I still find it strange that after being in PR for nearly 15 years, my parents would struggle to accurately describe my job to their friends. I don’t blame them. It’s an ever-evolving industry and so much of it can seem intangible to outsiders. In social situations, when I tell people what I do it often gets a raised eyebrow, and occasionally an, “Ooh very glamorous!”. I’m not saying that PR is all blood, sweat and tears. We do get to go to the occasional lovely event, and I won’t deny I enjoy a glass of prosecco every now and then! But there’s a whole lot more to it than being a spin doctor, or swanning around with a glass of bubbles in hand. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years.
1) Resilience is key
I wasn’t born naturally thick-skinned but in PR you have to grow one. If you catch a journalist at the wrong moment you might get the sharp end of their tongue but you’ll need to roll with the punches and just move on.
During a big launch or sell-in you might need to speak to 20 journalists or more, so you can’t take it personally. Reflect on their time pressures, consider how many PRs probably call them a day and try to empathise. Of course, over time you build up good relationships with many of them but as a newcomer it can be particularly tough and you will always get the odd one who gives you short shrift!
The same resilience is vital in client management. You need to be prepared for a piece of work you’ve done to be heavily critiqued or re-written, even if you thought it was spot on. The more experienced you get, the less this happens, but in the early days it’s easy to misjudge what you think a client wants.
The best way to overcome this is to do your research, listen, ask as many questions as you can and be grown up about it if you do get negative feedback. Work with the client to make it right and understand where they’re coming from and put all tendencies to feel offended to one side.
2) Learn to walk in someone else’s shoes
Those who interpret the term ‘public relations’ literally probably think that having a keen interest in the public is a fundamental part of the job. They’re not actually wrong. In order to feel genuinely passionate about communication you need to be fascinated by people, their behaviour, how they interpret things, how they respond, what they feel and why.
That doesn’t mean you have to be a nosey old so and so and probe your colleagues about their personal life. It’s more of a general sense of being interested by the diversity that our glorious planet has to offer and all of the ways people can be influenced, educated and informed; to buy more, to change their behaviour, to feel differently about a brand, to understand something better. PR and communications can influence people in these ways and many more, and it’s not just about getting people to spend more money as is often the insinuation by some cynical folk.
Some of the most successful PR campaigns have saved lives, for example by encouraging people to get screened for life threatening diseases. These campaigns worked because the PR brains behind them immersed themselves in their audience and were genuinely interested in how to reach them. They probably did this by being challenging, inquisitive, and intuitive. And they probably had to disagree with people along the way to get the right outcome. Which leads me onto my next point…
3) Don’t be a ‘yes’ person
The customer is always right. That’s an appropriate rule of thumb for anyone who works with clients, isn’t it? Well actually, no. Clients appoint consultancies like Onyx because of our expertise and experience. We’ve got over 100 years between us so we know what we’re doing. That means we’re allowed to disagree if we don’t think something’s going to work, and we’re allowed to strongly advise against something even if the client is dead set on it.
It’s not about being deliberately challenging, but about being a true consultant and working with the client to get to the outcome your experience tells you is the best one for them. Of course, this is a big ask in the early days of your career when you’re just learning the ropes, but it’s something I watched more senior members of my team doing and learned a lot from.
Everyone has their own personal communication style, and some might be blunter than others in the way they disagree with clients, but ultimately the focus should always be on getting the best possible results even if that means ruffling a few feathers temporarily.
4) Build your expertise
Over the years, I have had to quickly become an expert on many things. From shower enclosures, to railway lines, to crowdfunding, to childcare qualifications, to credit cards, to cyber security. I’ve had my fingers in all sorts of pies and have picked up lots of useful (and perhaps some less useful) knowledge.
When you start working with a new client, one of the biggest challenges is quickly getting up to speed with their business and what they do, otherwise you’ll never be able to come up with a compelling PR programme that delivers for them. This doesn’t mean you have to suddenly have equivalent knowledge to that of an in-house PR manager who’s been there for seven years: you’ve been appointed as you bring fresh, external and broader expertise to the challenge. However, you should unleash your inquisitive nature and ask lots of questions. Be proactive, meet people, tell them what you’re trying to achieve and you’ll pick up lots of fantastic nuggets along the way.
It doesn’t hurt to get your geek on and research the client in various unusual ways either. In my first PR job, aged 22, I gaily volunteered to go to all of the bathroom trade shows and spent many an hour looking at competitor shower enclosures and picking up brochures to understand how they worked, their points of difference and their position in the market. It wasn’t essential for me to have that granular level of knowledge but it was an interesting exercise and I found that it gave me confidence, as a PR junior just starting out, to know a lot about my client’s products and to be able to respond to journalists’ questions about them with ease.
No one has time to learn everything right away, nor is it a sensible use of time when the client wants you to get going with actual PR and comms work, but as you get more experienced you learn exactly what information is useful or useless to you and filter it out accordingly, applying it in the smartest ways so that all your swotting up was worth it.
5) Become a master multi-tasker
I used to think I was great at multi-tasking before I started working in PR. After all, I could put two slices of bread in the toaster whilst cooking beans on the hob, and chatting to my friend on the phone. Pretty impressive, no? Well, it turns out that succeeding in PR requires a whole new level of multi-tasking brilliance.
If you work within an agency, chances are you’ll sometimes be working on up to 8 different clients’ accounts at once (dependent on the size and scope of them of course). Which means that up to 8 different clients could call you at any given time and want you to do something for them. Yikes! Although this has rarely happened to me to that extreme (and certainly not at Onyx), there have been times where it becomes quite a juggling act and you have to be prepared to suddenly stop doing something, you were enjoyably immersed in, because something more urgent has come up.
It can be a steep learning curve when you’re fresh out of education and used to focusing on one thing only to the point of completion. Doesn’t work like that in PR sadly! Often you’ll have a brimming to do list with a multitude of deadlines and somehow you have to stay on top of it all. My tip is, write things down. I would be bereft without my trusty notebook and Outlook calendar, which I rely on to help me prioritise, remember things and generally manage my workload. Again, it wasn’t something I was brilliant at to start with but it’s a skill you continue to hone throughout your career.
You know you’ve cracked it when your delivery isn’t affected by unexpected things and you are still able to deliver work on time that clients value highly – and believe me that is possible even with the heaviest of workloads once you become ace at multi-tasking! As an aside, becoming a mum has actually helped because that’s a non-stop juggling act, which often feels much tougher than managing eight clients with sudden requests, but in a completely different way!