Should We Define PR For Fifth Graders?

Before late last week I truly was seeing the dim light at the end of the tunnel; now I’m not so sure. My journey to define PR with the most recent post “Is Defining PR Just Jargon?” now has me off on a tangent. At the end of that post, I tossed out a written-in-three-seconds  definition of public relations, but it was this descriptor that prompted many comments.

And, so, we’re here today to try this from yet another angle — should we define PR for a fifth grader, grandma, and anyone else who just doesn’t get what we do?

I just have to say — I’ve always liked it when the rest of the marketing mix didn’t know what it was I did; that way they knew they needed me yet couldn’t do it themselves. It was sort of like a protective barrier, you know?  (But, that was back in the silo days; now we’re all playing happily in the sandbox — well, once we stop fighting over ownership of social media and who writes a press release!)

And, so, I will provide credit where credit is due and see if the school of thought that says we need a simpler definition for the masses can agree upon nonjargonesque wording to define public relations:

I help my employer build authentic relationships with all of the people who help them either succeed or fail in business. ~Beth Harte, The Harte of Marketing

I tell stories about people; I make people look good. ~Erica Allison, @ericamallison

Public relations builds goodwill among businesses, customers and community using an approach that makes people feel actions and opinions are valued. Taqiyyah Shakirah Dawud at Deliberate Ink

Public Relations is the practice of communicating to the public and other audiences. ~Heidi Siefkas, @HeidiSiefkas

Public Relations helps people say the right things to the right audiences at the right time. ~Jayme Soulati (that’s me)

Public relations (uses technology to) creates relationships with everyone, everywhere. ~Jayme and “like” by @GiniDietrich of Spin Sucks

So, who’d like to start…? (IMHO, this does NOT replace the need to define PR for PR; right Patty?)

Danielle Kelly
Danielle Kelly


My apologies it has taken so long for me to comment on this post. I have been snowed under trying to get accustomed to working full time again after a lengthy employment search. Admittedly, I am geek who loves academic theories and definitions, however, I love the simple definition you termed above about talking to the right people, about the right things, at the right time. Well done! I think that is the most succinct I have seen anyone sum up our industry to date! I also like JGoldsborough's comment about targeted relationships. I do find it interesting he has brought the "brand" word into the conversation as well.

I am going to a seminar on how to prepare to teach PR at the end of the week. I will be interested in listening to their views about definitions and theories. I will keep you posted!

I hope that you have enjoyed moderating the exercise as much as I have enjoyed participating in it (though near the end I wish I could have participated more!)


Patty Swisher
Patty Swisher

One of the best things about this exercise is the "dialog" that it has created around a topic on which potentially many conversations have occurred.

What it may come down to is: there is not one right answer for everyone. Depending upon your focus, your strengths, your core business, your clients’ needs, your audience (5ht grader or experienced consumer of PR services), your product or service, your goals, and so on you may define PR in many ways.

There are tons of great comments here. I find myself agreeing, reading more, and agreeing more.

John Falchetto
John Falchetto

THis is an amazing exercise. I think we often drown ourselves in our professional jargon (target audience, reach, press release, press conference, awareness, reputation, share of voice, brand building etc...)
Now if only a fifth grader can understand me, everyone can right? Well maybe not everyone but at least the people who take the decision to hire a PR professional and often have little to no clue what PR is all about.

In my opinion PR professionals aren't the only ones who suffer from this disease. They talk to their colleagues more than they talk to their clients or their audience. Some use jargon and inside stories which only colleagues can understand. A lot of other professionals do it MDs, tech wizards, etc..

What does this create? A huge gap of understanding between the general public and the professionals. The bad reputation PR has is partly caused by this. Spin doctors, image makers and other unflattering descriptions could easily be changed with some basic talk and a little education.
The recent article in the NYT where a restaurant owner complained about his experience with PR professionals illustrates this sad state of affairs.

I really like Erica's simple language in her definition although I think the 'make people look good' could easily be misinterpreted. In English please !



1) No we should not define PR or public relations for a 5th grader or grandparent, not at the expense of oversimplifying or limiting the scope of PR. Yes I spend most of my days in front of a computer; so do lawyers and accountants and therapists and lots of other folks; that doesn't define what we do, merely illustrates a little of the mechanics of how we do it. Maybe for this group, we ask "when was the last time a brand or company impressed you and why?" Maybe the company comped a deal, maybe a brand offers extraordinary service, maybe the answer may have to do with an overall branding strategy that includes good PR and then we can reply, "that's what we do." But I don't know many 5th graders, so not sweating it. ;-)

2) We do need to make the meaning of PR more transparent, less oblique. It's not a bad thing, because the barrier to me is the talent and ability to do it right, to do it well. Not everyone can be a copywriter, design ads, plan commercials, or orchestrate complicated media buys; those concepts aren't clear but they aren't vague to the layperson who at least 'gets' a little about advertising.

Public relations practitioners can write well, research and identify stories that others can't; just met with some reporters a couple weeks ago, one mentioned that in a general interview w/ a biz exec it wasn't until the END of the meeting that he let slip something good, something really newsworthy. Now it was a deal that maybe needed to be under wraps for a while but it also hinted at me that maybe this company needed some media and PR training per so many of these definitions that cover 'story telling' and how PR uses that to communicate.

We can identify the different audiences important to a company, how to communicate effectively with employees and investors, how to manage a crisis, how the HR team needs to work with sales, with support, with customer service, which brings me to:

3) We do need to play nice with the other kids in the sandbox. Integration is one of my schticks so while I don't like defining PR against other aspects of the marketing mix, I don't mind putting it in context that strategically integrated PR works to support branding, advertising, social media and other promotional activities to help companies communicate with their target audiences. In terms of publicity, it's earned vs. paid for media; maybe it's data mining the R&D or customer support departments, figuring out how high the referral rates are, what a great story that is to tell and how it's best to tell it: ads, social media, events, etc.

I've written one post on this, kinda come back to making it relatable. I asked for examples - something in context that yes friends and family can 'get' and that clients can understand and appreciate, per their business goals and objectives - but at the end of the day what matters most to be is that I know what GOOD PR is, how to do my job well; that I can effectively educate my clients on what PR is and is not; and that yes, when the definition of PR is obfuscated or trivialized in the media, it is important to address the error, correct it. Think I'm with Beth, Patty and Erica on this: maybe we're worried too much about finding one 'textbook' definition to rule them all; you've had some really good ones here that I think all work in various contexts. FWIW.

Matt LaCasse
Matt LaCasse

I would define PR as building strategic relationships to tell the story of our employers and clients. The key thing, and I think Erica is really on to something, is the storytelling. Bland data or a press release about the latest new initiative by your client/company doesn't do anything. Telling a story that highlights that data or initiative gets people to pay attention to what you have to say.

Taqiyyah Shakirah D
Taqiyyah Shakirah D

To answer the question, I say, "Yes." Most of the people who come to you are coming to you because they aren't in the business, so it would help them to have something other than "spin" in their heads. I think it's a good idea, though, to have more than one definition to suit the audience. For example you could take, say... my definition [ :)))) ] and deliver it to the public at large. Among other marketing professionals you may want to be more specific so it's clear what you don't do. And among PR professionals you may want to have yet another definition that gives you a warm feeling inside, and gives you a certain unified sense of who you are as a group.

Erica Allison
Erica Allison

oh my definition makes me look like such a douche bag! It is a bit out of context because part of it was delivered to a 6 year old one night who asked me "where do you work"? No, we're not defining it for children, or grandmas, or your neighbor...unless they are your client. At that point, we should all be pretty clear on what we do, why we do it and how we do it.

The gist of it for me is that my job is to bring to light the awesome 'stories' of the people that hire me. I often work with individuals and really small businesses who do not know how to get their story told, where their audience is in order to hear it, or by what 'channel' they need to deliver it. When I reference making them "look good", well, that's most always true. I play to their positives, their strengths and then communicate that with the people who can either make them "succeed or fail in business" - to quote Beth Harte. So, ideally, they look good for those folks. Do I purposely twist the reality to make it look better? NO. It's not worth it, never a good idea and will result in disaster.

Re: who are we defining this for? As I recall, this all started when one unhappy, disgruntled fellow who happened to have a blog in a major newspaper decided to unleash on all of PR (or P.R. as he called it). We (the collective we) became outraged at this public bashing and determined that we (collective again) had fallen down on the job of educating, defining, and communicating with our clients re: PR.

Here's the question: Are we really trying to educate the masses? Or, should we focus on making sure each client understands what we do, and most importantly, how it connects with their business goals and bottom line?

I agree with Beth in that we need to make sure the industry itself is clear on it as well, but from your numerous posts on this topic, it seems like we're all over the place on it and focusing on our own little niche or area of expertise that falls under the PR umbrella. Making sure the disciplines that we work with in an integrated PR process get it is also key.

This is what I think are important aspects to remember: uphold the ethical standards of PRSA, make sure we're really listening to our client and their expectations, determine if we can deliver on those expectations, and/or educate the client about a new set of expectations based on real market conditions and research, and finally, decide whether to stay on board or move on if all of those pieces don't fit. That's how I do it.

Sorry for mini-post!


I like the first one (Beth's) and the last one (yours that Gini likes). Another to throw in the mix: "Public relations is building targeted relationships to drive business results and tell your brand's story."