Public relations is such a vague term. Even the definition as provided by the Public Relations Society of America is pretty open-ended:
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
While that definition gives us the prism through which to view the profession, it doesn’t say anything in regards to the day-to-day.
So what does the job look like?
PR takes on many different forms. I tend to envision it as four various functions:
- Media Relations
- Internal Communications
- Social Media
- Brand Journalism
A public relations professional can be defined by solely one of these classifications, or, more commonly, a combination thereof.
The beauty is that there is a variety of jobs within the industry to choose from, and certain backgrounds and skill sets translate to certain roles better than others.
What follows is a breakdown of each, and what hard and soft skills are necessary to perform that job well.
When most people think of PR, they picture a media relations professional who pitches the media to cover a story, speak on record for his/her organization and respond to damage control in the event of a crisis.
This role is generally viewed as the most stressful because of its fast pace, internal and external demands such as those from senior management and the news media respectively, and in some cases, long hours.
Depending on the size of the organization, you could be sole individual responsible for all media communications or comprise part of a team.
Adrenaline junkies take note — being a media relations pro provides the ultimate high. Organizing press conferences, going on camera for local and national news, and navigating a crisis are run of the mill for this job. No two days are the same and the hecticness of it all keeps you on your toes.
Certainly, it doesn’t have to be everyday you’re sweating bullets and many won’t have to deal with a crisis during their career. It all comes down to where you apply your trade.
Beyond writing email pitches, media relations pros draft press releases and media advisories, respond to information requests from the public and news media, maintain reporter and blogger relations, provide media training, compile media or press kits, and conduct media tours among the other tasks listed above.
Necessary Skills in Media Relations
Being a strong writer is the most important skill (get used to hearing that in this industry as you’ll read below). Calm under pressure is just as crucial. You should almost welcome the moments when the going gets tough to thrive in media relations.
A skilled public speaker will excel come time in speaking on the record for a news organization or providing media training for a fellow employee so that he or she can best represent their company.
Along the same lines, knowing how to best communicate with those around you — reporters, news producers, C-level executives — is paramount. A media relations professional is the link between the company and the outside world. This professional’s reputation is just as important as the CEO’s in many ways.
As hectic as the job might appear, to those in it, it is at those frantic times that things seem normal. This is to say that it’s a learned skill and over time, becomes natural. In many ways that is because it’s a trial-by-fire profession and you pick it up rather quickly because you have no other choice.
In this author’s opinion, media relations is the most satisfying of all job functions in PR.
For journalists making the jump to PR and media relations specifically, they will find this role a natural transition. Those in the news industry have a deep understanding for how the media industry works and immediately have the authority to counsel senior management on communication strategy.
A newsie’s next steps are learning the nuances of life on the other side of the fence and applying those inherent news values to every aspect of the job.
This form of PR is rather straight-forward — it deals with any and all messaging within an organization. Many companies from big to small maintain company newsletters or the like so that every employee is on the same page, so to speak.
It’s important to engage employees on where the company is currently as well as where it is headed.
Internal communications also are vital when it comes to a company crisis. What to say and what not to say are important topics for everyone in the organization to be abreast of. There is nothing worse than a crisis situation becoming worse when it all could have been avoided with opening an internal dialog.
And dialog is a great word to use when describing this kind of PR. It shouldn’t strictly be top-down communications but a conversation. A person in this position serves as a connection between its workers and upper management in a similar albeit different way human resources does.
Internal communications is not relegated only to the written word in an email, on an intranet website or in a magazine. Audio and video is not uncommon and some companies produce content in a closed-circuit television format.
Necessary Skills in Internal Communications
If you guessed strong writing skills, give yourself a pat on the back. The ability to write with a formal and informal tone are coveted, and some jobs require a technical writing approach. Technical writing is like it sounds in which it is very succinct and procedural as in go from A to B to C. For that reason, a technical writer could transition to internal communications quite well.
It wouldn’t be a form of public relations if it didn’t require the understanding of how to communicate with those around you. Working in any field of PR will have you talking with every department of an organization. Speaking with an accountant is different than with a graphic design artist, and the same can be said about the CFO.
A way to describe this dynamic is with the term “emotional intelligence.” It’s more than the words you use; understanding the pressures and personalities of other people will dictate how to communicate with each.
In my opinion, emotional intelligence is what makes the most successful the most important aspect of public relations. I believe it is more important than writing, public speaking or any other job requirement.
If media relations scare you, internal communications is a very safe alternative.
If you’re a millennial, you grew up with the advent of social media. Because of that, you probably love it. This is why so many millennials comprise this slice of the public relations pie.
The job entails the planning and execution of a social media strategy across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Periscope, Google+, Pinterest and a variety of other platforms.
The planning phase includes the development of a content or editorial calendar (only pros plan their content in advance versus “winging it” on a daily basis). The execution lies in the content creation and takes the form of copywriting, audio and video production and graphic design to name a few.
The common denominator is engaging the organization’s publics in a way that humanizes the brand. It truly is the evolution of public relations as a company’s messaging isn’t restricted to news and media placements (more on this below).
Of course, in today’s social media climate, to have the most impact you have to “pay to play.” Facebook and Twitter ads enable brands to target their messaging directly to their audience of choice. From demographics to household income and even to their zip code, these technologies provide greater control than ever before.
Besides administering content, social media specialists are communicating with the publics that they serve on a wide and even one-one-one basis. Forget the days when customers picked up the phone to call companies’ service desks; now they take their questions — and issues — publicly to the respective social media account.
A social media specialist encompasses many roles: he/she is a content producer, ad administrator as well as customer service agent.
Necessary Skills in Social Media
You already know the first requirement (it starts with a “W”).
Customer service skills are a must, and graphic design is a plus. Audio and video production are applicable here too.
Speaking of which, did you know online video makes up 50 percent of online traffic and is expected to be upwards of 80 percent by 2018?! [SOURCE: HighQ]
Budget planning comes into play with the administration of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube ads.
Emotional intelligence unveils itself again as a key ingredient to making it in social media. Knowing how to speak the language not only for an organization but also a particular social media platform separates the best social media managers.
Journalists have many of the skills required to make the jump including one of the most important: the ability to tell a story. This attribute has its place in social media, for sure.
Social media marketing might seem like a tough job market to crack but if you can demonstrate proficiency with your personal brand’s social media accounts, it can go a long way. Offering to manage a start-up’s or non-profit’s social media presence for three-to-six months can be all it takes to start bringing home a paycheck.
Another one of the newest forms of public relations is brand journalism. Naturally, journalists interested in making the transition to PR will relate the most to this.
Brand journalism is an extension of a company as a media outlet. An individual or team of communications professionals develop content, or said another way, write news stories, that speak to the power of the brand. They generally appear on a company’s website or even on its own standalone website.
This might not sound like journalism at all as it appears very subjective and one-sided, but good brand journalism isn’t that. Just like good journalism by the likes of the New York Times is well written and researched, and features many expert voices. Brand journalism is no different.
We’re not talking about an article that reads like, “Our company is so great and here’s why,” but rather a very honest news story about a particular industry. In fact, the best brand journalism makes no mention of a brand name or organization at all.
Consider that any company has a firm grasp on the industry it resides in. It is therefore an expert on said industry.
Brand journalism, done right, reports in a very factual and objective way and leaves the reader with no logical alternative than to buy what that company is selling — literally and/or figuratively.
As alluded to earlier, traditional journalists find their ways to brand journalism quite naturally. Many journalists like to classify public relations as “the dark side”; that it’s all spin and untruthful.
But the truth is brand journalism provides former traditional reporters a new guilt-free profession to apply their trade.
Intel’s Intel Free Press, for example, sports nary a logo on its brand journalism site, and features skilled tech reporters writing objective stories about all-things technology. Not every story is about Intel’s products, which adds to its credibility.
Certainly, at the end of the day, it is about creating new customers and building a community around existing ones. But brand journalism doesn’t set out to deceive its readers but instead give them an insightful look at the industry and its place within it.
Necessary Skills in Brand Journalism
All those skills necessary in journalism apply here:
- Copy editing
- Problem Solving
Knowing how to write an effective news story is having the skill to learn something new in short order and translate that information in an easy-to-understand piece. Then there’s the matter of telling the story in an inverted pyramid format, for starters, or feature-style of writing.
Having a grasp of news values and the five W’s is a must.
Editors, producers and news reporters find brand journalism as the easiest transition into the public relations industry, and a jumping off-point for other roles the profession provides.