Vacationing with my mom in Mexico, we ran into a guy wearing a Texas Rangers baseball cap. Assuming he and his group were from Dallas/Fort Worth, we started chatting with them. During the conversation, my mom mentioned that we were celebrating my college graduation. They immediately asked me all of the requisite graduation questions—Where did you go to school? What was your major? What do you want to do with your life? How many years will you work before having your first kid?
Okay, so maybe they didn't ask me that last one, but I'm sure my fellow graduates will agree that some of the questions get personal. Nevertheless, I answered their questions, eager to show off my TCU pride. I told them I majored in strategic communication and that I wanted to go into the public relations field (PR). That's when Mr. Baseball Cap turned to me and said, "So you went to college to learn how to lie for a living?"
I wish I could tell you that this is the first time I've heard this question, but if I did that I really would be lying. Because of this question and its variations, I've come to realize that many people don't fully understand public relations. They automatically equate it with publicity and assume that a PR practitioner is the person telling people that "Celebrity X fainted from exhaustion" when, in reality, he passed out after drinking too much alcohol. This thinking is inaccurate. The person "spinning" the truth about a celebrity is a publicist, and there is a big difference between a publicist and a PR professional.
So what is public relations? PR is a form of two-way communication that is constantly evolving. A practitioner represents both her organization and her organization's audiences. She provides information to the public on behalf of the organization and, at the same time, provides information to her organization on behalf of the people.
For example, pretend that a snack company has a product recall. The PR person would communicate the information concerning the recall to the public in order to keep consumers safe. Or, if the company released a new snack and consumers hated the taste, it would be the practitioner's responsibility to convey this distaste to the company.
Contrary to Mr. Baseball Cap's suggestion, truthfulness is incredibly important to PR professionals. In fact, the Public Relations Society of America, which provides the code of ethics for the PR industry, emphasizes honesty; they require their members to "adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those [they] represent and in communicating with the public." It is the PR professional's job to provide integral information to the public so they must be seen as trustworthy, especially in times of a crisis.
As I explained this to Mr. Baseball Cap, I watched his eyes glaze over. While I don't think he was sober enough to fully comprehend what I was saying, I felt better when he said, "Okay. I guess you're not a liar." So if you take nothing else away from this post, please remember that public relations doesn't equate to lying. It also wouldn't hurt if you remember to refrain from asking new graduates when they plan on having kids.
Public Relations Intern