What About Us: Why the PR industry needs PR

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Published on October 4, 2017, at 9:01 p.m.
by Caitlin Heffley.

“That’s OK, I don’t use my degree either.”

The words resonated inside me far longer than they probably should have, as I felt my insides begin to boil. To provide context, I was standing around a table of food, making small talk at a family reunion, when relatives cornered me. As expected, they wanted to know about college.

Eventually, the dreaded, “What’s your major?” question arose from an older cousin of mine. Here we go, I thought to myself. As confidently as I could, I responded with a bright, “Public relations!” and then waited for the befuddled looks. What I received was actually far worse.

My cousin scoffed and repeated the words back to himself, as if trying to make sense of a foreign concept before patting me on the back with a condescending, “That’s OK, I don’t use my degree either.”

I immediately felt myself deflate, embarrassed by the lack of respect for and acknowledgement of my field, but those emotions quickly turned to indignation. I suddenly realized that I was defensive of my trade — a growing industry that’s so crucial to any organization’s success.

The world needs public relations specialists, yet so often we go unnoticed and underappreciated. Why is this? I like the way that Forbes contributor, Robert Wynne, put it:

“The public relations industry does a terrible job of public relations.”

The statement stings upon first hearing it, but is there a possibility that these seemingly harsh words hold some truth? I decided to dig deeper. After a little bit of research, I came up with a few reasons why I think this statement may, in fact, be our hamartia.

1. We are busy making everyone else look good.
As PR practitioners, it’s our job to maintain and uphold images and to be knowledgeable about our clients. This responsibility means learning the ins and outs of nearly all other industries. If the client is a bank, we study up on financial services and stocks. If it’s a musician, trust that we’ll be able to tell you all you need to know about album releases, trends and charts.

This is the nature of the beast. We spend our days convincing, influencing, promoting and campaigning for everyone else’s trade, leaving little time to do so for our own.

2. We are overshadowed by advertising and marketing.
Our services are relatively low-cost and less tangible than those of our close friends, marketing and advertising. We do the behind-the-scenes work that seldom receives recognition because the results we produce aren’t always easy to track.

Generally, we don’t mind this. We somewhat try to fly under the radar, but the problem arises when we begin to lose our identity. We are not marketers or advertisers, and although overlap exists in certain jobs, public relations at its core is an entirely different entity: the relationship-building entity. The key to combating invisibility is to highlight our individuality, without stepping into overexposure.

3. Many in the field don’t understand it themselves.
Although usually not the case for the PR specialist who has been in the business for years, this confusion happens to apply to a select group of people.

College students and recent graduates tend to be the main culprits. A number of undergraduate and graduate programs offer valuable opportunities and educational experiences to their students; however, this seems to be the exception to the rule.

Only 325 accredited public relations programs exist in the nation. This number may seem large, but it includes everything from basic certification to doctoral-level education. Furthermore, only 20 percent of M.B.A. programs in the United States offer public relations courses.

Consequently, budding PR professionals lack basic skills and proficiencies they should have acquired in school due to a lack of training and expertise on behalf of their educational institutions.

So what can we do we do about this problem?
The solution is simple. We do what we do best. This time, though, we become our own advocates.

For those starting out on the path to becoming PR professionals — whether as a freshman in college, a brand new employee or somewhere in between — take pride in the industry. Talk about it and get others talking about it. Educate yourself on the business. Soak up as much knowledge as you can.

For PR veterans, the emphasis should be on continual expansion of the field. As we know all too well, the first step to solving any problem is awareness, so that’s where we have to begin. Instead of accepting the fact that many academic institutions do not offer adequate training, we should be advocating for change.

It won’t happen overnight, but it’s a step in the right direction. Public relations is an industry worthy of recognition. Let’s create the reputation it deserves.

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