Can You Explain Public Relations Basics to the Public?

I had an eye-opening conversation over the weekend with a friend of mine from Germany. She was surprised to see PR Fuel on my new business cards. When I explained it to her, she came back with a rather odd response: “So, public relations is like headhunting?” After about an hour of fielding questions about public relations, I came to the startling realization that many people don’t really understand how the PR industry really works.

My friend actually thought that public relations firms paid me to write stories. Her idea of how the game works was something like this:

1. Public relations firm calls newspaper editor and asks for story.

2. Editor assigns story to journalist.

3. Journalist negotiates pay rate with public relations firm.

4. Journalist writes story and then asks public relations firm for approval.

5. Story is published.

Alright, I’ll give you time to stop laughing.

My friend is not stupid; she has a job that involves dealing with clients who spend millions for her employer’s services. In her mind, public relations was just a sales function with the product being a story. I think she also revealed an inherent distrust of the media. If you think every story is a paid placement, would you trust what’s in the story?

They don’t teach you public relations in high school. I don’t remember how I learned about the PR game. I’m sure at one point I didn’t fully understand how public relations works and the role PR consultants play in this world. I can only guess that I learned on the job.

And then the memories starting flowing back: former bosses asking our PR people to do things that PR people don’t do; friends in the public relations industry complaining about moronic clients thinking they can call a writer and simply get a front page story in the New York Times; my own complaints about outside public relations firms that I hired. Reliving all these ludicrous memories left me single question: what if other people see public relations the same way my friend does?

We hear complaints about the media all the time and complaints about political public relations have been around since Athens was battling Sparta. But with recent corporate scandals, the chatter surrounding the role of corporate public relations has really kicked up. People don’t trust PR consultants, and they don’t trust the media, which means they don’t trust the people responsible for delivering a PR consultant’s message. This is a scary thought, leading me to ask why anyone would ever buy a newspaper or magazine or turn on the news. The only way I’ve been able to answer that question is by chalking it up to entertainment value.

Do people read/watch the news to be informed or to be entertained? It’s probably a combination of both, but when celebrity court cases dominate the headlines instead of terrorist bombings, it becomes difficult to think the majority really cares about being informed. Maybe it’s a symptom of the complicated times we live in, times undoubtedly made more complicated by the media itself, which in turn is fed some of its information by public relations consultants. Or maybe the public relations industry just needs to educate the masses.

Individually and collectively, there’s not much we can do to make our world less complicated. But we can help people better understand the role of public relations. And that’s why I’m asking readers to help me. My fear is that so many people in this world don’t understand public relations, thinking it’s a purely negative endeavor. We know that’s not the case. Public relations can be extremely positive and helpful to the world at-large. The industry just needs better PR itself in order to let the world know.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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