Complaining about PR people is popular. It’s also easy because there are lots of bad examples and we don’t fight back. I understand though. Bad PR stories are like car accidents. While I cringe and hold my breath, I can’t look away from the gruesome details.
There are entire blogs dedicated to bad PR: Gawker’s PR Dummies, the BadPitchBlog and yes, very often, Twitter. Rafe Needleman’s PR Pro Tips blog takes a more helpful approach and he has even highlighted good PR tactics.
Pop culture doesn’t do PR professionals any favors either. When I tell people that I run a PR firm, they leap to a mental picture of Samantha Jones from “Sex and the City.” My reality is much less glamorous (although we do have standing desks). As the mother of two, I’m usually more involved in diapers and chicken nuggets than nightclubs and celebrities. My reality needs to be more thoughtful too. I spend my days learning about the trends that are shaping our world and the next.
I didn’t aspire to be in PR when I was growing up. I didn’t know what it was. In high school I fell for the edge of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. College pulled me into the dark yet hopeful worlds of Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff and I dreamed about being a writer. When I had to declare a major, I chose PR because it meant I could craft stories and make money. I did not choose it because “I’m good with people,” as so many comment when I tell them I do PR.
I was lucky to come into PR during the Internet bubble when technology became sexy, and it still is. I love being on the threshold of what’s next: how companies grow and pivot, how we’ll solve the economic problems of a knowledge economy that requires fewer workers and less capital, how the workplace will change when millennials become the majority (in 2025), and how my blender might one day understand my preferences (thank you Internet of Things!). I like imaging the future in five, 10 or 20 years. And I love telling the good stories.
PR also gives me a perspective on bad news. When friends and family get scared by the 24-hour stream of terrorism, tornadoes, Ebola, fill in the blank, I tell them about the unfair weighting of bad and shocking news to good. A few years ago we had a student who had won a math competition lined up for a meeting at the State House. All of the local TV stations were scheduled to attend until there was a stabbing at the courthouse and they all went there instead. The bad news always wins. I have the privilege of knowing that there is more good news than bad.
In the world of innovation, good PR can unearth the stories that are often overshadowed by whatever Facebook or Marissa Mayer is doing today (even if she’s just trying to take care of her infant while running Yahoo! — did you hear about that nursery!?). In between those stories, others do pop through, and those are often the stories we’re crafting. It’s tough in an era when news breaks and ends within the hour, and there are fewer journalists out there reporting, so these stories need help to break through that din.
No one should go into PR for the glory. I’ve been asked to “do my girl thing” and style someone’s hair for a “Good Morning America” appearance. I’ve been threatened with being fired because a client’s competitor made a news announcement. I’ve been asked to carry luggage by a male CEO. If you want to do well in PR, you need thick skin and a strong filter.
Reporters do as well. I recently heard that a certain tech blogger receives 70 pitches each day. All 70 cannot possibly be story-worthy. I’d get liberal with my delete key too, and probably trigger-happy with my derogatory tweets about those annoying pitches.
I believe we should treat reporters as we would clients. Earnest PR people don’t get enough credit for the behind-the-scenes work they do to make sure those uncontrollable factors come together well. Those good PR people do the following:
- Convince seasoned CEOs to take that meeting with a young and inexperienced journalist. We know those journalists could quickly become tomorrow’s experts.
- Remove marketing collateral from meetings with the press.
- Make spokespeople quotable by paring down their one-hour talk to 15 minutes of crisp points.
- Eliminate PowerPoint from media briefings.
- Follow up to make sure the reporter gets the information she needs before her deadline.
- Never leave a reporter hanging if a client cancels. We pull out all of the stops to find a good replacement even when it’s not in our own interest.
- Withhold advance briefings on news from reporters who break embargoes.
- Take no for an answer. We gain nothing from pushing a story that a reporter does not want to write.
The bar is high for PR people and we need to do our jobs well. At a minimum we need to match our stories to reporters’ beats. Smart PR people situate those stories in the context of today’s news and trends. They understand the market dynamics and how their stories fit (or don’t). It is our job not to sell, but to prove why this story matters now. The good news for PR people is this: our best days feel like Christmas.
On those days, the coverage rolls in, people start talking about those stories, and we can turn our attention to the next chapter of that narrative. We’re in the business of selling ideas, and that’s exactly where I want to be.