It’s an inside joke that no one outside the industry understands what communications professionals or PR agencies really do. I don’t actually believe that, but this week, at a family gathering far from New York City, my niece confessed that she’s always likened me to Samantha Jones, the infamous PR woman on “Sex And The City” – ten years after its final episode! I proceeded to (gently) set her straight, but the cringeworthy comparison was a reminder that TV syndication is forever, and that, in our business, professional stereotypes die hard. Here are some of my favorites.
PR people are all about the spin. This trope is a little too sensationalized to die a natural death, and some of us only wish it were more accurate… the power! the sway! But though it plays well in the movies, the truth is more complicated and more prosaic. Most of the time, our work is utterly non-controversial and absent any pressing ethical quandaries. Most PR professionals work hard to advance a point of view, and we often succeed without any compromise to integrity. In the end, it’s more an honest negotiation than a feat of legerdemain.
PR is about who you know. Not really, or at least, not entirely. Personal relationships can open the door to communication and they certainly help in getting an audience for a pitch. That, in turn, can generate valuable insight on a story idea or client angle, but friends won’t get you very far unless the idea is solid. And the stereotype of the relentlessly networking name-dropper or socializing press agent is sadly outdated.
PR people are failed journalists. In an era when newsrooms have suffered large staffing decreases, this is a nonstarter. Many journalists have crossed over, but the PR industry is neither dumping ground nor sellout. And the difference between running down stories in a newsroom and counseling a corporate client are significant.
PR professionals are “people persons.” Argh. This one may be the most irksome. Although a good public relations campaign is often a collaboration – requiring relationship skills like any other – and a top PR agency executive needs to be able to sell her ideas, it is truly not a customer service or retail job. The positions that require daily contact with the public are, at least in my opinion, the real “people” gigs, and they’re probably also tougher than what PR people do.
PR is about parties and special events. This may be true in some sectors, i.e. the red-carpet film premiere or the elaborately choreographed technology launch. But those happenings are in service of a strategy, and the the degree of preparation and planning far exceeds the hours spent partying. And hardly anyone even has time for lunch anymore.