Getting it straight

Public relations is probably one of the most misunderstood professions.

Speaking as someone who has been in the industry for some time, different people have different notions of what we do. Somehow, people seem to think that PR professionals are one or all of the following:
If you are one of those people. Stop being an idiot - you have been watching too much TV. While we do manage events and develop stories or our clients, we are not spin doctors or solely event managers. There are some glamorous events which we execute from time to time but those depend on the clients we work for. As for the ex-stewardess thing - Ha. She has to come with a semblance of a writing or business background. A pretty face is one thing. A pretty face that knows squat about the industry or string two words together in a coherent sentence is totally useless.   

A close friend once told me that I was being harsh when I told another person off for spouting such misconceptions as gospel. I am not being hard on people who want to break into the industry. You have to be prepared to face the harsh reality that this industry is not for the flake hearted or fluffy. You have to be prepared for all-nighters when there are major events or a crisis. Being well read, socially adept and equipped with the necessary writing skills are just the foundation. I'd also recommend taking up internships with leading agencies before deciding if this is the thing for you.

For the total noob, check out the public relations page in Wikipedia. What we do is maintain the public image for high-profile people, commercial businesses and organizations, non-profit associations or programs. Think of us as the elves who work behind the scenes to make the company or spokesperson look good. If you have to put it in the context of a TV show, think along the lines of The West Wing

I have to say that the job has not only dispelled some of my ideals, it has taught me a few hard truths:
  1. Consultants are the think tank and the mouthpiece. I used to think that spokespersons wrote their own scripts (so smart, right!). That thought was quickly laid to rest when I wrote my first ministerial speech. Interview responses and even the most simple thing such as press releases have to be framed and communicated in accordance with a company or the government agencies' objectives.

  2. Image is everything. Maintaining a good image is one thing, living it is another. Look at Tiger Woods. Before the scandal broke everyone had the notion that this was a squeaky clean sportsman and family man. And now? I don't think the media is not entirely to blame. The heady combination of social media tools, online news portals and traditional news have made it too easy to access information and tap directly into the lives of celebrities or even your neighbour. Companies and even media personalities are learning the hard way that they have to walk the talk and not articulate their key messages. There is so much your consultant can do, especially after you've gone and fucked things up.

  3. Knowledge is everything. Doing homework and reading everything about the client or the world at large affects how you counsel your client. It also affects how you write for them. Don't just read the papers, go to news portals, track forums, blogs, Facebook, Twitter...yes, there is a whole bunch of things to read. How you condense all this information into something relevant is the challenge and also one of the most important aspects of the job.

  4. Not everyone is your 'friend' and nothing is 'off the record'. In dealing with media or even heads of corporations you have to be mindful that it is your responsibility to keep a cool and focused mind. The ability to think and act on your feet is priceless, especially in times of crisis.
  5. We're always anxious. Over media coverage, over interviews, the event that we're managing, where is the spokesperson, why is he saying/wearing/doing that? What were you thinking! We always picture the worst case scenario and have to think ahead of the client to provide feasible solutions almost all the time. Why? Because sometimes, the wrong counsel can result in a crisis while the right one may avert it. Hence, we're mostly stressed out. The one thing that will alleviate our anxiousness? Good media coverage... and probably alcohol. 
And there you have it, a little peek into the head of a PR consultant. I don't deny that the job kills me sometimes. The last minute requests to work miracles, the late nights or early mornings and it cuts off some social life (which job doesn't?) but I find some aspects of it satisfying and it's something that I can live with for now.

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Ever prodded a sleeping dragon, only to have it whip up and bite you in the ass? Well, neither have I. But I advocate that you should try everything...once ;P


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