I got my first job in public relations after I married and moved to New York City. After settling in, my parents invited my husband and I back to Philadelphia for a weekend trip. Over dinner my proud parents queried, “What exactly is public relations?” something that I learned would become an ongoing query throughout my professional life.
I went on to describe the work I was doing on behalf of Mannington Floors, a manufacturer of hardwood, laminate and vinyl flooring, explaining how I developed media queries (a.k.a. pitch letters) that were sent to target media to try to interest them on developing an article (in print) or segment (in television) on the virtues of hardwood flooring.
I explained that it was my job to compile background information, and in some instances actually write up full length feature articles (content) for consideration by the media for use in their outlet. My parents nodded knowingly, then asked for examples. The next time I came to visit I came prepared with my media placement book containing all of the articles that I provided to the media and the resultant free placements.
Although they found it a bit confusing to comprehend free media placements in lieu of payment, as in advertising, I thought for sure that after my one hour presentation that they would clearly understand the difference between public relations and advertising: Advertising is paid for and public relations is prayed for.
The next week an envelope arrived at my office addressed from my father. When I opened it, there inside was a full page Mannington Floors advertisement from the pages of Good Housekeeping with a little penned note from my father: Keep up the great work. Love Dad.
I realized then and there that this would indeed be a lifetime perception problem; trying to explain the difference between advertising and public relations. So from then on, whenever I’m in a social situation with new people with whom I have little interest in either networking or engaging with, when queried as to my profession I quickly dismiss them by answering, “Advertising,” to which they usually acknowledge with a knowing nod of the head. I know that when I answer with “Public relations,” if I wait long enough, the person will invariably turn to me with a puzzling look and query, “So, what exactly is public relations?” And sometimes I’m just not in the mood to try to clarify my profession.
How ironic that public relations, the one profession that helps to improve brand imaging for virtually everything, has failed in its attempts to elevate brand awareness of itself.