Public Relations is…

This past week, I have had two acquaintances from my elementary school years ask me about my major. When I said public relations, they both asked something along the lines of, “what does that entail?” And no matter how many definitions I read and how many class conversations we have about this, I always seem to struggle to find the right words.

When I chose PR as my major, I thought of writing press releases (from what other people told me to write) and being a spokesperson at press conferences (from what other people told me to say). I didn’t think I had to be the creative one who comes up with the messages, and I definitely didn’t think I had to stay on top of all the latest social media sites.

And now that I have a better understanding of what a career in PR entails, I still don’t know how to explain it to others. I started thinking about this more when I came across an old blog post from, titled “What exactly is public relations?” The author of the blog also had difficulty defining PR, but eventually she was able to relate it to something else she was familiar with that helped her understand it better.

She compares PR to engineering, saying that they are essentially the same thing when it comes to problem solving; the only difference is whether you’re solving problems with your hands or with your mouth.

“Engineers have to understand the needs of a market in order to create something they’ll buy or use or trust. In PR we have to understand the needs and motivations of an audience, to develop a message they’ll understand, relate to, and also trust.”

So when people ask her what PR is, she says communications engineering. I say, that still doesn’t say it.

When I hear the term communications engineering, it still doesn’t clearly explain anything to me. Some of the people who commented on this blog seem to agree, in that they don’t think her definition fits. One guy brought up the point that her view leaves out relationships and only focuses on the message, which leads me to think of the many things that PR really entails.

How can we possibly explain it all to someone who probably doesn’t really care but is just asking during small talk? What do you say when someone asks what PR is? Are some aspects more important than others to include in a quick answer?

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6 Responses to Public Relations is…

  1. kmcnally says:

    I have come across the same problem, people coming up to me and asking me what my major is and me saying public relations and the look on their face turns to straight confusion. I have always said im majoring in public relations, which is similar to marketing and advertising, but when you think about it, the marketing and advertising is apart of it, but really, its a very small part. So this is a great question to raise.

    After reading this blog, i don’t know how much i agree with the definition of communications engineering…i could be wrong, and i could not really understand the concept of engineering, but when i think of it, i think building things, and while as a PR professional you could be building an identity or an awareness about a company, but i don’t think that should be what the definition is. This is hard, because you have engineering majors as well as marketing and advertising majors, so how do you sum up what public relations is?

    I think that when people ask us, it is hard not to have a long explanation of what it is, because how do you classify it, but something that i think could work is explain that you usually work for clients and help them better their company, whether it be from creating awareness, identity or advertising them across a social media network…while i know that is a long definition, i feel like with PR you can’t give a short and sweet definition of everything it entails. So this is tough, i would focus on the client part, because usually you are working for a client, or multiple clients, and then also focus on bettering the client.
    Thats what i think, i don’t know, this is a tough one!

  2. hhoma says:

    I don’t think I really understand engineering to its full extent either, which made it difficult for me to accept that person’s explanation. (I actually think engineering can mean a number of things too, so how can you explain that one, when there are so many different types?)

    It’s interesting that you tend to refer to marketing and advertising. I always make sure not to mention those two things because I feel it’s been drilled into my head that public relations is so different from them. Although I do see the similarities, and it’s probably the easiest way to cross the looks of confusion off of peoples’ faces, even if it’s not the best answer.

    I like the term “bettering a client,” but it really only applies to agency work and not so much for in-house PR. If I were to say that I’m helping my company (or client) better itself, there would still be plenty of confusion and questions. I guess it just means there isn’t a short answer, and anything we say will need some explaining.

  3. penglert says:

    The simplest way I can explain PR came straight from the mouth of my boss’s five-year-old son. When he was asked at school what his mommy does at work he responded without a second thought, ” My mommy makes people famous!”

    While that may be a bit of a stretch, I have to take some serious thought into what this little boy said since kids tend to see beyond all the complications in defining a career. So to build off his explanation I would say public relations is about building and defining relationships and the end product is, “making people famous.”

  4. jalbaz says:

    Public Relations has a lot of different meanings, one meaning is right in the phrase itself; “relations”. Often times people forget about building relationships with audiences and making a two-way communication platform, and instead focus on just getting their message across to their target audience. Pr is about communication and relationships, built into one. As pr professionals, we must be creative, accepting, assertive and ready for anything. We must accept that not everyone can like each client we have, and work to figure out why this is and how we can prevent others from feeling this way, or change some people’s minds. We also must be creative in creating messages we think would resignate best with the stakeholders, and to do so, we must understand these stakeholders.
    Pr is complicated to explain and has so many different incorporated components, I tend to save my breath and not really explain anything to someone who seems disinterested (even though they asked the question). To other more interested people however, I’d start with talking about relationships.

  5. hhoma says:

    I love the 5-year-old’s comment! It’s probably a good way to explain PR to youngsters, but it’s adults (and students deciding on a major) that might be at a disadvantage if they hear it. It’s another way of portraying PR as a glamorous job that involves celebrity (like the reality shows that were blogged about a few weeks ago). And we all know that isn’t the reality! It involves a lot more than making people famous, especially when it comes to crisis management and the like. But still, I like the kid’s definition! And I may just use it from now on 🙂

    To jalbaz – It’s probably the right idea to just stay away from long explanations when someone who seems disinterested asks about our field. But if you’re going to save your breath, what do you say to change the subject? “Oh it’s really complicated,” and leave it at that?

  6. ahart says:

    I have come across some people who when I public relations, they immediately ask me in what field or area of PR I want to pursue. There have been times when I get people who give me a confused look and inquire more and I did find myself struggling but I think I have grown to find my own definition by combining everything I’ve learned. I dont think PR can be confined to a one sentence definition or explanation. There are so many facets that it wouldn’t do it justice.

    To jalbaz, I’ve also found myself trying to explain to people what PR is, only to find that they are disinterested and maybe didnt care too much to know but it was a knee jerk decision to ask. For those type of people I try to give them the simplest definition or maybe just mention whatever field I am thinking of pursuing PR and sometimes that ends that topic and shifts the conversation. I definitely this is a an important topic though because more often than not even PR students have no clue what it is and chose it because they knew the news path just wasnt for them.

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