The field of public relations is often linked to celebrity networking and glamorous gala dinners. Although it does have its perks, PR encompasses far more than that and is a challenging and varied career.
Defining public relations can be a tricky feat but I believe it can be done in less than five words. Simply put, ‘PR is third party endorsement’. As a PR professional, you are responsible for building and managing a client’s reputation to encourage positive endorsement from their stakeholders.
PR professionals are often called “spin doctors,” and there’s certainly an element of magic to what we do. Public Relations involves gaining mindshare, influencing the influencers and building positive networks. Businesses and governments around the world rely heavily on public relations and positive publicity.
Richard Edelman, the boss of Edelman, the world’s biggest independent PR firm, claims that instead of being an afterthought or a secondary tactic, PR has become “the organising principle” behind many business decisions. This has been reflected not only in increased spending on PR, but also in a change in the way PR is perceived.
In today’s interconnected world, an organisation’s ‘public’ is a lot more complex and this enhances the role of Public Relations. “If I was down to my last dollar, I’d spend it on public relations” said Bill Gates co-founder and chairman of Microsoft, co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A career in public relations is very varied depending on the client’s industry, the role and the geography, but one thing holds true: there is never a dull moment in the day of a PR professional. No two days are exactly the same and each day comes with its unique set of opportunities and, of course, challenges.
The skill set of a good PR professional
A good PR professional should have a strong and confident personality, a focused mindset and a good network of contacts amongst the media and other stakeholders. Good Interpersonal skills and a high emotional IQ are both key as you will be called upon to first understand, and then balance, the needs of your client and those of the media and other audiences. You need to feel comfortable working behind the scenes to get the job done on behalf of the client but also confident enough to step into the limelight when needed and often with very little notice!
Knowing how to craft and tell a story is key in winning the hearts and minds of your target audience. This requires good communication skills, both verbal and written. You also need to be creative and able to come up with ideas that are unique and newsworthy and ultimately likely to create standout for the client.
PR professionals should know their brand’s ‘story’ inside and out and always be armed with facts to ensure they are represented correctly. When you are first starting out in PR a lot of your work will involve developing press releases and contacting the media via phone and email to get coverage for your client’s benefit. This is called ‘selling in’.
However, it is important that this does not equate it to a sales pitch and a PR person should not be overly pushy. The trick is knowing your target media well and tailoring your approach according to their sector and readership profile. Always do your research before selling in a story and start with a good media list of relevant outlets that may be interested in your topic. Then find the direct contact details of the particular journalist who deals with that section for each outlet and get in touch to pitch your ideas/press release.
Building and managing a brand’s reputation
In order to build and manage a brand’s reputation on an ongoing basis you need a strong network amongst key influencers – media, bloggers, public figures, potential customers, industry partners, government, policy makers, and analysts. The key to developing good influencer relations is to be genuine and understand what motivates each segment; this way you are able to engage with them on a topic of interest.
A PR person is an important brand ambassador and you should possess the ability to become an expert in the your clients’ respective field. If you are working with a financial company, for example, it is important that you have a good understanding of how that industry works and the issues and developments shaping its future. This will allow you to be able to pitch stories to the journalists writing in that field. In an agency you may find yourself with clients covering several different verticals e.g. retail, F&B, finance and healthcare and you would be surprised how quickly you can become immersed in their worlds.
What in PR do you wish to do?
There are many different ways to work in PR and you will need to consider whether you would be best suited to working in a PR agency environment where you will likely have to juggle multiple clients and work across different industries. An alternative is to work in-house for a particular brand, which has an internal PR team; here you will be a dedicated ambassador for your particular company and depending on the size of that organisation you may also have to work with and manage an external PR agency to support you in your communications task.
There are also many opportunities as a freelance PR person where you are self employed and work for different brands on a project basis, however, to be a good freelancer you will need to gather experience working in an agency or within an organisation first so you understand the business well. As you progress in your career you may wish to specialise in a certain area of PR such as celebrity publicity or crisis communications, which require their own additional areas of expertise.
Qualifications for a PR professional
As far as qualifications are concerned, good PR professionals come from many different education backgrounds. The field of public relations is supported by a good knowledge of the news, as well as wider marketing communications, business and language so studying in any of these fields has its benefits.
Past the qualification stage, a constant curiosity and an interest in daily news and current affairs is important. In order to be able to shape the news PR professionals must understand it and be able to add insight. Like many professions the world of PR needs to be experienced to be truly understood and there is no better way of learning than getting work experience.
Make a shortlist of companies you would like to gain experience at and contact them directly to see if there are any internships available but be prepared to accept unpaid opportunities as well as paid. PR is an exciting and fulfilling profession but it is also highly competitive so get as much experience as possible to enable you to stand out from the crowd and demonstrate the basic skills.
Social media adaptability for PR
In today’s PR landscape knowledge of Social Media is key – as media continues to evolve and consumers become more connected via smartphones and devices, PR Professionals need to be able to utilize social media tools to propagate stories and connect with influencers online to complement their offline conversations.
One of the great things about public relations is the diversity of the field and the transferrable skills it can help develop. PR professionals are not restricted to the publicity sphere and can easily branch out if they are interested in doing so – potential alternative streams include media, government affairs and political institutions. PR professionals can also enter the education field to share their knowledge and insights with the wider community.
There is a growing number of independent PR professionals and PR entrepreneurs who have started their own business in the UAE. Because PR basically relies on your personal contacts, communication skills and time, you and any other staff you employ are the vital component to running a successful business so your overheads are relatively low.
These are definitely exciting times in the field of Public Relations, as we are seeing a new landscape unfold with New Media and a ‘Connected Public’ resulting from it. The industry seems to be evolving step by step with the changing nature of media and the need for more PR professionals from the region increases with each step. This is a great time to be working in communications!
The writer is Public Relations Lead at Microsoft Gulf & WMA faculty member