Six Lessons from Six Years in Public Relations

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

In the past month, I reached two major milestones: I became a woman of a certain age (30) and also a six-year veteran of the public relations industry. Unlike many of my talented peers, I didn’t study communication in college, have a PR internship or know that this is where I would be working. If you’d told this Texan 10 years ago she’d now be living in Jersey and working at a cleantech PR agency in NYC, you’d have some ‘splaining to do.

When I first started working at a PR firm, I held the same stereotype of a “PR pro” in my mind as many of our confused friends and family do when you try to explain what public relations is. I imagined a three-cell- phone-toting, exclusive party-attending, soy vanilla-latte- sipping wheeler dealer.

The reality of the job is a bit different and requires a diverse skillset. Here are the top six things I’ve learned during my six-year career in PR-land and what others interested in the field should know:

1) Stay curious. In an agency PR setting where you work with a variety of clients, at least cursory knowledge of various industries is invaluable. This is more profound in the business-to-business world, where things can get pretty nerdy. The people who do best here are the news junkies with a nearly insatiable curiosity about the latest innovations and current global events. You may have a pet industry you’re particularly passionate about, but you’re able to switch between discussing autonomous vehicles in one breath and the latest developments in wastewater technology in another.

2) Client relations is as important as media relations. People want to work with people they like and trust; they also want to feel like they are being heard. The art of PR client relations is listening to what a client provides and says they need and converting their vision into something the media wants to cover in a way that satisfies your client.

3) Understand how the media landscape is changing. There are now about 5 PR practitioners for every reporter in the U.S. Pretty much everything is digital now, and more news outlets are moving to emphasize video even at the expense of other types of content. A hit in an online-only outlet like TechCrunch can be just as, if not more, valuable than one in the Wall Street Journal, depending on who you’re trying to reach. News is broken on Twitter before just about anywhere else—and misinformation can also spread there like wildfire. Understanding how people find and consume information is changing is important to successfully executing a PR program.

4) Empathize with reporters. Many reporters and editors have to do the jobs of two or more people as newsrooms try to do more with less. The likelihood that a pitch will convert to a story is directly related to how much you think like a reporter and provide a timely angle with facts and sources to back it up in a few paragraphs or fewer. Be diligent with follow-up—but not oppressively so.

5) Get used to rejection—but learn from it. One time I called a local newspaper reporter in Seattle about a smaller real estate developer client I was trying to get coverage for. I did my 10-second spiel and he said, “So, where’s the news part?” I paused for a second and then replied, “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry. Also, thanks.” Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of having earth-shattering client news—but they are also often experts on topics that are important to other industry stakeholders. Use your clients’ expertise to suss out which topics they can discuss in general, even if there’s not an immediately obvious connection to their product or service.

6) Understand that public relations is more than publicity. Or at least, it should be. There are so many ways an organization or company can reach different audiences—customers, investors, analysts—that a PR program designed exclusively around securing media interviews and writing press releases is outdated. Writing op-eds, speaking at conferences, developing creative sharable assets like infographics and videos—they’re all important too. To be successful in our industry, budding PRs should broaden their skillset and get curious about the world around them. One minute you’ll be drafting original content for a 3D printing startup; the next, you might be advising the CEO of a publicly traded company before his/her next big CNBC interview. This variety of experiences is both the primary challenge and reward of working at a dynamic agency in the 21 st century.

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