"So, what exactly are you doing with your life?"

“What is PR?” I’m often asked by family, friends, and sometimes strangers engaged in small talk. Usually I tell them the definition I learned in journalism school, giving a few key examples that I believe give the listener a good general idea of what it is I want to do with my life.

From these interactions, I’ve noticed that quite a few people perceive public relations as something negative. A 2001 study from Texas Tech University found audiences tend to perceive public relations professionals as less credible than unidentified sources. This is a troubling thought that shows a lack of trust between publics and PR practitioners, and one that I wanted to explore more in depth by first looking at what public relations is not.

Publicity and PR are often used interchangeably. Earlier this week, my professor commented on one of my tweets, warning against confusing the two, as one is more complete than the other. An article from Ragan’s PR Daily states that publicity is a form of communication that seeks to draw attention and generate awareness about an organization or something it’s doing (think news coverage and speaking engagements). PR, on the other hand, is relationship-oriented and focuses on fully building a brand’s identity. While publicity can be used as a tool in pursuit of this, it isn’t the whole story and only comprises a small fraction of what PR truly does.

After publicity, another word I hear compared to public relations is propaganda. This word evokes images of Nazi-era posters and Soviet oppression, but it is still used in communications today. In his blog, Alan Grany of Daly-Swarz Public Relations asserts that propaganda is reliant on one-way communication and is not always based in truth, but rather an agenda which an organization, usually a government or political party, wants to convey in order to influence the way people think.

Propaganda doesn’t necessarily have to be political, though. Another post from Thomas Rankin, APR,  defines dishonesty as a root of propaganda  and emphasizes the value of ethics and correcting misinformation, even when the client isn’t necessarily operating under those same rules. Once you go into the realm of telling customers to just “trust you” and then behave unethically, you could potentially damage your own as well as your client’s reputation beyond repair.

The conclusion I’ve come to through exploring these different forms of communication is that, more than in most other professions, ethical behavior and the pursuit of accuracy in PR are not only important for improving the profession’s perception, but necessary for the success of organizations and their clients.. Because it isn’t publicity or propaganda, and involves two-way communication instead of creating awareness, transparency and honesty are crucial.

While the perception of PR is not as good as it could be, it’s up to its practitioners, newbies and seasoned professionals alike, to behave ethically and with clear vision. These elements are what set PR apart, and I look forward to entering into this profession.

Image from Ambridge Area School District