A PR Pro’s Guide to Surviving Holiday Small Talk

Photo: Alasdair Elmes on Unsplash

By McClelland Schilling

The holidays are right around the corner, and I can practically smell the evergreen and home-cooked meals. But as my desire for eggnog and gift exchanges grows, so does my anxiety at the thought of holiday small talk.

“When do you graduate?”

“Have you found a job yet?”

“Are you dating anyone?”

The nauseating questions seem endless. But the worst of them all? Questions about our wonderful profession: public relations. You can always count on your family to ask you ample questions about what you do (even though you already explained your career in thorough detail last year).

While you can’t predict every question that you’ll be asked, you can ease your holiday anxiety by coming prepared for the questions that you will most certainly find yourself rolling your eyes at.

What even is PR?
How could one little question be so simple, and yet so complicated? The most difficult part of answering this question is wrapping up the million-and-one things we do every day into a short and sweet answer that won’t leave them yawning.

PRSA defines PR as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” To avoid sounding like a robot, something like this explanation should suffice: “My job is all about building positive relationships between my client and its publics, and protecting the brand’s reputation. I get my clients placement on TV and in newspapers, manage social media and create website content.” Something along these lines will get your point across, but won’t confuse your sweet grandmother.

That’s the same thing as advertising, right? 
After you finish taking a deep breath, do your best to hide your irritation. Aunt Sue doesn’t know any better! Simply explain that while yes, the two industries seem very similar and we work very closely with one another, they are actually different. Advertising is all about paying the big bucks to get your message out there. PR, on the other hand, is about convincing the media that you have an important story that needs to be heard.

A Forbes article by Robert Wynne put it best: Advertising tells you “buy this product.” PR tells you “this is important.”

So you’re in the business of tricking people?
This has to be one of the largest misconceptions about PR. People seem to think we sit in board meetings brainstorming ways to fool the public and lie to their faces without them knowing it. Since this couldn’t be farther from the truth, we have to set Uncle Steve straight before he gets any crazier ideas.

Explain that our profession is about telling the truth (and nothing but the truth). We’re in the business of building trust and forming relationships. We abide by a strong code of ethics, and tricking people is not tolerated in this industry. A good PR practitioner is someone who puts the truth above everything else.

PR? Just like Olivia Pope and Samantha Jones?!
Oh, how I wish our profession was as glamorous as “Scandal” and “Sex and the City” portray it to be. Can you imagine? Spending half your day shopping for shoes and drinking out of aggressively large wine glasses? One can only dream (sigh).

The truth is that this industry is far from the over-dramatized image of PR that the entertainment industry has put into consumers’ heads. It’s a 24-hour profession that requires those who dare to take on the job to juggle many tasks at once and wear many hats. But above all else, it’s rewarding. Because we love what we do! (Even though half our paycheck goes to fueling our caffeine addiction.)

Needless to say, the holiday season can be a stressful time, but don’t let fear of small talk keep you from enjoying your family’s holiday party! Just remember these talking points, and you’ll be prepared to answer your family’s most hard-hitting questions. When in doubt, if you get asked something you don’t know the answer to (or you just don’t have the patience to answer), just say your mom needs your help in the kitchen. Works every time.

McClelland Schilling is a senior public relations major at The University of Alabama, where she serves as president of the student chapter of the Public Relations Council of Alabama. Reprinted with permission from the current issue of Platform Magazine, the student-produced PR magazine at UA.

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