The Realities of Public Relations


Laurynn Davey, Contributing Writer

Whenever friends and family ask what my major is, I confidently tell them Public Relations. However, I can always feel that confidence start to dwindle when they ask the following questions: “What’s that?” and “So you just make people look good?” I constantly find myself having to explain the profession to others, and when I think about it, I can’t really blame them for not understanding because once there was a time when I didn’t understand it either. It wasn’t until a teammate of mine suggested switching to the public relations major, back when I was still undecided, that I started educating myself about the job.

The field of public relations (PR) is generally described as the ongoing interactions with a target audience that communicate consistent and authentic identities. Dr. Rich Murphy, commonly referred to as just “Rich” by his students, is one of the few professors on the McKendree campus who teaches classes for the PR major. During my first class with Rich, I recall learning about the different myths and misunderstandings about PR that the general public has. I found this pretty ironic, considering PR is all about working with the public.

During an interview with Rich, I asked him why he thinks PR is often viewed negatively, to which he responded by comparing the profession to police officers. “The only time you see police is when you’ve committed a crime, so you have a negative attitude towards them,” he said. “They do a lot of positive stuff, but it isn’t newsworthy. It’s the same with public relations.”

He went on to explain that PR is only heard of when someone messes up, and they need a PR expert to fix the problem. “You don’t think about public relations until you need them,” he said. Through further research, I learned about the two most significant misunderstandings about the career and why they are viewed in that way.

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Photo by Laurynn Davey: Students going over a PR campaign idea for Dr. Rich Murphy

Experts in PR help an organization’s idea with important contributions, such as building positive relationships, informing the public about activities, and managing or planning events for a specific cause. They then predict how the public will react. What they don’t do is drive sales or control the press.

PR and marketing are often mixed up and viewed similarly since they work together to build a brand. For example, experts communicate with a target audience through campaigns, affecting how advertising is received by the audience. However, the difference between the two is their goals. While goals for marketing are often financial, PR is trying to drive a positive reputation within the organization. The return is what the public has to say about the brand, rather than the money. In order to earn a good image of the company, PR experts have to provide the media with necessary information (often through press releases and pitches).

Negative press can affect a company in harsh ways and essentially tarnish their reputation. However, the advantage of PR is the ability to react quickly and come up with the best possible solutions before an organization’s reputation is hurt. That doesn’t mean they control the press. “People think of [PR] as ‘spin doctors,’” said Rich. However, media has to be earned through PR, therefore its narrative cannot be controlled.

Rich explained that “you can’t expect the media to help you out if you’ve never built a relationship with them.” PR experts are trained in how to work with the media and answer questions in a way that’s hard to be used against the company. “They do a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure they have those relationships,” continued Rich. However, it’s up to the press to decide what the story is. The job in public relations is simply to add expertise to a story the media has already been working on.

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Photo by Laurynn Davey: Students working on a group PR project

The media often shows PR firms as unethical and with the only purpose to make a client look good, and unfortunately, there are people in the field who tend live up to that portrayal. For example, Rich mentioned how publicists would sometimes cover up bad things that celebrities were doing. However, Rich argued that karma is real, and if you do bad things, they’ll still catch up to you. “If you lie to your mom, you might get away with it now, but if she finds out later, it gets worse. Sometimes it’s just better to come forward… People look at PR as a way to get away from that, but that’s not usually the case,” said Rich.

Overall, there are a lot of misconceptions about the public relations field. They can do wonders for a brand, but not everything is in their control. They don’t drive sales because it isn’t their expertise. They also don’t control the media or guarantee a successful outcome, because the press will report anything to help their story. Organizations often make the mistake of only utilizing PR in times of trouble; however, building a positive reputation for a brand is earned through various forms of communication that builds beneficial relationships between the organization and their publics, and with the rise of social media, it’s become more complicated. “A lot of people think they can handle it, until they need it,” said Rich. “It looks like our job is to cover up,” he continued, “but really, we should be thinking ‘PR’ the entire time.”