As someone who does public relations work,
what do you like to call yourself?
I don't know if it's because I love word-play and the fun things you can do with words, or if it's just that I have a quirky sense of humor, but I'm fascinated by the unusual and wide-ranging terminology public relations people have sometimes used to describe their work.
No, I'm not talking about the ones who expound on building mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their constituencies, nor those who brag about getting their clients the broadest possible exposure for their media-based messages. I'm not even talking about those who say they help clients put their best foot forward when dealing with different publics.
I'm talking about the few, the brave, the audacious who proclaim things like:
- "I'm a bridge-builder."
- "I fight brush fires."
- "I'm a fact arranger."
- I'm a friend-raiser."
They may even put such job titles on their business cards.
Admittedly, this kind of statement may not be within everyone's comfort zone, but I personally love it when clever practitioners use such pungent, forceful, and thought-provoking descriptions as job titles. It causes listeners to do a double-take or utter a shocked and plaintive "Hunhh?" when they're first heard. It's especially great when the listener then appears to think about what was said for a minute or two, or asks for an explanation, and then sagely nods and says: "Oh, yah. Now I get it."
While recently sorting through old files, I came across notes about a number of these alternative titles/descriptions and thought it would be fun to share them.
My personal favorite is bridge-builder which I've been using on my business cards and letterhead since I retired from university teaching several years ago. - Actually I was using it in conversations long before I retired, but the university would never let me put it on my business cards. - I like it because it's a catchy and perfect explanation of both my public relations orientation and my teaching experience.
If my blunt assertion that "I'm a bridge-builder" is met with a blank stare or I'm asked to explain it, I usually add that I build bridges of communication between individuals and groups. Or, sometimes I'll say that I use communication as a bridge to achieve understanding. And, occasionally, if I'm not feeling particularly pugnacious at the moment, I may just use one of these latter comments as my opening statement and forego jabbing with bridge-builder.
Make no mistake, I'm not trying to take credit for coining these phrases. Plenty of other people have used them, many of whom worked in the field long before I did. To give credit where it's due, I'll readily admit that I picked it up from Peter Jeff, a practitioner who was working and writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the 1990s.
A much more manipulative, perhaps even deceptive tone, is evident in the use of gift-wrapper and flower-arranger. Although I enjoy their clever language and sprightly use of crystal-clear metaphors, I deplore the underlying attitude and implications of these two phrases and hope they don't accurately reflect your view of public relations. - They're almost as bad as calling a PR person a manipulator.
"P. R. is gift-wrapping... The trick is packaging the truth on your own terms." - Michael Levine, Guerrilla P. R.
Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms." - Alan Harrington, Forbes Magazine
I have even stronger feelings about the negative connotations and implications of spin-meister and spinner along with the corresponding verb form "spin." All of them became popular as a way to describe the activities of President Reagan's staff spokespeople who would rush out and talk to the media after a presidential speech to explain what the President had said, or what he had really meant to say.
Regrettably, the concept of spin was then picked up and worked into the title The Father of Spin which was used on a popular biography of public relations pioneer Edward L. Bernays. The concept and its negative implications are now well-known and indelibly linked to public relations. - How ironic and disheartening it is that terms which were once seen as castigations of the profession are now used, almost as honorifics, by many practitioners. (For further discussion, see my 2010 article Don't denigrate public relations by what you call it.)
Much more positive are labels such as pilot, co-pilot and navigator which are based on the metaphor of steering/guiding a plane safely to its destination. Note that those who prefer co-pilot tend to do so because it reflects the fact that while public relations people have the necessary knowledge and skills to get a plane where it needs to go, they aren't necessarily in command. They must follow orders and go where the pilot (the organization's CEO) tells them to go.
Curiously, in all the times I've heard these or similar terms, I've never heard them used by anyone in the aviation industry. Nor have I heard anyone in a maritime industry use helmsman to describe a public relations professional guiding an organization through the "dangerous shoals of public opinion." But, I have often heard people in other industries use these analogies.
Scout is another metaphorical allusion to guiding an organization through dangerous territory. It was one of seven different roles for public relations described by David Drobis, the now-retired Chairman and CEO of Ketchum Public Relations Worldwide, when he spoke at a long-ago IABC international conference. He was, however, neither the first nor the only practitioner to use this metaphor. Many did, and some were almost lyrical in their dramatic and picturesque descriptions of how an effective scout would constantly be on alert for attacks by hostiles while simultaneously gathering and bringing back routine reports on the terrain that lay ahead.
Firefighter, another of the roles cited by Drobis, is based on the presumption that public relations is "the organization's front line of defense in times of crisis." Personally, I don't recall ever applying the term "firefighter" to myself but, during the years I did crisis communication as an Iowa public information officer, I did frequently describe my work as putting out brush fires.
Although translator and interpreter are much less metaphorical than many of the other terms I've mentioned, they are pithy and do offer a thought-provoking view of at least one element in the overall public relations process. So do terms like advocate, booster, cheerleader, wordsmith, friend-raiser, and institutional psychiatrist.
What other clever phrases can you come up with to describe your work?
Perhaps a better question is: Do you want to be known as a public relations practitioner, or would you prefer a more colorful and fun-filled term? - It's really up to you and to your employer.