From the high-profile scandal that engulfed Max Clifford to the spin doctor propaganda fuelled by the work of Alistair Campbell, its not surprising we get viewed as a not-to-be-trusted bunch with no moral compass.
Throw in the air kisses of the Absolutely Fabulous Edina and the barrage of swear words from Malcolm Tucker and it’s a wonder how our industry ever gets taken seriously.
But while our thick skins (many of us started life as journalists and they have a worse reputation than the PR professional) mean we can shrug off the jibes to demonstrate just how valuable we can be to business – what we are failing to address is how we come across to potential new recruits.
And this is something I noticed when we recently attended Woodbridge School’s careers fair.
“What do you actually do?” we were asked by confused teenagers. “What is PR?”
And to be honest, I wasn’t sure where to begin the answer this question.
In the last few months I have camped with a teenager who lives his life as a Saxon, been interviewed by Victoria Derbyshire about the gaming industry, launched a children’s book for charity, sung with a choir, beside the Deben, wrote and won a raft of business awards, met a James Bond stuntman, spoke to Downing Street about Christmas trees, penned a speech for a headteacher, exchanged emails with a pop star and sent a nine-year-old boy viral on social media. All in the name of PR.
Pretty exciting, huh? What GCSE or A-level student wouldn’t want to leave school to do the same with their time? But none of it explains what I do and why I do it.
The truth is very few people in public relations can explain what people in public relations really do. Not succinctly anyway.
If you’re a policeman, a builder or a schoolteacher, everyone knows what your job involves.
Meanwhile I seem to spend most of my time clarifying what I don’t do – advertising – rather than what I do.
Yes, just like advertisers we promote our clients, their products or services. But we convince editors to run a positive story about a client or brand rather than pay for an advertising snippet which, because it is purchased, lacks the credibility of an independently written news article.
So, PR is not advertising. Ok. But we still haven’t really got to grips with what it is.
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations says: “Public Relations is about reputation - the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.”
This is a good starting point. Perhaps PR is better understood as reputation management.
If you are a business, a great reputation will open doors to fantastic opportunities, help you attract the best staff and give you unhindered access to your ideal client base.
My job is to boost that reputation – or to protect it.
In PR we use a variety of channels to enhance a company’s status by celebrating its successes and positioning it as a business to trust. We do this by asking questions, finding positive messages and translating those messages into positive stories. This might be in the form of a press release, a social media post, a newsletter or a blog. It might mean interviewing people, writing content or speaking to journalists. It could involve an event, a campaign or a stunt – all designed to attract the right kind of attention.
We also help protect that company’s image if and when it attracts criticism. This can involve writing a statement, a speech or a news article or creating some proactive messages which reflect how the business is handling the crisis.
It sounds like there is a lot of writing involved, doesn’t it? And this is true to an extent. PR is very closely linked to journalism, after all.
But believe it or not, you do not need a degree in English to succeed in penning a press release. Trust me, while I learnt a great deal of Shakespeare at Manchester University, I can’t say I have ever quoted Macbeth in a newspaper article in my life. A drink to anyone who proves me wrong…
What’s more, the make-up of our office demonstrates just how many different pathways there are into PR. We have people with advertising backgrounds, former journalists, graphic design students and school leavers. Some have postgraduate degrees, others completed college courses and we have four former apprentices who left school after A-levels.
This message is something we need to get across to any student considering PR as a potential career. Because our industry thrives on creativity and diversity – a range of minds with a range of skills. And these people will come from different backgrounds with a host of different qualifications.
I may not have managed to explain what I do in a single sentence – a crime for any copywriter I know.
But what I can tell you is that this is a hugely varied industry and opens up countless possibilities for the next generation, particularly with their wealth of knowledge in the digital sector.
And one thing's for sure, if you are currently sat in a classroom feeling fed up and you are looking for a challenge – this could be your dream job. Because I can promise you, in the field of PR, you'll certainly never be bored.
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