|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|What do you call yourself as you perform public relations?|
|© 2013 Michael Turney||Table of contents||Practicing Public Relations home page||About the author|
Other articles on this website trace the evolution of public relations as a profession and discuss the various names it has had over the years. This article is more personal. It's not about what the profession is called; it's about what you as a practitioner are called or would like to be called.
I'm fascinated by the unusual and wide-ranging terminology some public relations people use to describe their work and the quirky titles they sometimes give themselves. I'm not talking about those who pontificate about building mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their constituencies, nor those who brag about getting the broadest possible exposure for their client's media-based messages. I'm not even talking about those who claim to help clients put their best foot forward when dealing with different publics. I'm talking about the few, the brave, the audacious who proclaim things like:
Some of these folks even put such job titles on their business cards.
Statements like those cited above are not within everyone's comfort zone. They may be too smart-alecky (or another smart-a adjective) or too lacking in serious intent for some tastes, but I love it when clever practitioners use such pungent, forceful, and thought-provoking descriptions as their job titles. It causes listeners to do a double-take or utter a shocked and plaintive "Hunhh?" when they first hear them. I especially enjoy it when listeners appear to think about what was said for a minute or two, or ask for an explanation, and then sagely nod their heads and say: "Oh, yeah. Now I get it."
I've been using bridge-builder on my business cards and letterhead since I retired from university teaching several years ago, although I was actually using it informally and in conversations long before that. - However, until I retired, the university wouldn't let me put it on my business cards. - I like this term because it's catchy and also because it's equally appropriate for explaining what I do as a public relations practitioner and as a teacher. I've basically been building bridges of communication for my entire professional life, whether I was in or away from a university classroom.
If my assertion that "I'm a bridge-builder" is met with a blank stare or I'm asked to explain it, I usually add that I build bridges of communication between individuals and groups. Sometimes I'll say I use communication as a bridge to achieve understanding. Occasionally, if I'm not feeling particularly pugnacious or up for verbal sparring at the moment, I may offer one of these more-explanatory comments as my introductory statement rather than throwing an opening jab with bridge-builder.
I can't, however, claim to have coined these phrases. Plenty of others have used them, including some who worked in public relations long before I did. To give credit where it's due, I acknowledge picking up the term "bridge-builder" from Peter Jeff, a public relations practitioner who was working and writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the 1990s.
Both convey a manipulative, perhaps even deceptive tone. I love the clever phrasing and sprightly use of such crystal-clear metaphors as gift wrapping and flower arranging, but I'm troubled by the underlying attitude and implications of these phrases and I hope they don't reflect your view of public relations. - Essentially, they're proclaiming that public relations is nothing more than manipulation designed to cover up faults and present the most positive possible public appearance.
"P. R. is gift-wrapping... The trick is packaging the truth on your own terms." - Michael Levine, Guerrilla P. R.
Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms." - Alan Harrington, Forbes Magazine
For me, the negative connotations and implications of spin-meister and spinner far outweigh any cleverness or descriptive value they might have. Both of them, along with the corresponding verb form "spin," became popular ways of describing the activities of President Reagan's staff spokespeople who would rush out and talk to the media after one of his presidential speeches. Their assignment was to explain what the President had just said or, sometimes, what he had meant to say but didn't quite get across, the implication being that the President who was widely heralded as "the Great Communicator" wasn't able to communicate his own thoughts well enough for the public to understand them.
At first, this use of "spin" carried a negative connotation and was primarily being used by critics of the President. But, it wasn't long until some of the President's more confident and in-your-face mouthpieces - people like Larry Speakes, David Gergen, and Michael Deaver - rather audaciously began using "spin" themselves to describe what they did for the President. They essentially coopted their critics and gave "spin" a new and acceptable cachet.
A bit later, the word "spin" and the concept behind it were picked up and worked into the book title The Father of Spin for a popular biography of public relations pioneer Edward L. Bernays. Today, the concept with both its negative and its positive implications are now well-known and indelibly linked to public relations. - It's ironic and disheartening that these terms which were once seen as castigations of the profession are now used, almost as honorifics, by many practitioners. (For further discussion, see my 2010 article Don't denigrate public relations by what you call it.)
Among them are pilot, co-pilot and navigator, all of which are based on the metaphor of steering/guiding a plane safely to its destination. Note that those who prefer to use co-pilot instead of pilot say it reflects the fact that while public relations people have the necessary knowledge and skills to get a plane (organization) where it needs to go, they aren't necessarily in command. They must follow orders and go where the pilot (the organization's CEO) tells them to go.
Curiously, in all the times I've heard these or similar terms, I've never heard them used by anyone in the aviation industry. Nor have I heard anyone in a maritime industry use helmsman to describe a public relations professional guiding an organization through the "dangerous shoals of public opinion," although I have heard people in other industries use this analogy.
Scout is another metaphorical allusion to guiding an organization through dangerous territory. It was one of seven different roles for public relations described by David Drobis, the now-retired Chairman and CEO of Ketchum Public Relations Worldwide, when he spoke at a long-ago IABC international conference. He was, however, neither the first nor the only practitioner to use this metaphor. Many did, and some were almost lyrical in their dramatic and picturesque descriptions of how an effective scout would constantly be on alert for attacks by hostiles while simultaneously gathering and bringing back routine reports on the terrain that lay ahead.
Firefighter, another of the roles cited by Drobis, is based on the presumption that public relations is "the organization's front line of defense in times of crisis." Personally, I don't recall ever applying the term "firefighter" to myself but, during the years I did crisis communication as an Iowa public information officer, I often described my work as putting out brush fires.
Although translator and interpreter are less metaphorical than some of the other job titles cited above, they are pithy and they do offer a thought-provoking view of at least one element in the overall public relations process. So do terms like advocate, booster, cheerleader, wordsmith,, and friend-raiser.
If you currently work in public relations, the question you should be asking yourself is: Do I want to be known as a public relations practitioner, or would I rather have a more colorful and fun-filled job title?
|Table of contents
for Online Readings
|The changing name of public relations||Practicing Public Relations|
|On the way to Integrated Marketing Communication?||Still seeking a definition after all these years||Assortment of Public Relations Definitions|
(pdf - two-page handout)