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Perceptions of Public Relations

Posted At: April 13, 2007 1:33 PM

by Chase Long

What is the definition of public relations? Well, my friends, that question has been plaguing intellectuals since the dawn of time. All of history’s greatest minds have been cursed to find there is no one definition of public relations for them to rely upon!

OK, so maybe I exaggerate, but it is annoying to those of us about to join the field. We’ve been to college, taken our courses and are soon to have degrees, but we still can’t tell our parents exactly what it is we do. To help us answer this question I’ve spoken with three individuals from very diverse backgrounds to find out what they thought about our profession. So let’s see how a seasoned professional, a soon-to-graduate PR student and a member of the public at large answer the question, “What is PR?”

The Professional

Gary McCormick, the director of public relations for Scripps Networks based in Knoxville, Tenn., was gracious enough to be our first commentator. For those of you who don’t watch the Food Network obsessively, Scripps Networks is the parent company of a host of cool TV channels, including Fine Living, HGTV and Great American Country.

So how about that first question – “What is public relations?” According to McCormick, PR is “not solely about a press release or party planning, but about facilitating effective, honest communication and interactions.” It’s about “relationships and social behavior.”

That sounds great, but what about the controversial stuff? Are we “spinners”? According to McCormick, we try to persuade people just like everyone else in the world, but we persuade by “facilitating open communication with full disclosure.” PR isn’t about hiding facts from the media. It’s about giving them all the information they need to get the story right.

Finally, what is the biggest misconception people have about our profession? McCormick says that people tend to see us mainly on the entertainment front. They think we are publicists when in reality we are the people who should be facilitating all of the communications for our clients. That means communicating with employees, stockholders, customers, the media, etc. According to McCormick, “most people are unaware of the impact and benefit that effective public relations brings to every company and the media.”

So there you have it from the keyboard of a professional. PR is about relationships and creating open communications. Now let’s see how that compares to a student perspective.

The Student

Kimberly Bechtel is a junior majoring in PR at the University of Alabama where she currently serves as the president of the local chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America. I went to her for our PR student perspective, and she was happy to comment. (Way to use those media skills, Kim.)

Now, where’s our big question. Oh yes, “What is public relations?” According to Bechtel, PR is all about relaying information and truth. “My personal definition of public relations is relaying information to the public and making sure they are aware of the information that your business wants to advocate,” said Bechtel.

She went on to say it must also include handling situations that go wrong with your client. On occasion you need to give the client an outside perspective and “provide them with the information necessary to help fix the problem,” said Bechtel.

This outside perspective is interesting. You mean we care what the public thinks and don’t just push the company line?

“Good public relations practitioners practice with integrity and honesty,” said Bechtel. “If they are in a bad situation the PR practitioner needs to be truthful.”

According to Betchtel, “the PR person is there to help the public and make them aware of what is going on.” Welcome to the Anti-Spin Zone! (cough, copyright issue, cough)

So one last thing, what kind of misconceptions do people have about our industry, Kim?

“One misconception about public relations that I hear sometimes is they believe that the public relations person is ‘gossiping,’” said Bechtel. “Some people think they find out the wrong information and that is what the company uses, even if it is not true.” Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes a bad (and unemployed) practitioner. What’s the quote from “Moulin Rouge”? “I only speak the truth.”

Anyway, that’s enough insider perspective for one day. Let’s get dangerous and take a completely new look at the subject. (Extra points to the person who can name that TV reference in the comments.)

The Public

To give us a totally new perspective I’ve solicited some help from one of our neighbors to the north. Way north! Solika Ry is a student from Montreal, Canada, where she studies history and political science. So what does this feisty Canadian think about our profession?

According to Ry, PR is “the body that manages the external aspects of a company and improves its relations with other groups of people.” The PR community has been asserting itself as a management function since the dawn of creation (or the birth of the industry, whichever came first). Sadly we don’t get to run the entire show just yet. Anyway, tell us more.

“Public relations benefits the organization by creating awareness and enhancing the relationship they have with the community,” Ry said. It’s true we are the relationship people, but what exactly do you mean by the community?

According to Ry, “there is an obligation to be good corporate citizens; it is ideal to contribute back to the community that gave to you.” People often assume that PR professionals are supposed to encourage corporate philanthropy. While our chief duty is to relay accurate information, we cannot forget that the public expects certain actions from corporations, and as public relations professionals: what matters to the public, matters to us.

Anyway let’s get to the dirty stuff. I asked our new commentator about PR’s association with the term “spin” and got a rather surprising answer. While Ry doesn’t necessarily associate our field with that term in particular, she does worry about the practice of hiding information. “The more a company hides certain issues, it risks exposing a disastrous outcome when discovered,” she said.

This is an issue PR professionals struggle with constantly. Our profession advocates effective and open communications. We don’t support hiding the facts especially if they pertain to something the public needs to know, but stereotypes like these are a common perception people have of PR professionals. As the next generation of practitioners, we will have to address these perceptions.


So there you have it. The mystery is solved. The answer to the eternal burning question is… everything. PR is everything. We are publicists and managers. We are purveyors of knowledge. We are the world. Oh wait, how did that get in here?

Anyway, perhaps instead of trying to squeeze our profession into a nice, tightly packed definition it is more important to know that we are many things. As our professional said, we are not limited to planning parties and handling the press. We are communicators of all things truthful and that, my friends, is enough for me.

E-mail: Gary McCormick

E-mail: Kim Bechtel

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