“PR…Isn’t That Like Advertising?”

I recently had the opportunity to present at a local middle school’s career day. A friend of mine is a teacher and saw that public relations wasn’t represented and asked if I’d like to come in and talk about what I do. I was joined by another friend and fellow PR professional and we decided to co-present. We thought it would be fun to do it together and that facing a sea of blank-faced adolescents might be more bearable if we shared the duty.

It was a great experience, but the real epiphany occurred before our big moment on the career day stage. When we met to develop a strategy for our talk, we were struck by the Herculean challenge of explaining public relations and strategic communications to a middle school audience. We further realized that most of the adults in our life similarly had very little understanding of our roles and profession.

Why the confusion? In my estimation, perhaps it is because much of a successful PR professional’s work takes place in the behind the scenes – working with media to help them find and understand important stories, drafting compelling content, building plans that help companies and organizations reach their goals. That type of work product typically doesn’t manifest itself in the form of Super Bowl commercials or red carpet “step and repeats.” While PR pros sometimes find themselves in the spotlight, putting clients first is an imperative in nearly every industry, but, I would argue, none more so than public relations.

During career day, we found it helpful to include a slide featuring “What PR People DON’T Do.” That list included spin, lie, help make people famous (in most cases) and pay reporters.

Did it work? I’d like to think so. A bright student asked, “Didn’t Consumers Energy recently go through a situation like that?” My heart and that of my co-presenter leapt. Perhaps we actually made a case for PR – how it works, why it is important and how we work with clients. Other hands shot up with thoughtful questions about the type of products and people we represent and our most interesting clients.

So, if you find yourself similarly a little confused about the communications mix – public relations, marketing and advertising – and their respective intersection, remember that each discipline has a role in the overall success of a company or organization and that at its core, PR is about using multiple platforms to communicate a thought or idea to illicit action. Still unsure? Ask your closest seventh grader.