“And what do you do for a living?” is not an unreasonable question, but it is one that I hate being asked. Please don’t get me wrong, I am in no way ashamed of what I do, it’s just that it can be a bit difficult to explain to people.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the actual title of what I do keeps changing. When I first started out in this business, back in the dim and distant 1980s, I worked in something called Public Relations. Then the phrase “Public Relations” became unfashionable, particularly in the public sector, so I became a Publicity Officer and then an Information Officer. In the late 1990s we suddenly all became “Communications” professionals. Then a decade or so later I found myself working in something called “Reputation Management”. As is often the case, these things tend to go in cycles and it now seems to be acceptable once again for me to call myself a Public Relations Consultant.
Coming up with a definition of PR which can be easily understood by people outside our business has never been easy. The former Labour PM Harold Wilson famously dismissed PR as organised lying, which seems a bit rich coming from a politician!
Even the Chartered Institute of Public Relations isn’t hugely helpful here. It describes PR as “the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.” Many people will find that to be as clear as mud.
A few years ago I was working with a local council in the South of England. The Chief Exec was showing a new appointee round and introducing her to her new colleagues. When it came to me he simply told her, “This is David. He talks to the outside world.” That seems like a pretty good definition to me.