So, a few months ago a student on Middlesex University’s journalism degree approached me with some questions about how a journalism student could prepare for work in public relations. Anyone who knows me will be entirely unsurprised to discover that I answered at somewhat stupid length. I think some of the stuff here might be of more general use to those at the start of their careers (although some of it is particular to students at Middlesex) so I thought I’d put it up here.
What are the most important skills you need to work in PR?
Rather than try to answer this myself I’m going to defer to the annual “State of the Profession” report from the Chartered Institute of Pubic Relations (CIPR – attached, along with the 2019 “PR and Communication Census” from the PRCA – Public Relations & Communications Association) which will both give you some insight into the current state of the profession.
The CIPR report (p28) sets out the top five skills most valued by recruiters as:
- Copywriting and editing
- Social media relations
- Media relations
- PR programmes/campaign planning
- Research, evaluation and measurement
Writing well, being able to write in a variety of voices for different media, and having a working grasp of grammar and punctuation are still the fundamental skills for PR staff. Increasingly, those working in public relations have shifted from being “content prompters” (encouraging others to create material) to being “content creators” and while there can be lots of bells and whistles to this in terms of production skills, the basic requirement is to be able to craft a convincing message – and, most often, that requires a skill with words. No one (almost no one, anyway) is born a good writer – writing is a muscle that is strengthened by reading good writing (and paying attention to why it is good) and practice.
There’s still an assumption amongst some – older – people working in PR that the young (being “digital natives”) have a sort of innate understanding of how social media works that older generations lack. I’ve, generally, not found this to be true (being a consumer is not the same as being a creator) but you can take advantage of this prejudice if you can demonstrate an ability to use social media effectively. Having your own accounts with strong followings and interesting content (but possibly not too interesting) will be regarded as a definite positive by many employers.
Media relations – being able to demonstrate that you understand the needs of journalists, influencers and clients and that you have the ability to develop networks, manage relationships and build contacts remains a fundamental part of the PR role. The way these relationships work is different from sector to sector (financial PR works differently from fashion PR which works differently from political PR). The old-fashioned idea of schmoozing clients over long, expenses-funded, lunches (that, on a good day, became long, expenses-funded dinners) is, in these more austere times, very sadly, largely a thing of the past. But managing professional relationships is still crucial. Some people have a natural talent for the personal connection stuff, other people (like me) have to fake it by keeping meticulous files on contacts, their interests and previous collaborations.
Programme and campaign planning is not something I’d expect a new hire to be able to manage off the bat, but it’s useful if they have an idea how planning works and how their contributions have to fit into the broader scheme of things. If you want an introduction to the theory and basic outline of planning, I highly recommend Anne Gregory’s “Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns” – they’ve just published a new edition.
Increasingly pubic relations is expected to demonstrate a clear “return on investment” to managers or clients. So, the measurement and evaluation of projects has become more and more important. In journalism – where clicks tend to be king – measurement tends to be relatively straightforward. For PR it can be more complex – since individual public relations activities are often part of a longer-term strategy. The PR industry has developed the “Barcelona Principles” (introduction here: https://www.prnewsonline.com/barcelona-principles-2-0/) and the AMEC framework (https://amecorg.com/amecframework/home/framework/introduction/) as attempts to standardise and regularise measurement across the industry – but even where these are not formally applied, it is increasingly expected that PR campaigns and individual pieces of work will have clearly defined and measurable outcomes.
Is there any advice you have for me changing from a journalism field to pr?
So, as noted above, the ability to write and to manipulate words remains a key connecting tissue between the PR and journalism industries and if you have other content creation skills from your journalism background (audio, video, social or digital media) then you will definitely be able to leverage those in the PR field.
One of the most common complaints about PRs from journalists is that they get bombarded by useless stuff that isn’t relevant to their job (https://www.prweek.com/article/1668923/pr-pros-dont-understand-story-is-say-majority-journalists) and I think this is a fair criticism of a lot of bad PR. If you can demonstrate an ability to do the research into what the journalists/influencers you are targeting need and can use, then you’ll be doing your clients a favour.
I think one of the things that most journalists don’t get about PR is that, when done well, it is (usually) a much longer term and more strategic role than journalism. Good PR isn’t just about churning out today’s story (in the form of a press release) but developing long-term approach that establishes your client in a particular niche or as having a particular relevance. So, good PR isn’t just reactive – it involves being prepared for events and having crisis plans and developing campaigns that fit into strategies that deliver results over relatively long periods. You do, sometimes, get the buzz from tight deadlines and needed to respond instantly to crises but in between it’s about creating relationships that sometimes don’t pay off for years.
Do you have any suggestions on how you stand out in the industry?
My instinctive response to this – because of my background – is don’t stand out. My experience is in PR for political/social campaigning (unions, charities, causes) and one of the mantras on that side of the industry is “never become the story” and, as such, I’m always a bit suspicious of PRs who spend a lot of time promoting themselves.
That said, I recognise that not all areas of the PR industry are like that and that you do need to build a reputation within the industry.
I’m a big believer in professional standards – I’m a Chartered member of the CIPR – which means I do my “continuous professional development” (CPD) each year and get a little badge that says (to me, and I hope to others) that I’m a good boy who takes his job seriously.
As a student at Middlesex you are automatically entitled to membership of the PRCA – you can sign up here (https://www.prca.org.uk/membership/join – make sure to use your Mdx email address). Their website has lots of interesting and useful links and (in normal times) lots of opportunities to connect with others. You can also, I think, get free access to view their online training – which is normally £200 or so a session.
I’m very sceptical about specific “networking events” as they very often attract people who only have a very instrumental view of building contacts (what can they get out of it for themselves) but – in normal times – London is great for attending industry related events where you can rub shoulders with, get to know and maybe build up relationships with people at high-levels in the industry. Again, the PRCA website is a good place to start – if we’re ever allowed to gather in the same room as other humans again. But right now it’s actually easier to attend things because Zoom calls tend to be a bit less exclusive or exclusionary and – at least for me (I’m not great at the schmoozing bit) – a lot less stressful, though clearly the intensity of engagement is lower online.
Managing your own PR persona is important. A professional website (don’t do what I do, do what I say!) that shows off your skills/abilities/personality can be useful – especially if you can keep it up-to-date with something like a blog that discusses issues in the industry. Similarly, a strong LinkedIn profile can help and good, professional social media accounts that you use to engage in discussions about the industry and build up connections (not just spam people for job opportunities).
Finally, and I say this to all my students, there’s a mindset amongst some people that you can’t do PR or show off your abilities unless someone else has given you instructions – so students sit around complaining about lack of internship opportunities or the chance to show what they can do. This is not true. I am an internship-sceptic – too many of them offer poor opportunities to learn or a real foot in the door. Rather than waiting for the perfect internship, I encourage professionals starting out to “intern for themselves” – find a cause or an issue you care about (a local charity or a community group) and volunteer. Develop a portfolio of stuff that you’ve done that shows you are a self-starter and that you have the skills employers are looking for so that you’re starting to define your future career on your own terms. I graduated into he middle of a recession in the early 1990s and spent two years volunteering – building up a body of work and contacts while doing jobs I didn’t much like (barman, supermarket shelf stacker…) – until I made my first break into working in journalism.
Lastly, is there anything I can do or read to keep myself informed?
This lot should get you started…
PR Week (https://www.prweek.com/uk) is probably the key industry magazine. It’s online content is mostly behind a paywall but you can register for free for limited access and there’s the blog (https://www.prweek.com/uk/blog). I also like the CIPR’s magazine “Influence” – but the print version is only available members and the online version is relatively limited in content (https://influenceonline.co.uk/).
Stephen Waddington is a key UK commentator and writer on PR in the UK
Famous campaigns: https://www.famouscampaigns.com/
Power & Influence: https://ellaminty.com/
All Things IC: https://www.allthingsic.com/blog/
Neville Hobson: https://www.nevillehobson.com/
Dan Slee: https://danslee.wordpress.com/
Jessica Pardoe: https://jessicapardoe.com/
Wildfire PR: https://www.wildfirepr.com/blog/
PR Week’s “The PR Show” is a good general interest effort: https://soundcloud.com/prweekuk
#FuturePRoof Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/futureproof-podcast/id1176718600
For Immediate Release – https://firpodcastnetwork.com/for-immediate-release/
Today In Focus: https://www.theguardian.com/news/series/todayinfocus