Spinning Public Relations – What is PR?

What is communications/public relations? Recently, another list came out that ranked PR as one of the most misunderstood jobs. Even for those who practice the trade, it’s difficult to explain. I’m not sure that any of my family knows exactly what I do. Somedays, I wonder what I’m doing – and that’s what I love about PR.

Last night, I saw a long-ago connection watching the Winnipeg Jets game (RIP Jets, was hoping you would’ve won the series.)

sheldon kennedy via Marjorie Dowhos Twitter 23Apr15
Left to right: Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Sheldon Kennedy. Photo: Marjorie Dowhos @marjoriedowhos (Twitter)

I worked with Sheldon Kennedy in my first PR internship at the NS Sport & Recreation Commission (Province of Nova Scotia) to coordinate his first road tour & roller blade across Canada called Are We There Yet? Sheldon, for those who don’t remember, was an NHL player who went public about being sexually abused by his junior hockey coach. He was and remains the face of victims of sexual abuse in Canada, and has done tremendous work in communities across the country since then.

My role was to coordinate the province’s welcome of his team and promote the visit with media. I prepared a briefing note for our cabinet minister, scheduled dignitaries, booked venues and equipment, posted advertisements, wrote speeches, prepared a media kit (news release, backgrounder, Q&A) and hosted three media events at different locations in one day. It took about three weeks in those days to plan that sort of thing (fax machines and even typewriters were used!)

It became one of my early experiences being part of something that was going to have an amazing impact on society, and I was simply back stage the whole time – also where I could hide the tears as Sheldon told his story to different audiences from children to grandparents.

Public relations is a role that connects society. It is embedded in the fabric of most information you see passing before you each day. While we are often called spin doctors, that title is reserved within the industry for those who practice ancient deceit and lies. I will admit we wordsmith, which we do for clarity and to ensure all audiences can understand our message – we generally communicate in grade nine language, even as low as grade six or completely in visual & audio. As I often say, “clear, concise, and consistent” and of course, timely.

PR people exist in business, non-profit, and government. Every role is different, even within the same office. I once worked in a unit that had one person who spent most of the time writing, another organized events, and I developed plans which pulled it all together and wrote speeches. There’s never a dull day in PR, as we are often reacting to something that’s behind schedule when we receive the assignment. Often, we see the worst of society, generally hate full moons, and have a very distinct view of politics, media, and societal issues. If you want an opinion with deep analysis, we’ll get your head spinning. Even my PR peeps say I get their head spinning, which I blame on my background in mathematics and likely a wink of ADD and a ridiculous amount of energy.

What is PR? Public relations (or communications, which is a more western Canadian and US term) is a mash-up. Event planner, brand developer, writer, coordinator, project manager, graphic designer, photographer, script writer, advisor, advertiser, sign designer, producer, issues manager, executive, director, social media geek, voice artist, strategist, videographer, coach, reputation manager, digital strategist, leader, media relations coordinator, marketer, publicist, actor, customer service leader, speech writer, spokesperson, mobile addict, researcher, and much more. We work hard, long hours, and are one of the first to get called when crap hits a fan or when they need somebody to do something that nobody else wants to. It’s also one of the funnest jobs in the world, the most stressful jobs in the world, one of those jobs that is either the least regarded or the most respected, and a job I love.

The below video was widely seen across Canada with the 2008 listeria crisis. Michael McCain later said that he kicked his accountant and lawyer out of the room, and listened to his PR person. The result? Maple Leaf Foods saw a rise in their share price, amid the beginning of a global economic recession. 

In the past week, I’ve done nearly all of those listed above as I cycle through a series of clients whose needs vary as much as the weather has over that week. The next time you see a PR person, ask them what they do for a living, and you’ll get a sigh before they attempt to explain it in one sentence. “We connect society to make it stronger.” – It only took me 18 years to come up with that, and I’ll probably not like it tomorrow.