Does ‘What do you do for a living?’ frustrate you?

This author and PR pro hates getting asked this question because she doesn’t know how to respond. Can you help?


Noemi Pollack posted about an experience very familiar and uncomfortable to me. What do you do when someone asks what you do, and you no longer have a clear definition of that—yet everybody else seems to?

By the way, I’m Jeri Cartwright, this is my blog and I’m in public relations.

Here’s Pollack’s story:

“At a recent dinner party, the conversation at our table of eight, centered politely on the introductory question—’what do you do’—and went slowly around the table to each guest. When it was my turn and told that I am in public relations and marketing, my dinner partner to the left, a dentist, probed further as to what that really means and exactly what do I really do. By the time dessert came around, I had given him a detailed rundown of all the tools and strategies that we, PR professionals, employ to impact marketplace perceptions and changed behaviors. It didn’t make a dent. He was still at it when dessert came around and, in total defeat and exasperation, I made a lame excuse and left the table.”

Pollack, I relate. When people ask me what I do, I’ve given up trying to answer. On the back of my business card, I list my best guesses:

  • Media & community relations
  • Image & issue management
  • Crisis communications
  • Executive counsel
  • New media/blogging/social networking

And yet, every time I redo business cards, the list changes. I have noticed when someone chooses to refer to me as “in marketing,” I begin to correct them. When a client calls and tells me about a situation, then says, “Here’s how I want you to spin it,” I respond with a softly spoken, “I do not spin. I carry your messages to the public. I work to understand what you want to convey to your publics and then find the most effective and lasting ways to do it.”

Over the years, I’ve watched as political strategists, advertising/marketing agencies and a number of other professions have adopted the tools PR once called its own. Are we now also regarded as “able to get free advertising,” or “able to ruin the reputation of a political candidate?” Sure hope not.

So I ask you, which of the following fall under public relations? Which ones should not? I can honestly say, I’m not sure anymore.

  • PR
  • Media relations
  • Community relations
  • Government relations
  • Lobbying
  • Public affairs
  • Marketing
  • Advertising
  • Campaign strategy (elections)

Jeri Cartwright is the president of Cartwright Communications and blogs at Media Relations, where a version of this article first appeared.

Topics: PR

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