Career Overview: Public Relations

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Posted by The Editors on November 30, 2012

Overview

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers," said the historian Daniel J. Boorstin. His point? In public relations (PR), your job is to make your client seem great without anybody knowing you were trying.

Of course, those in PR do more than make their clients seem great. They speak on behalf of client organizations; inform constituents; educate audiences about important issues; help mitigate harmful negative publicity; and generally represent a client to various audiences, including the media, in order to get the most favorable publicity possible.

While some use the terms "advertising" and "PR" interchangeably, that's a bit inaccurate. Advertising entails purchasing space or time in a particular medium, such as a TV show, publication, or website, and creating controlled messages therein. Public relations, on the other hand, includes other activities and types of messages-in turn often covered by the media-that help improve the subject's visibility and reputation. And in many sectors it's a fast-growing field.

What PR Is
While many people equate public relations with publicity-or more generally, garnering media attention-the field is actually quite a bit broader. In addition to media relations, PR agents coordinate activities such as events, meetings, educational programs, speaking engagements, and other forms of communication. One of the objectives in PR is to use the media to reach the target market because, when mediated by a supposedly objective third party, the message will become more powerful.

Because of their role in generating media coverage, PR professionals are sometimes thought of as disingenuous, deceitful, hucksterish flacks trying simultaneously to pull the wool over the eyes of their clients and the public at large. That's inaccurate. Most journalists and clients will only deal with people in PR who are known for being honest and straightforward, because to do otherwise could potentially hurt their own reputations. And the fact is, in today's business world, every company, CEO, celebrity, and association wants to show the best possible face to the public, and all of them are using public relations to do so.

What You'll Do
Day to day, PR pros look for opportunities to deliver appropriate messages to their audiences. This may include planning events or speaking engagements. You may find yourself "pitching" story ideas to reporters to get them interested in covering subjects important to your client or company. Other days may have you working on the strategy of an overall communications program-in essence, what you'll release when. For example, consumer products companies may launch new products or product campaigns to tie in with particular holidays or other dates important to the retail industry. These companies' PR teams are almost always involved in these programs, as they'll be working on finding methods outside of traditional advertising and sales to get the word out to potential customers. PR professionals may also serve as company spokespeople, disseminating information about companies to the media or directly to key audiences. In the entertainment industry, the focus is more likely to be on publicity: Any entertainment figure or company in the industry will have a publicist, who is the go-to person for answers about the A-list glitterati. An actress's arrival at an awards ceremony in a hybrid vehicle instead of a gas-guzzling stretch limousine, for instance, could be a PR move to show her feelings about the environment-a well-considered one if the actress wants the public to take her more seriously, or if she wants to make a statement about an environmental cause that is important to her.

Often, public relations pros will spend much of the day working with the media. You'll make phone calls, issue news releases, and plan story angles and events. Reporters, producers, bloggers, and other media gatekeepers may have a reputation for being at odds with PR people, but the truth is that they rely on PR practitioners for information they don't have the time or budget to gather themselves.

Those with more experience in PR will write speeches, strategize the best time to announce new products, work alongside an advertising agency to position products in the mind of the public, post on blogs, create and publish newsletters, and coordinate social networking groups, among other activities. Along with representing the client to the public, PR practitioners will represent the public to the client, helping the client understand the public's wants, needs, and concerns. They may also manage crises, endeavoring to reduce the damage done to a client or company's reputation-most of the time, however, companies will call in a crisis communications specialist for such situations.

Who Does Well
Those who do well in PR have strong communication skills, are articulate both with the written and spoken word, are able to understand a variety of people, are confident, and quick studies-you'll need to learn quickly what your clients do in order to communicate their messages effectively. PR professionals should also be quick thinkers and persuasive.

While there are some behind-the-scenes opportunities such as research that could accommodate introverted types, most jobs in the PR field require assertiveness and an outgoing personality. If you know you're shy, PR probably isn't the best career choice for you. A public relations professional who is afraid of the public won't be able to represent his or her clients authoritatively.

Requirements

To get in, you'll need a good general education and the proven ability to communicate well both in writing and speech. An English degree will help; so will training in marketing, communications, and writing. Some universities offer public relations degrees. If you want to break into PR mid-career, you'll still need these skills. Knowledge of mass media and how they work also is relevant-many journalists make the switch into public relations.

Students can join the Public Relations Student Society of America to gain networking opportunities with PR professionals and other kinds of career guidance.

Many get into PR by interning while in school. Most PR agencies and communication departments offer internship opportunities where you'll learn how to make contacts in the business and build up a portfolio. Experts say that PR is as much art as science, and the only way to get the skills is by practicing them. While you can break in from another field, unless you have media experience, you're probably going to have to start low on the ladder.

Job Outlook

With the explosion in online media over the past few years, PR is more important than ever, and companies are hiring more agencies and PR staffers to manage Internet relationships. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that although employment is projected to grow faster than average, keen competition is expected for entry-level jobs. Still, this remains an attractive industry to many job seekers. PR offers liberal arts types jobs that can be steady and fairly lucrative while still being creative. Pros in this industry often enjoy perks like parties, dinners, plays, and ballgames with clients.

Career Tracks

If you go into PR, you'll either work at an agency or within a larger company's communications department. At an agency, you'll serve multiple clients; at a large company, you'll serve that company-or, more likely, a division or area within it. Jobs are ever-changing-every client is different. Much of the role involves account management, though you'll also be responsible for creating and executing communication plans. Once you have some experience under your belt, you may decide to go freelance or start your own agency.

Within corporate PR departments, you'll probably work more independently than you will at an agency-which may lead to a sense of isolation, but will give you plenty of opportunities to learn. There's usually a bit more job stability on the corporate end, as agencies may need to staff up and cut back as they add and lose clients. At an agency, you'll have exposure to a wider range of clients, which means the work is likely to be more diverse. Typically, you'll receive more mentoring as well.

PR pros may specialize in one area of PR, but smaller firms are often more generalist. On the corporate side, you'll hear about departments such as investor relations, public affairs, labor relations, crisis management, and so forth. The work in these departments can be similar, but the focus is on reaching a particular target-relating to investors, the public, labor unions, and so on.

Account Coordinator or PR Coordinator
Most people enter PR as an account coordinator or, if you go into communications at a company, a PR coordinator. Generally the account coordinator plays an administrative role, supporting an account executive. The work involves projects such as clipping newspapers, assisting in research, maintaining a list of media contacts, and coordinating mailings of press packets to the media. Generally, the account coordinator role is a stepping-stone to becoming an account executive.

Account Executive
The account executive is an account management function. The account executive works directly with the client, writing press releases, planning special events, and preparing annual reports. Often, the account executive tracks trends, looking for opportunities where the client might receive media coverage due to a widely covered news event. In many instances, account executives will represent a company at press conferences, write speeches or op-ed pieces for the company's CEO, and submit the client's products for industry awards. Account executives are sometimes called PR specialists in the communication department of larger organizations.

Account Supervisor
A step up from the account executive is the account supervisor. The account supervisor oversees PR accounts, often managing the account executives and account coordinators. They'll often do hands-on executorial work similar to that handled by the account executive, but they'll oversee other staff members assigned to the account as well.

Media Relations Manager
In media relations, you'll make phone calls to the press and pitch ideas for stories. Your job is to convince reporters to write about a story relating to a client. Account executives often do some media relations, but many agencies have full-time positions for people who have honed the skills required to call and pitch stories to journalists. In this role, you'll need to understand what journalists are looking for and be able to quickly hook them into listening to your article idea.

Director, VP
At the vice president and director level, you'll typically manage the firm, meet with higher-level clients, and create overall communication strategies. You'll be responsible for pitching accounts-that is, finding new clients-and making sure everything is working to the satisfaction of existing customers. You'll also want to be active in thinking up new communication services you can sell to existing clients. Within agencies, you'll work closely with younger staff to train and mentor them.

Government PR Departments
Government agencies usually call their public relations departments "public affairs" offices. (Many private agencies offer public affairs services as well.) In these roles, you'll translate government policy for the public and help communicate the public's concerns back to the government. Public affairs issues include municipal elections, military recruiting, deregulation of an industry, and homelessness.

Insiders say that government PR departments tend to be bureaucratic and slow-paced. They may not offer the same opportunities for growth as the private sector, and often don't pay as well. On the upside, the work environment may not be as rigorous, and you'll have a chance to work on significant public-policy issues.

Self-Employment
Once you have skills in the PR field, you can often find lucrative work as a consultant. Corporations often outsource the PR function, relying on outsiders to handle their needs-either an agency or a PR consultant.

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