4 major PR headaches—and their remedies

We know about the circus worker who endlessly cleans up after the elephants but refuses to quit: ‘What, and give up show business?’ Here are comparable aspects of the PR profession.


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“We’ve done so much, with so little, for so long, we can do anything with nothing.”

It’s a maxim, borrowed from the Marines, that fits neatly within the daily grind of public relations, because although it’s the last function to get a line item on a budget, PR is the first to get a call when things start heading south.

Here’s a look behind the scenes at four unglamorous PR duties:

1. Securing approval for press releases.

Throughout my career I’ve marveled that it takes three times as long to get a press release approved as it does to write a first draft. The machinations these things go through would be comical, if it weren’t for the reality. People, often highly educated and well-intended people, are willingly to either wage a virtual war over trivialities or to simply be unresponsive.

My secret for managing this: Take that “edited” press release—all that mediocre prose stuffed with excessive adjectives and laced with industry jargon that last raged in 1999—and set it aside. Here’s what you do next: Use your first draft as your pitch.

2. “I didn’t know who to send this to.”

When a business encounters a problem it doesn’t know what to do with, there are two options: Send it to the legal department or send it to the PR department.

“Hey, I didn’t know who to send this to; can you take a look?” is a fairly common introduction to a long email thread. I’ve been roped into some wacky projects this way, and I wish now that I had kept a journal of them.

My secret for managing this: Encourage the requestor to check with legal.

3. “Hey, could you help me with this [pet project].”

PR is a high-visibility job that comes with benefits and drawbacks.

One drawback is the familiarity effect: The “mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.”

In business, PR people have familiar faces, so other business functions easily overlook organizational process or existing resources in favor of asking PR for some help on the side. Usually it’s for one-off pet projects, but it could also be for campaigns that ought to be prioritized and synchronized.

A handful of, “Hey, could you help me with this?” requests can eat up a week’s worth of work and leave you with nothing to show for your time and effort.

My secret for managing this: Request a “creative brief,” or point to the operations person responsible for prioritizing such requests. From time to time it’s worthwhile to embrace one of these projects—depending on who is making the request.

4. Getting a good spokesperson.

In my experience, either everyone wants to be a spokesperson or no one wants to be a spokesperson. Both extremes are vexing. In the former, it becomes a contest of gladiator proportions, often loaded with business politics.
The choice of one person over another comes with consequences. On the other hand, it’s equally frustrating when PR is relegated to cajoling someone into being a spokesperson.

My secret for managing this: If they don’t let you in the front door and have blocked off the back door, go through the side—or otherwise do what you think is best for the organization.

By the way, the Marines have another saying that applies to PR: “Adapt, improvise and overcome.”

A version of this article originally appeared on the Sword and the Script blog.

Topics: PR

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