My colleague, George Faulkner, asked me last week if I’d accompany him to Poughkeepsie to speak with a group of communications students at Marist College about our work in leading the social media communications at IBM. Despite the keen feeling of being old, speaking with communications students was refreshing. When I asked the students about why they chose public relations as a major, their answers revealed a fair amount of uncertainty as to what the field is really about. That’s not all bad, in my opinion. I’ll try to explain why by sharing my personal history with the profession.
I’ll spare most of the details, but in short, I was about to start my sophomore year at BYU and had selected chemical engineering as my major. After a year of struggling with the major, I realized that this current path had only two outcomes: 1) at best, I’d trudge through school and be a mediocre engineer; or 2) at worse, I’d end up accidentally blowing up a chemical plant. Since neither outcome seemed palatable I started to look elsewhere.
I had heard of public relations from a friend and based solely on the name, changed my major. My rationale was simple: I liked people. And I liked having relationships with people. So public relations seemed perfect. I had no idea what the profession was. Just like the Marist students. And, frankly, the decision has turned out to be a good one for me in the end.
Now, this all has a point. I realized as we spoke to the Marist Students that my understanding of the profession has changed significantly from my first impressions while in college. And while the field evolves over time, at it’s heart, it’s always been the same: understanding what makes people tick and finding ways to influence and impact behavior. It was never only about pitching the media. Or even about media relations at all. It’s about understanding how to create a brand and reputation.
With the advent of social media, half of the PR professionals I know express consternation that the profession is changing, while the other half celebrate that the world has changed and none of the old rules apply. Both camps are wrong. Fundamentally the objectives and designs of the profession remain the same. Now we just have more opportunities and methods to engage with people. Hopefully that gives some level of comfort for those anxious about the changes in public relations, while tempering the exuberance of some who would hope to never talk to a reporter again.
In short, the profession is evolving. Social media, done right, simply enhances our ability to do what the intent of the profession has always been: understanding how people tick, and helping to influence people’s behavior.