Having worked seven years as a PR and communications professional, I may not be an “expert,” according to Malcom Gladwell, who proposes that expertise takes 10,000 hours or about 10 years of practice. But I’ve experienced many ups and downs, which have taught me valuable lessons.
In 2014, at 19, I landed my first communications job with the government of Canada and worked at different departments and agencies. In 2017, I left government comms to pursue PR. I’ve worked at a couple of PR agencies supporting b-to-c clients in different industries and currently am responsible for managing PR and corporate comms for Innocean Worldwide Canada, a global marketing and communications company based in Toronto.
I’ve observed the industry first-hand and am sharing the following top seven lessons:
There is no magic bullet
Communications classes teach a hypodermic needle or magic bullet theory of mass communication. This proposes that an intended message will be directly received and accepted by the receiver. In reality, many other factors will affect the delivery of the message such as context, personal filters and noise. The same is true for choosing a communications and PR strategy.
Communications is not just iterative
Often in communications or PR, you begin with a plan, laying out your objectives, strategies and tactics, then measure your results. This may sound cyclical, but evaluating the results should yield ideas and starting points for future projects. While rolling out your communications plans, you may stumble upon new ideas or problems which change your course entirely.
Not every story should be told
The negative term “spin doctors” implies that PR professionals will twist the truth to tell a story to push their own agenda. This is false and a misleading view of PR. While it is the job of PR professionals to create opportunities to tell our clients stories, some stories just shouldn’t be told. If a story doesn’t add value for the client, the publication you are pitching and their readers, it isn’t worth pitching or trying to “spin” into something it’s not.
Timing is everything
This one is a bit of a cliché but still rings true. You might have a great client with a great story to tell, but it must make sense, assessing the environment. This has been particularly true over the last year, with COVID-19 impacting every industry in different ways. Communications and PR professionals might have had to put pitches on hold that became tone deaf or irrelevant with the changing circumstances. Timing also comes down to things as simple as pairing a pitch with a national or international event you already know journalists will be writing about or reaching out with a timely story as a follow-up to a reporter’s recent story.
Relationship building takes more than an invite to a media event
Relationship building is incredibly important, but it takes time. One strategy is inviting a journalist to a media event. This gives you some clout and the opportunity to speak to the reporter one-on-one in a social environment. Although it’s an excellent starting point, relationship building means much more, including paying attention to what that journalist is writing about; tailoring your pitches; and establishing open and honest communications. When just starting out, talking to journalists can be scary. You may fear you’ll say the wrong thing, risk looking like you don’t know what you’re doing or say something that could get your client in trouble.
There have been times when I’ve been approached with hard questions from journalists about why my client declined an interview. Instead of trying to evade responses, I answered the question honestly, off the record. My relationship with these journalists is stronger because they know they can trust me. One of the best ways to start a relationship is to talk to them honestly and openly to find mutually beneficial ways of working together.
The client isn’t always right
Remember that your clients are seeing things, primarily through their own lens. They will think of a project in terms of what’s best for them and want PR professionals to get them the best results. It’s the responsibility of communications and PR to understand when it’s best to comply with a client request and when to say no. Often, what your client is asking of you will not be the best approach. It can be hard to have that conversation with your client. But, ultimately, they are relying on your expertise and need to be told when some ideas are non-starters.
Age or position does not define your experience nor your expertise
This one is for my fellow 20-somethings and other entry-level professionals. You will face times in your career where you may be questioned or dismissed due to your age and position. These things do not define your experience or expertise on a topic. Don’t let the fear of being cast as “inexperienced” stop you from sharing your ideas, trying new strategies or speaking out when something isn’t right. You’re where you are today because you worked hard, did your research and are ready to take action. We all make mistakes, no matter who we are or how many years of experience we have. Remember that failure is just a lesson in disguise.
These lessons merely scratch the surface. As with any industry, communications and PR is complicated. It takes time to learn, even if you’ve put in the 10,000-plus hours as Malcolm Gladwell suggests.
Brittany St. Louis is a communications coordinator at Innocean Worldwide Canada in Toronto.