Defining the Indefinable, or How Public Relations is Like a Slinky

A few weeks ago I was having dinner with a friend when the conversation took an intriguing turn.

“So, what is it that you do exactly?” asked my friend.

It struck me as an interesting question, since it was coming from a guy who I’ve known for several years. Clearly, my chosen profession was a mystery to him. Not necessarily because he didn’t know what I did, but because he did not really understand it — at all.

“I work in public relations,” I responded.

“And that means?”

At that point, I paused, carefully considering what I should say next. I didn’t want to confuse him, but I wanted my response to be accurate and comprehensive.

“I help clients get the word out about their companies, people, and products, through things like the media, blog posts, white papers, and other types of communications.” Even that, of course, was a highly simplified way of putting it, but it was the best I could do without getting too far into the weeds.

The truth is, there is no longer a simple way to describe what we do.

We used to be able to say “public relations means media relations” and call it a day. Those days are long gone. Yes, the heart of PR is still centered on working with the media. But that work is complemented by a number of other disciplines that, even a year or two ago, would not have fallen under the PR umbrella.

For example, we’re beginning to see increased demand for search engine optimization services interwoven into the public relations framework. This is relatively new over the past year or so. SEO was once almost purely a technical discipline, handled separately from traditional marketing functions. SEO firms became a cottage industry, touting themselves as the go-to shops for optimization.

That siloed approach no longer works, for a couple of reasons. First, Google has continued to place a large emphasis on well-written content as a means of determining which pages to give credence to in search results. Even more so, it’s become clear that a well-executed marketing communications program must include many different aspects working in concert with each other, SEO included. Social media ties into media and analyst relations, which ties into SEO, which ties into white papers, blog posts, data sheets, and on and on.

Speaking of content – if media relations remains the heart of what we do, content is the brain. It’s been written that brain cells can live at least twice as long as the organisms in which they reside, and, just like that, the content that we produce can live forever, and in many forms. A white paper that shows thought leadership and industry expertise can reside on a company website, where it can drive search engine traffic; be used to create pitch angles that reporters might find interesting, leading to interviews with corporate executives; be promoted via Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn; and used as a sales tool during calls, at conferences, and elsewhere.

Plus, that content can be controlled. Whether it’s an authored article, white paper, data sheet, or something else entirely – the message is not left to a third party. It’s what the client wants their audiences to know, in its purest form. That’s powerful. And it lasts, and lasts, and lasts – read, absorbed, and shared over time, with, hopefully, a lead (or two, or three…) to show for it.

As you can see, I couldn’t really get into all this during my conversation with my friend. It’s actually hard enough trying to summarize it in this blog post

Suffice to say that I’m trying to give you the essence of what PR has become. It’s no longer easily defined. In fact, I’m not even sure it canbe defined.

That’s not a bad thing by any means. Sometimes the best, most effective things in the world are those that we can’t put easy labels to. Hope. Creativity. The Slinky.

I’m guessing we’ll continue to see PR’s definition continue to change over the next year. By the time February 2016 rolls around, we’ll most likely be adding some new disciplines to what has become an all-encompassing and difficult to define practice.