As the public relations profession develops and evolves, so do the educational programs that teach it. I was lucky enough to study at a university with a program dedicated to a PR education — UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication — which offers PR as one of six available tracks. And even though this education did give me a good idea for what a career in PR was like, I don’t think it was perfect.
To start, I was taught a couple things in college that I believe breed misconceptions about the profession:
People think of PR pros as ‘spin doctors.’ My fellow students and I were told over and over that PR pros have a reputation for spinning the news. I thought that when I entered the working world I’d inevitably be asked by my employer to do something immoral — to alter the truth in some way that made it sound better. But the truth is that we’re trained to find the interesting side of a story. For example, the story of two mobile products merging is not particularly interesting…until you learn that the new product circumvents a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation that the separate products violated. Being able to dig deep for the compelling angle of a story is nothing to be ashamed of.
Relationship building with press is a natural, easy process. In my opinion, building a relationship with someone stopped being easy after kindergarten. It’s tough to get to know someone and develop a real relationship, and building a professional one is no different. It takes time and strategy to get to know your industry’s influencers. I actually developed a spreadsheet for my team to record their interactions and discussions and ensure that it doesn’t fall off our plates with the everyday hustle and bustle of a PR pro’s workday.
And of course, there are some things I was not taught that could have helped me out in my first few years on the job:
Your clients do not pay you to be a yes man. I remember thinking in college that when I had my own clients, I would give them whatever they wanted no matter how bizarre the request — I was talented and passionate enough to make it happen. Well, sometimes requests are too bizarre and don’t make sense for your overall strategy. If your clients are thinkers and dreamers (which is pretty common if you work with startups like I’ve had the pleasure of), they don’t need to worry about the execution because that’s where you come in. You should be their filter. Don’t get your client and yourself in hot water by going for everything they suggest.
You write a lot in public relations. I wrote dozens of press releases in college on every topic under the sun. But what I didn’t know was that you get a lot of writing experience outside of a press release. And thank goodness, because press releases can be pretty dry, right? One of my favorite parts of the job is finding the meat of a client’s announcement and putting together a thoughtful, concise pitch that will interest reporters. It takes real skill to find that message and deliver it correctly. We’re also seeing publications increasingly accept contributed content, so I get to read and edit long, in-depth articles from my client.
Phone pitching etiquette. If we’re doing our jobs right, we shouldn’t ever be straight ‘cold calling’ the media, but a major part of our job is to get on the phone and pitch the media on an announcement embargo, an upcoming event, etc. And this is no walk in the park! Editors have deadlines, and they don’t often have time to hear you awkwardly ramble through your spiel. It takes practice to learn how to do this right, which is something I could have benefited from in college. In fact, I was so flustered the first time I had to phone pitch, I introduced myself as the editor I was calling! Now I know that before you get on the phone with an editor, it’s good to try pitching to a colleague. And of course, know what you’re pitching, why it’s important and why the person who you’re pitching to will care.
At the end of the day, the best way to learn about PR is to actually do it, which is why internships are so valuable. However, learning these things from my PR education would have helped prepare me for the real world of PR just a little bit more.
Originally published Dec 20, 2012 12:00:58 AM, updated July 28 2017