Have you ever played that game “Telephone” where the first person whispers a sentence to the next, and that person whispers it to the next person and so on? The point of the game is to see just how far off from the original the sentence becomes by the time the last person recites it. No matter how many people are in the chain, it’s always different by the time it reaches the last one. And usually it’s gotten a bit raunchier as well. In the real world there are people who make a living trying to make sure that people get the story straight. These are professional “Telephone” players, just as real estate developers are professional “Monopoly” players and actors are professional “Don’t Tip the Waiter” players. They work in a field called “Public Relations.”
You’ll often be told that, to get into Public Relations, you need to write and speak well. That’s true. But there’s more to the story. To get in and stay in you had better be a really quick-thinker, willing to regularly have the demeanor of a bulldog gripping a big soup bone, and at the same time be the biggest suck-up the world has seen. You need to be like a Transformer, able to instantaneously morph yourself and change how you handle situations to best meet the needs of your client (Sybil and her multiple personalities have nothing on you).
Sometimes she even thinks she's Mary Todd Lincoln.
Public Relations (or PR as it is commonly called) involves controlling information about something - usually a company or a prominent person (like an entertainer or politician). There are different areas of PR, some more exciting than others. The most common type of PR jobs fall under the oversized umbrella of a marketing department at a company. While companies use some of their marketing staff to create expensive collateral materials (think printed pieces, TV commercials, radio spots, etc.), the public relations group gets to do the fun stuff. More fun than making TV commercials, you ask? Yes siree. The E-Trade baby wishes he was in PR.
The entire focus of the PR specialist’s work is to build relationships with the people who buy the products, use the services, or have other affiliations with the company they represent. Depending on the type of “client” being represented (and yes, the company that you work for can be considered your client) there are plenty of ways to get the word out.
Writing press releases, planning book signings, booking your company big shots as guest lecturers, creating interview opportunities for personnel with particular expertise in something, email blasts, newsletter production, blogging, tweeting, attending speaking engagements held by closely affiliated business groups, scheduling personal appearances by the client, planning and orchestrating photo ops, brainstorming and executing publicity stunts (like when Taco Bell bought the Liberty Bell or when Burger King took the Whopper off the menu for a day), press kit development, providing support for new product launches, planning (and attending) red carpet events, booking concert promotions, and trade show participation are just some examples. They are quite a few examples, actually, but even still it only scratches the surface. A big part of the job is about doing the leg work that helps get the “faces” of the company (chief execs, creatives, your boss, etc.) out into the public eye. And you can’t just slap their literal faces onto a giant billboard and be done with that. It takes a bit more finesse than that.
The less common role of a PR person is the one you see on TV or in the movies. (As if anything on TV or in the movies does not perfectly reflect the way the real world works… please!) If you’ve ever seen the new version of Melrose Place, think about Ella, the character played by Katie Cassidy. Her job was one that most people who enter this field dream about doing. She worked for a big PR firm that got to represent all sorts of high-falutin clients. Her work took her to great places for exotic photo shoots, she got to meet the hottest talent in music and television, and she got to go to some of the swankiest parties around (on the level of P. Diddy’s New Year’s party), all while wearing the hottest clothing, usually provided by a designer her firm represented, eating at the finest restaurants while entertaining clients (with the meals paid for by her vast expense account), and much more.
Yes – these top-notch positions are out there, but they are few and far between, and it usually takes years and years of hard work in the PR trenches before you’re ready to take on this type of role (unlike Ella who seemed to have landed this job right out of the college gate. Hm… it’s as if the writers of Melrose Place wanted us to suspend our disbelief…).
For the more normal PR specialists (or the abnormal ones with the more normal jobs, anyway) there are times when the gig can approach this glorified position. This happens when the company wants to drum up a lot of publicity about something – typically a new product or service. To accomplish this, lots of planning takes place as to what types of PR should be done (like in our uber-long list above) to best get the word out. Once the game plan is made, it’s all hands on deck! Your contact list and calendar become your best friends. (Not your “best friend 4EVA” though. That’s Janet and always will be.) There’s a wide variety of projects to get done and typically there’s never enough time to get it all worked out. You need to be beyond excellent at what you do to keep everything moving and on schedule. And don’t think that it will all go smoothly. It never does. Problems crop up almost daily – the printer lost your files, the suite at a hotel your boss told you to book for a press conference is not available, the limo that’s supposed to drive your big shots to their speaking engagement broke down, there’s no electricity in your client’s room at the hotel suite – these are just some examples of the issues (hold curse words in) that can and do occur.
If you’re good at holding your temper and finding a way to get people to help you out of tough situations, then you’ll be okay. Part of working through this is what’s known by PR pros as “spin.” Many people think spin is basically creative lying, when in reality it’s more like diverting the negative attention that is being received and turning the situation to your advantage. It’s a “why-focus-on-that-hungry-escaped-tiger-heading-toward-us-when-it’s-such-a-beatiful-day!” way of looking at things. Here’s an example of spinning using a company that makes heart medication:
News breaks about a heart medication that is causing people to lose their hair by the handful. (Better than a hair growth product that is making people lose their hearts by the handful.) Rather than run and hide - or worse, deny that this is occurring - the PR execs at the company issue press releases in various forms (blog posts, tweets, print, TV spots, etc.) stating that they will quickly launch an investigation into the claims. It further states that production of the product will stop until the investigation is finished and all product on the shelves will immediately be pulled. Taking such action is costly for the company, but not as costly as if somebody’s entire scalp falls off and they end up suing for some ungodly sum.
As time goes on, the company keeps the public up-to-date as newsworthy developments occur in the investigation. This shows that they care about the victims and are trying to resolve an issue for them. Quite often, these releases are timed to coincide with other good news about the company, to soften the emotion that is wrapped up in the more scandalous issue. “We’re working on getting your hair to grow back, but in the meantime, we’re offering a 2-for-1 deal on Ibuprofin!” That’s spin, baby.
The company’s efforts to fix the problem continue until some resolution has been made and a final announcement can be delivered to the public. However, in the background (and this is the “sneaky” part that PR people excel at), the company actively searches out ways to align themselves with groups or organizations that have something to do with heart disease. They decide to sponsor at least three of them: The American Heart Association, WomenHeart, and some heart camps sponsored by the cardiology departments of two major children’s hospitals in prominent cities (because whose heart doesn’t bleed – figuratively, of course - when a sick child is thrust in front of their face).
This picture had better make you feel something, robot.
The company chooses to become the “official sponsor” supporting events that these organizations hold, which does a couple of things. It keeps their name in the public eye in a positive way and, more importantly, it diverts attention away from the negative issue that it is tackling behind the scenes. The value of the newfound public goodwill that is generated typically outweighs the dollars that the company expends on this sponsorship. So even charitable acts do not always come from a wholly unselfish place. But hey, is there really anything so bad about a situation where everyone wins? This is essentially why public relations pros have jobs. Rather than let word of mouth dictate the outcome of an event, PR people take charge and tell you what they want you to know and believe about a particular situation or client. And, when that’s not enough, they divert your attention to what they want you to see and believe. Even if it means resorting to helping those in need.