursuing a degree in communication with an emphasis in public relations. He also works as a mentor for first-year students to help them adjust to the college experience.