Working in public relations is often associated with the function of a spokesperson, who belongs to the world of corporations and big politics. Some of you might find such a job sexy because it shapes reality. Others might say that it’s nothing more than a talking head playing morally questionable business or political games. While all you might be right, PR at its core is a quite different story.
To put it bluntly, a spokesperson is considered a rarity in PR. A phenomenon usually found in large corporations or in the medical industry, not much so in other sectors. The chances that you will become Doug Stamper (‘House of Cards’ reference) and be interviewed by the media on behalf of this or that CEO are rather slim. And I don’t mean to discourage you. I simply want to spare you my personal trauma of having to explain to people why someone mistook a Bluetooth speaker for a grenade launcher. The spokesman’s job may be exciting, but it’s certainly not an easy one.
By now you’re probably thinking ‘well, if I’m not going to be a spokesperson then what in the name of seven kingdoms will I be doing with this whole public relations thing? I dream of working with people, telling super stories and generating awesome ideas’. There’s really nothing stopping you from doing that in this field. Let’s look at my case.
I have been working in the PR industry for almost 9 years. Before that, I was a journalist for several years, although I never even came within a mile of being an opinion columnist. I participated in countless brainstorms full of creative and crazy ideas. Some ended up in a drawer, some made it to implementation. Nearly all of them brought me almost childlike joy. I work with people every day, although I will admit that I usually use MS Teams instead of coffee shops for meetings. It’s definitely simpler, more convenient and saves me a lot of time. Anyway, trendy coffee shops are even a bigger rarity in my area than spokespeople in PR.
Your first responsibility as a PR person is to work with the client. The second one is working with the media. Your third task is to combine these, sometimes opposite, poles of the magnet in a way that is satisfying both for journalists and clients. The brand wants media’s attention at all costs, because through that channel they can reach their potential or current customers (in the industry we call that group of customers ‘the target audience’ though I really dislike that word). The journalists expect you’re coming with an interesting or exciting topic, not just any topic. If what you’re offering is boring or pointless, you will be told so. And in many cases you will know in your heart that this is true.
Therefore, as a publicist, you work in a magnetic field that more often than not causes hair on your head to stand up or turn gray. The media, especially the online media, are looking for interesting and timely topics, and their principle is to be objective and neutral. From the client’s perspective, everything they do or make is always interesting, and objectivity is a flavor supplement at best. Whether your client has just launched a sport car into space or developed a machine-learning algorithm inspired by swarms of bees, it wants the whole world (or at least the Polish infosphere) to know about it. The task of PR is to develop such a strategy of action that the two poles, instead of repelling each other, begin to attract each other. One can get quite sweaty in this process.
So what is your primary job as a PR person? From my absolutely private perspective, the most important thing is to build relationships with the media. This is bread and butter of every PR person’s work. The greatest advantage lies in knowing which journalist might be interested in a topic and what can they do with it. This is also why people who have been journalists themselves at some stage in their lives (even if it was only a temporary fling during your university career) do well in this business. If for some reason you don’t like or understand the media, it will be extremely difficult for you to find your way in public relations.
As an effective publicist, you must also deal rationally with your clients. They often try to impose the shortest path to the goal, expecting quick and clear results. There is no better way to damage a brand’s relationship with the media. That’s where sober rationality comes in handy. You need to be able to point the other way, to suggest ideas on how to achieve the campaign goals in a way that gives the media a cushion of objectivity and creates long-term results. If this entails assertively stopping the client’s actions, so be it. That approach is not only ethical but also practical and saves the client considerable expense on crisis management. Believe me, crisis PR, where you put on a helmet and play fireman, is much more costly than calmly working on building media relations from the grounds up.
Now that you know a little more about our field you definitely see that solid public relations work is based on honesty, not on small lies, gossiping and painting the grass green. You may associate a spokesperson with someone who hardly ever meets the truth. However, if you, as a PR person, begin to put such a strategy of dimwittedness into practice, you will very quickly padlock all the key doors in this job. My impression is that the mechanism of prevaricating only works in the very narrow world of political PR. If you paint your client’s report green there is a good chance that the paint will peel off by the end of the quarter. If you promise a journalist friend that you’ll give them the sun and the moon if they publish your latest press release… Well, the media world is actually a small one, and news travels faster than the shockwave from a grenade launcher in the office. The effects are equally lamentable.