There is a wonderful scene in the 1962 movie “Days of Wine and Roses” in which PR man Jack Lemmon, meeting his curmudgeon of a father-in-law for the first time, stumbles through his answer to the question, “Public relations? What’s that?” Lemmon’s response is an anecdotal, apologetic and unconvincing explanation of what he does for a living, to which his-father-in-law, played perfectly by an aging Charles Bickford, shakes his head and says sadly, “I don't understand that kind of work.”
Fifty years have passed since that movie was made, and I’m still not sure the general public understands public relations today any better than Bickford did then. Nor am I sure that PR practitioners are any better at defining the profession than Lemmon was.
After three decades in this business, I still get questions and comments from friends and acquaintances such as “PR? That’s like advertising, right?” Or, “So what do you do all day, sit around in a room and make up jingles for TV?” Even more erudite observers tend to use disparaging terms such as “hype” and “spin.”
To address such widespread misperception, leading PR industry figures every half-dozen years or so decide to author and issue a new, authoritative, “once-and-for-all” definition of public relations. Among those I recall are this short one:
“Public relations is the art of aligning one’s own business interests with the public interest.”
And this long one:
Public relations is the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”
And this whimsical one, which focuses on the higher credibility of third party sources:
“If I tell you I’m a magnificent lover, that’s advertising. If my former girlfriend tells you I’m a magnificent lover, that’s public relations.”
What none of these get at is the essence of public relations’ value to an enterprise. At McEwen McMahon, when we speak of our profession, and in particular when we talk to occupants of the C-suite, we speak their language: the language of dollars and cents.
Reputation has tangible worth as quantifiable on a balance sheet as inventory, equipment or real estate. Year-over-year analysis of the annual Fortune “Most Admired Companies” rankings illustrates the indisputable, cause-and-effect relationship between reputation and market capitalization.
If, as former president Calvin Coolidge famously said, “the chief business of the American people is business,” then perhaps the best way to explain public relations to the American people is in businesslike language, the language of dollars and cents.
So the next time someone asks me to describe what I do for a living, I’ll explain public relations by saying, “I serve the financial interests of my clients by protecting what invariably is valued as a company’s most precious asset: it’s reputation.”
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