How To Make Small Talk With PR People

It’s that time of year when we chat up colleagues, family, and friends old and new at holiday gatherings. At some point, you may ask a new acquaintance what they do for a living. If the response is “I work in PR,” you might be stumped for a minute. If so, don’t feel bad. Some colleagues here have said that their own spouses can go for decades without a real grasp of what they do. Here are five tips to guide the uninitiated through any social encounters with PR professionals.

Be safe: ask if they specialize

Today’s communications sector is fairly specialized, so it’s always safe to ask if they focus in a particular area, like fashion, technology, or lifestyle PR, for example. And if they’re on the agency side, you can always follow up with a question about their favorite or most challenging client. Agency people love to talk up their clients.

Be engaged: ask what it takes to be a PR star

“So, what does it take to be a great PR person?” This is a fine question for anyone in any profession, from currency trader to social worker. Plus, it’s a way to show legitimate curiosity while discovering more about what someone does without displaying ignorance.

Be informed: ask their opinion of recent media coverage of a news event

This one may be skating too close to politics, since it seems to dominate the news these days, but that might be unavoidable anyway. The point is to appeal to the person’s expertise as a student of the media or as someone who follows specific industries, as you’ve just learned by asking about their specialist sectors. And since everyone has an opinion of the news (even if they hate it), it almost guarantees a discussion.

The pickup line: ask if they think PR is more of an art or a science

Asking something thoughtful will not only make you appear knowledgeable, but it will flatter the PR pro and elicit unguarded thoughts about their livelihood. But it’s not a safe gambit; this approach is only recommended if you can pull off a pseudo-sophisticated approach, or if you’re really interested in the person you’ve just met.

The networking approach: tell them you have a journalist friend

…who wants to transition into PR. This will tickle the PR person, who will be impressed and pleased to hear that you have contacts, even if they’re planning to move to “the dark side.” While reporters and PR pros have a real symbiosis, they also have a friendly rivalry – and lots of pet peeves on both sides.

The lame comment: mention Olivia Pope

If the topic arises, you may realize that everything you know about PR comes from the show “Scandal” or something equally exaggerated. That’s okay, but don’t conclude your new acquaintance does anything remotely like Kerry Washington’s glamorous D.C. fixer, unless she’s sipping red wine and carrying a Prada bag, that is.

5 Habits Of Highly Successful (PR) People

The New Year is a good time for PR professionals to shed some old habits and adopt new ones, but what separates the PR amateurs from the experts? Here are some habits – old and new – for the most successful PR agency people we know.

They stretch.  Specialization can be an agency attribute and a strong professional advantage, but one of the joys of agency life is the variety of clients one may be called upon to counsel. An outlier client or extracurricular project can be a wonderful exercise for a senior professional or an inspiring challenge for a novice. The true PR masters don’t just visit a company website or learn some perfunctory lingo, they interview subject-matter experts, plunge into analyst reports, and basically go beyond page three of a Google search. Stretching, after all, helps keep muscles toned.

They consume a varied (content) diet.  The more we read, the better we write, period. What improves writing craft isn’t just skimming headlines or social posts, but breaking into different genres. We like literary or film criticism (no one provides better visual descriptions than a critic.) And never neglect op-eds, which are excellent for advocacy, not to mention economy of language, or biographies, which usually feature top-notch storytelling. For those who are too text-oriented, a diet of image-based content for a month will produce a wonderful change in perspective.

They do something scary. Once the client-agency relationship is solid and secure, a bit of calculated risk-taking with a creative idea or new direction can open doors. Sometimes the idea is so good that one’s “PR gut” kicks in and going for it pays off. We convinced a client to conduct an online petition to champion a major U.S. government policy change. We knew we would never receive the signatures necessary to take our case up the government chain but felt the strategy helped position the client as an advocate for a worthy (and newsworthy) cause. However, the client feared some kind of press blowback for a petition that didn’t draw millions of signatures. None materialized, and in fact media covered the effort in creative and positive ways.

They build a “Board of Experts.” “A man doesn’t know what he knows until he knows what he doesn’t know,” said the late Laurence J. Peter. Truly savvy PR people never let show what they don’t know, because we’re always learning. The smart strategy is to find and “collect” subject matter experts from all sectors to fill in knowledge gaps. These experts become invaluable when developing questions for a potential client in a new industry, coming up with a fresh topic for content, or approaching unfamiliar media.

They step it up. In a retainer relationship, the meter is always running, and an agency is only as good as their most recent accomplishment. When a client stalls on feedback or editing or approval, it’s easy to move on to the next project and feel “off the hook.” But PR stars consider patience overrated; after all, clients hire us in part because we’re not immersed in the corporate bureaucracy and our bias is toward action. Pull out fresh tactics, pull in a colleague, or push forward and make something happen in 2015.