Snapshot: The Real Poop: Have you ever played that game “Telephone” where the first person whispers a sentence to the next, and that person whispers it to the next person and so on? The point of the game is to see just how far off from the original the sentence becomes by the time the last person recites it. No matter how many people are in the chain, it’s always different by the time it reaches the last one. And usually it’s gotten a bit raunchier as well.
In the real world there are people who make a living trying to make sure that people get the story straight. These are professional “Telephone” players, just as real estate developers are professional “Monopoly” players and actors are professional “Don’t Tip the Waiter” players. They work in a field called “Public Relations.”
You’ll often be told that, to get into Public Relations, you need to write and speak well. That’s true. But there’s more to the story. To get in and stay in you had better be a really quick-thinker, willing to regularly have the demeanor of a bulldog gripping a big soup bone, and at the same time be the biggest suck-up the world has seen. You need to be like a Transformer, able to instantaneously morph yourself and change how you handle situations to best meet the needs of your client (Sybil and her multiple personalities have nothing on you).
Public Relations (or PR as it is commonly called) involves controlling information about something - usually a company or a prominent person (like an entertainer or politician). There are different areas of PR, some more exciting than others. The most common type of PR jobs fall under the oversized umbrella of a marketing department at a company. While companies use some of their marketing staff to create expensive collateral materials (think printed pieces, TV commercials, radio spots, etc.), the public relations group gets to do the fun stuff. More fun than making TV commercials, you ask? Yes siree. The E-Trade baby wishes he was in PR.
The entire focus of the PR specialist’s work is to build relationships with the people who buy the products, use the services, or have other affiliations with the company they represent. Depending on the type of “client” being represented (and yes, the company that you work for can be considered your client) there are plenty of ways to get the word out.
Writing press releases, planning book signings, booking your company big shots as guest lecturers, creating interview opportunities for personnel with particular expertise in something, email blasts, newsletter production, blogging, tweeting, attending speaking engagements held by closely affiliated business groups, scheduling personal appearances by the client, planning and orchestrating photo ops, brainstorming and executing publicity stunts (like when Taco Bell bought the Liberty Bell or when Burger King took the Whopper off the menu for a day), press kit development, providing support for new product launches, planning (and attending) red carpet events, booking concert promotions, and trade show participation are just some examples. They are quite a few examples, actually, but even still it only scratches the surface. A big part of the job is about doing the leg work that helps get the “faces” of the company (chief execs, creatives, your boss, etc.) out into the public eye. And you can’t just slap their literal faces onto a giant billboard and be done with that. It takes a bit more finesse than that.
The less common role of a PR person is the one you see on TV or in the movies. (As if anything on TV or in the movies does not perfectly reflect the way the real world works… please!) If you’ve ever seen the new version of Melrose Place, think about Ella, the character played by Katie Cassidy. Her job was one that most people who enter this field dream about doing. She worked for a big PR firm that got to represent all sorts of high-falutin clients. Her work took her to great places for exotic photo shoots, she got to meet the hottest talent in music and television, and she got to go to some of the swankiest parties around (on the level of P. Diddy’s New Year’s party), all while wearing the hottest clothing, usually provided by a designer her firm represented, eating at the finest restaurants while entertaining clients (with the meals paid for by her vast expense account), and much more.
Yes – these top-notch positions are out there, but they are few and far between, and it usually takes years and years of hard work in the PR trenches before you’re ready to take on this type of role (unlike Ella who seemed to have landed this job right out of the college gate. Hm… it’s as if the writers of Melrose Place wanted us to suspend our disbelief…).
For the more normal PR specialists (or the abnormal ones with the more normal jobs, anyway) there are times when the gig can approach this glorified position. This happens when the company wants to drum up a lot of publicity about something – typically a new product or service. To accomplish this, lots of planning takes place as to what types of PR should be done (like in our uber-long list above) to best get the word out. Once the game plan is made, it’s all hands on deck! Your contact list and calendar become your best friends. (Not your “best friend 4EVA” though. That’s Janet and always will be.) There’s a wide variety of projects to get done and typically there’s never enough time to get it all worked out. You need to be beyond excellent at what you do to keep everything moving and on schedule. And don’t think that it will all go smoothly. It never does. Problems crop up almost daily – the printer lost your files, the suite at a hotel your boss told you to book for a press conference is not available, the limo that’s supposed to drive your big shots to their speaking engagement broke down, there’s no electricity in your client’s room at the hotel suite – these are just some examples of the issues (hold curse words in) that can and do occur.
If you’re good at holding your temper and finding a way to get people to help you out of tough situations, then you’ll be okay. Part of working through this is what’s known by PR pros as “spin.” Many people think spin is basically creative lying, when in reality it’s more like diverting the negative attention that is being received and turning the situation to your advantage. It’s a “why-focus-on-that-hungry-escaped-tiger-heading-toward-us-when-it’s-such-a-beatiful-day!” way of looking at things. Here’s an example of spinning using a company that makes heart medication:
News breaks about a heart medication that is causing people to lose their hair by the handful. (Better than a hair growth product that is making people lose their hearts by the handful.) Rather than run and hide - or worse, deny that this is occurring - the PR execs at the company issue press releases in various forms (blog posts, tweets, print, TV spots, etc.) stating that they will quickly launch an investigation into the claims. It further states that production of the product will stop until the investigation is finished and all product on the shelves will immediately be pulled. Taking such action is costly for the company, but not as costly as if somebody’s entire scalp falls off and they end up suing for some ungodly sum.
As time goes on, the company keeps the public up-to-date as newsworthy developments occur in the investigation. This shows that they care about the victims and are trying to resolve an issue for them. Quite often, these releases are timed to coincide with other good news about the company, to soften the emotion that is wrapped up in the more scandalous issue. “We’re working on getting your hair to grow back, but in the meantime, we’re offering a 2-for-1 deal on Ibuprofin!” That’s spin, baby.
The company’s efforts to fix the problem continue until some resolution has been made and a final announcement can be delivered to the public. However, in the background (and this is the “sneaky” part that PR people excel at), the company actively searches out ways to align themselves with groups or organizations that have something to do with heart disease. They decide to sponsor at least three of them: The American Heart Association, WomenHeart, and some heart camps sponsored by the cardiology departments of two major children’s hospitals in prominent cities (because whose heart doesn’t bleed – figuratively, of course - when a sick child is thrust in front of their face).
The company chooses to become the “official sponsor” supporting events that these organizations hold, which does a couple of things. It keeps their name in the public eye in a positive way and, more importantly, it diverts attention away from the negative issue that it is tackling behind the scenes. The value of the newfound public goodwill that is generated typically outweighs the dollars that the company expends on this sponsorship. So even charitable acts do not always come from a wholly unselfish place. But hey, is there really anything so bad about a situation where everyone wins?
This is essentially why public relations pros have jobs. Rather than let word of mouth dictate the outcome of an event, PR people take charge and tell you what they want you to know and believe about a particular situation or client. And, when that’s not enough, they divert your attention to what they want you to see and believe. Even if it means resorting to helping those in need.
The Typical Day: “Get ready to rumble!” That should be the alarm clock’s waking call for most any PR professional. No day is the same, but every day will be a challenge, to the point where you might think that doing a couple rounds of ultimate cage fighting might be a bit more relaxing.
For Ellery Spinmeister, a mid-level PR exec, the day starts early – around 7 am with a hot coffee in one hand (she must rev those engines), her iPhone in the other, and glassy eyes staring at a long, long list of emails that streamed in after she left the office around 9 pm last night. Her company has a product launch to contend with – one that has previously been sold in Germany but is new to the U.S. market. For the launch, she needs to coordinate a wide range of things. A press conference needs to be arranged, catering for the conference needs to be planned, product literature has to be printed and, from this, press kits need to be constructed and shipped, trade show plans need to be worked out, attendee lists need to be confirmed and paid for, hotel accommodations need to be arranged, travel itinerary needs to be booked, union contracts for workers handling the booth setup at the convention center need to be settled, and graphics for the booth and the press conference need to be designed and produced. (Oh, is that all?) It’s Tuesday morning, the trade show kicks off next Wednesday, she’s already put in a good two months of hard work and tons of overtime, and now her deadlines are bearing down hard. She’s really wishing PR stood for “Peaceful Relaxation” right about now.
Here comes the onslaught of problems.
(1) The marketing group in Germany has sent over files (layout, images, and logos) for all of the printed pieces, but they can’t be used. German printing paper sizes are different than U.S., so she checks her contact list to find a couple of reliable freelancers that she can use to make these changes – and do them quickly. She needs to get the final files to the printer by Thursday if these are going to be printed and shipped to the event on time. Ugh – the Germans always have to be so difficult about everything. If it’s not starting a world war, it’s having different paper sizes. Always something.
(2) There’s a message from Ellery’s boss that there are more sales reps planning to attend the event. She has to get back into her files and find out how to enroll late attendees, figure out how much it’s going to cost, and requisition payment for each new person. Then she has to fill out the paperwork for each attendee (they can’t be trusted to get this right), submit it, and pray that their badges will show up before they leave – otherwise she’ll have to find a way to get the badges to them at their hotel (midnight runs to the 24-hour FedEx office are not unheard of).
(3) The video presentation that is slated to run at the press conference is running long. She needs to drop everything, get downtown to the studio (about a 40-minute ride) and figure out what to cut. Since her boss, who really should be the one to decide, is out of town and unreachable, she takes the situation by the horns, cuts what she thinks she should, and hopes that once her boss finds out, she’s not the next thing that gets cut.
(4) On her way back to the office, her assistant texts her to let her know that the caterer for the event won’t be able to provide all of the appetizers that she had originally selected. She tells the assistant to dig through her files, find the one for catering, and read off the ones that she had marked as suitable alternatives. She then calls the caterer to order these and is told that there will be an up charge for substitution. She argues that these are not substitutes since they couldn’t provide the original selections. After many rounds of this argument, it is agreed that the up charge will be only half as much as originally stated. Fine, now she has to do another requisition to pay for the difference.
(5) She gets back to the office where she runs to a meeting that she’s at least 15 minutes late for. This one is with the group that is doing the planning for the release notices for the product launch. Being considered are major industry publications and their websites. Ellery has asked for the copy for these releases and turns it over to the others in the meeting. The group (who already contributed most of what ended up in these press statements) doesn’t like what they’re reading and collectively demands a rewrite (her temper is rising and yet she finds a way to keep from giving everyone present a violent tongue-lashing – one of those that her children are in constant fear of receiving). The final copy is due out by the end of tomorrow by 3 pm, so another meeting is planned for 2 pm tomorrow (“Are they crazy?” she thinks). She goes back to her desk and starts writing. After getting about half of it done, the phone rings. She has a feeling this is not someone calling to tell her she has just come into a lot of inheritance money. Doesn’t seem to be the way her day is going.
(6) On the phone is a product manager for an entirely different product group who wants to know the status of the project he’s expecting from her. She tells him that it’s under way but won’t be ready when he wants because of the product launch. He gets irate; she apologizes and tells him to take it up with her boss then hangs up. She doesn’t hang up on him, per se; she just ends the call as soon as she possibly can without being blatantly rude about it. She prefers the subtly rude approach.
(7) Ellery gets back to writing the release. It’s now 6:30pm. She needs coffee – badly. Funny – this is how her day started…
The Money: For all the work you end up doing and for all of the stress that you have to endure, the average salary can seem a bit low for most PR pros. Salaries range from about 35K at the low end (and by no means is this the usual starting point for somebody just out of college – think about chopping about 5-8K off of this) to an average of around 55K for seasoned PR experts. Unless you work for seriously high-end clients, you won’t actually be making the kind of super money that you see PR pros make on TV. Let alone the actors who portray them. But… you can enjoy at least part of their lifestyle just by being around all of the fancy-shmancy social events they get to attend.
For those of you lucky enough to not get settled in a Marcomm department of some huge corporation, there’s more opportunity for upward mobility and - kaching! -more money. Agencies often have better pay, letting top earners move beyond the 100K mark. Typically, this type of salary is reserved for senior execs who have worked in the trenches, maintained ruthless OT schedules (sleep, shower – uh, what’s that?), bring in new clients, and have the best track record with current clients. Perks can include lavish expense accounts, company cars, extra vacation time, and flexible hours (like that matters when you’re already working 16+ hours a day) plus the opportunity to work remotely at least part of the time.
So, what other way can your career take off? There’s always the “I gotta do my own thing” route. Often, after working in the world of corporate PR for, say, 10 years or so, you (and everybody else in the 4 x 5 cubes surrounding you) start feeling ultra bored and super burned out.
Breaking away from the corporate boredom by going out on your own as a PR consultant is very common. Those that do this won’t have a ready-made list of clients to go after, since their company was their client, but they can take inventory of the vendors they worked with and bring that with them. This is a huge advantage since these vendors, provided that they have been treated well in your dealings, often provide great leads for new work. Armed with this, you could easily get yourself several good contracts within your first year, enough to stay afloat as an independent. With good success on those contracts, you will likely find that you’re more in demand and may even need to hire staff or partner with someone to let your business expand.
On the other hand, you may be one of those people who choose to go it alone as a contractor right off the bat – you want to exert your entrepreneurial spirit and not be trapped by salary caps, defined work schedules, and all the other junk that comes with corporate America. This is more difficult since you don’t have any “ins” with vendors, but it’s very doable as long as you’re committed to pressing through the hard times, eating ramen noodles for at least another year (you really thought you’d left them behind when you graduated, right?), and can balance time spent making connections with doing actual work on your own until you’ve got people in place to do the work for you. Land a couple of good contracts, do well with them, and your business if off and running!
In either case, the money won’t be really good right off (unless you land some really super high profile client) but it will steadily increase if you are good at what you do. Lots of PR consultants in good markets, and with solid client lists, find themselves clearing the 100K mark within the first 5 years of starting their solo gig.
The Power: This depends on the clients you work for. If you’re part of a marketing communications department, you have some power, but not much because you are there to handle the same types of work over and over, year after year. However, if you work for top-notch clients with important things at stake, you can make or break them. It’s a lot of power to wield. If the client treats you right, you work hard to keep them going on the right path. If the client disses you, you have the skills to concoct something that will make their empire collapse (not that you would ever really do that, now would you?). Tread lightly on the revenge stuff though. It’s like when you were a kid and got to go to a friend’s house to play. If he made you so mad that you broke something of his to get even and then you got caught, he wouldn’t ask you over to play again. And that would suck, because his mom made the best tuna salad sandwiches.
The Fame: Most PR professionals don’t become famous. If they’re doing their job correctly, they are working out of the public eye. Think of PR specialists as puppet masters - quietly pulling the strings of marionettes to make them do what they want. You don’t know any famous puppet masters, do you? Of course not. They’re very reclusive.
The Glory: There is little glory for a PR pro, again because they so often work behind the scenes. But there is a perk to this job, and it can be a big one. If you are lucky enough to work with a really prestigious client, like a sports team, or a famous musician, or a movie star, or even a big company that makes consumer goods, you get to go to lots and lots of events. Your only job at these events is to schmooze. Here’s how it works: show up, eat the over-the-top food, drink a lot, glad-hand the industry big shots, and talk up your client. Think you can handle it?
The Stress: If you don’t want premature wrinkles or gray hair, run! This job is not for you. Public relations jobs at nearly all levels are loaded with stress. Deadlines dominate your world. You are dealing with different personalities that want many different things and are highly demanding. Projects that cost a lot of money are under your care and you’d better handle those well. When the client is in trouble, you have to rally quickly to put out lots of fires – again, crazily stressful times. Many people who love this job say that they “thrive on the stress and excitement.” That, and a huge bottle of antacids.
The Physical Danger: Other than getting rotten food thrown at your head by angry people at a press conference, there’s very little real physical danger to this job. However, lots of stress coupled with little sleep, eating the wrong food more often than not, and lots of caffeine can wear you down if you’re not careful. But that’s okay – caffeine is the new oxygen.
The Qualifications: Some people who work in marketing end up in PR as a by-product of natural talents that they have. They like to talk in front of people, they are good at gathering people together (think of the best party planner you know), they can write and have a good design sense, and they don’t sit still for very long. Quite often, these people end up doing this job when in reality they had set out to do something else. For those of you who plan to work in PR from the very beginning, you’re going to need those same qualifications and a degree. Usually 4-year degrees in public relations or marketing communications are your best entry tickets, followed closely by journalism or business. Followed distantly by musical theatre.
The Odds of Getting In: The odds of getting an entry-level job in public relations are about as good as getting most any other beginner’s job in marketing. Your degree will help, especially if you focused on marketing, advertising, writing, or project management as part of your studies. Insider’s tip: Once you are in, remember to stay focused on what you want to do – otherwise you’ll get spun into a part of the department that you didn’t intend to end up in. Like the picking-up-coffee-for-everyone-else department.
The Odds of Hanging On: The life span of a PR person is always up in the air. If you work for a company that is mundane and doesn’t have a lot of public attention, you’ll likely be okay. Your contact list will grow and the associations that you have made will make you more valuable to your company over time. Plus it will help you perform your job more efficiently, since you will know who to call to get the help you need when problems occur. However, keep in mind that usually all it takes is one project that went horribly wrong in the eyes of some big shot, one event that went too far over budget through no fault of yours, or one really bad publicity nightmare that got away from you and your group to make the axe fall swiftly.
The Career as Depicted in Popular (or Unpopular) Culture:
Read: Thank You for Not Smoking, The 42nd Parallel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
See: Melrose Place (the newer one), Spin City, Absolutely Fabulous
The Tools of the Trade:
<<Brain cells in fast and creative working order>>
<<Gift of gab – plus the ability to know when to zip your lip>>
<<Some business acumen>>
<<Computer, smartphone, contact list>>
<<Company credit cards >>
The Bell Curve of Success:
You’re J.Lo’s main PR squeeze and, because you were able to put a positive spin on her nip slip at the Oscars so quickly, you’ve found yourself in high demand by other talented and scantily-clad Hollywood starlets. Can you say ‘Mo Money! Party On!
Published on Shmoop.com
I'm April Bailey, a freelance writer and editor for hire who has been writing about various topics for many years. Most of my early print work was destroyed in a major house fire. Luckily, I was able to pull some copies from an old PC and have posted them here. Other items on this blog reflect my current articles and blog posts written for online publications and copied here so I never lose my work again!