Each week, Dear Gracie answers questions from ProfNet Connect readers with advice from the network of nearly 50,000 ProfNet experts.
I teach a class on corporate communications and PR. Knowing how to communicate well is an obvious skill that every PR person needs—but what about the non-obvious skills? What do my students need to learn for PR that doesn’t come to mind immediately? In other words, what skills do they need to know to survive in the real PR world that we don’t normally associate with PR? How will it help them?
Dear Superfluously Skilled,
Eight ProfNet experts give it to you straight:
1. Management and teamwork experience
“If you run an account or a PR business, managing others is a huge part of the job,” says Jennefer Witter, president of The Boreland Group. “Knowing how to manage is an art.”
PR pros who do not know how to work with their team members to get the very best (in what we all know is a very stressful occupation) will suffer from a high churn rate, says Witter. PR reps need to earn team members’ trust and loyalty to make them stick around.
Instability within a PR team can impact accounts, says Witter—because who wants to work with a new face who has to learn everything from scratch every few months?
“Chemistry among team members is important,” Witter concludes. “One bad apple can upset an entire apple cart.”
2. Financial skills
The ability to price PR services is an important skill that often gets overlooked, says Witter. “Finances are the key to a healthy agency, and if you don’t price properly, you can lose income.” At the end of the day, PR reps don’t want to find themselves in debt.
“When coming to a figure, it’s important not to only look at the overall picture, but the granular details as well,” Witter continues.
One of the first questions Witter asks clients is: “What is your budget?”
“If the number does not meet my base, it’s best to be honest and let them know that a professional relationship, at that price, will not work out,” she says. Explain why, and offer solutions. Maybe the client could have a project-based account, or go to a consultant instead of a full-service firm.
To determine appropriate pricing, Witter says PR reps should consider questions like:
• How many hours will you and your staff put against the project?
• Will you need outside resources?
• Are you marking up expenses or funneling through as is?
• What expenses will the client not pay for?
3. Multitasking abilities
To be successful in PR, you’ve got to be able to multitask, says Jeremiah Sullivan, owner of Framework Media Strategies. PR jobs require agents to think on their feet and manage more than one project at the same time.
“To be a professional communicator working and living in a world where communication never stops, you’ve got to expect that your job isn’t going to be a typical 9-to-5,” he says. “No day in the office will ever be ‘boring.’ Different assignments call upon different skills sets, and different clients have different demands-sometimes at the same time.”
“I could be pitching four or five different story opportunities to journalists across the country, while also maintaining administrative tasks and managing social media,” says Sullivan. There will be different facets and nuances to understand on any given day.
4. Extraneous knowledge
“Study something in addition to communications,” says Doug Boyd, former instructor of a public relations writing course at East Carolina University in Greenville, and current medical writer and editor for the university’s Division of Health Sciences, as well as a campus research magazine.
Boyd encouraged his students to get a certificate, minor or bachelor’s degree in a non-journalism, non-PR or non-communications field (although they should still taking a few communications courses).
Certain skills from an avocation (like golf, volunteering with animals, etc.) or a former profession also help in PR, says Susan Tellem, partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations, Inc.
For example, as a registered nurse, Tellem uses her knowledge of medicine and science to relate to her healthcare clients faster and with more depth than someone who does not have that kind of training.
“We have retained clients many times because of my nursing background,” she says. “It shortens the learning curve and coincidentally keeps my nursing skills fresh because I learn new technologies and treatments.”
Similarly, Neil Gussman, strategic communications and media relations manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, served eight years in the Army as a tank commander before going to college. During his military service, Gussman worked on live-fire missile testing, gaining experience in electronics, chemistry and math. Afterwards, these skills got him gigs as a technical writer.
“People who could write about technology had permanent employment,” he says. “It turns out if you know calculus, and the tech jargon of a particular specialty, you can talk to experts in the field and write coherent prose.”
When he eventually crossed over to PR, his military experience helped him again by attracting tech clients. “I once got a client directly with calculus,” he says. “We were pitching a safety-equipment manufacturer for both PR and advertising. In one creative meeting, I pointed out that if someone falls four feet, they are going 10 mph when they hit—not bad if it’s feet first, but other parts get damaged at that speed.” The client was very impressed.
“People training for a PR career can take math, physics or chemistry as electives and be way ahead of their peers,” says Gussman.
5. Math competency
“People often joke that communications professionals got into the business because they didn’t like subjects like mathematics in school or have an innate fear of numbers,” says Sullivan. (He admits that this might have been true for him, too.)
“What is becoming a reality is the fact that numbers—more aptly referred to as the ‘thirst for data’—have permeated the PR skill set at an increasing rate over the last several years,” he continues.
With the rise of new media, communicators are being asked to adopt an integrated marketing communication mindset that brings it all—PR, advertising, marketing, new media, etc.—under one roof to ensure a strategic approach in this non-stop, instantaneous world we live in, says Sullivan.
“There is an enormous race to not only attain data from customers and competitors alike, but to also crunch the numbers and research the plethora of information ascertained from Web analytics to communicate better, smarter, and faster with target audiences,” says Sullivan. These days, being able to interpret data and statistics is essential.
Here’s a pop quiz: Boyd once attended a board meeting with an HR person who said that the company had 12-percent minority employment, but 18 percent was the goal. The HR person said that they were just 6 percent short of their goal. What’s wrong with this interpretation?
(The answer is at the bottom of the article. No cheating!)
“We all have a tendency to steer our efforts towards situations where we believe we’ll get positive reactions, but publicists don’t have that luxury,” says Todd Fraser, account director at INK Inc. Public Relations.
“Most any PR flack will tell you that they live in a world of ‘no,'” he explains. “How you respond to rejection will determine your level of success—and sanity.”
“You can’t be afraid of ‘no,’ or people who won’t return your calls,” agrees Brian Gross, president of BSG PR. When it comes to rejection, fearlessness helped Gross when he branched out to new industries and worked on his own clients, and eventually when he created his own company.
You build relationships with the media by making calls and not being afraid to discuss your clients with reporters, says Gross. “Sometimes the little things can lead to incredible opportunities.”
The job demands that you keep returning to the negative, in the hopes of grabbing at the positive, explains Fraser. “For every hit there will be countless misses. The trick is to learn to accept the rejection and alter the approach when necessary,” he says.
7. Discretion and good judgment
“Clients do not need to know every detail of what a publicist does on their behalf,” says Fraser.
It doesn’t mean being dishonest (because any PR pro knows that going down that road will invariably come back to bite you or your client); it means that clients do not need to know if they were an afterthought for a story, or if their expertise is constantly getting rejected, or if a TV producer was interested in them until they saw their picture.
“That’s why it’s important to keep as much information close to your chest, and just let the client know when to be available and what they’ll need to do an encouraging way,” says Fraser.
Likewise, encouragement and handholding is sometimes necessary, but don’t put big ideas into your client’s head when they don’t need to be there, adds Fraser.
Putting your client down or pumping them up ultimately doesn’t serve anyone’s best interests, he says.
8. Common sense, perception and intuition
PR professionals deal with the task of monitoring and advancing clients’ credibility and reputations (in addition to their own) on a daily basis, says Sullivan.
“It’s not just about ‘talk, talk, talk,’ and get the message out there,” he says. PR reps need to “do their homework” long before ever opening their mouths to share their thoughts.
“You’ve got to use a lot of common sense not to appear tone deaf or insensitive once you put your message out there,” Sullivan explains. (A few recent Twitter blunders by celebs come to mind.)
PR is about being strategic in communications and “connecting the dots,” Sullivan continues. And critical thought and common sense are key attributes of that.
“PR folks are like the matchmakers between information and information seekers,” agrees Vicki Rackner, executive director at The Pain Stompers Foundation, founder of The Caregiver Club and owner of Medical Bridges. Being able to read between the lines is another important part of this matchmaking duty.
For example, one time Rackner was invited to talk about “how to partner with your doctor” on a radio show about poker. She wondered: What’s the connection between healthcare and poker? Only after the interview was over did she discover the real reason she had been booked: the host had a vocal polyp and wanted information about it from her.
Another time, Rackner was interviewed for a story about “parents who date after the death of a partner.” The writer kept asking follow-up questions, even though Rackner had given her plenty of good quotes. The writer eventually said, “I don’t really know what the editor wants.” They discovered later that the editor’s father had started dating three months after the editor’s mom died.
“People care most about themselves; find the personal issues bleeding into professional efforts,” she recommends. Connecting the dots isn’t always easy or straightforward, so use your head.
PR pros are always expected to have their hand on the pulse of their publics—no matter how many arteries there now may be, especially with the advent of new media, says Sullivan.
It’s not always easy to stay on top of every trend or innovation in an industry, but there are tools and programs out there to help PR pros streamline their duty of keeping tabs on clients’ interests as well as their own, Sullivan continues.
For example, crowdsourcing social networks and micro-blogs is a recommended tactic to capture the true pulse of the target audiences you aim to communicate with daily, says Sullivan. These tools only go so far, however, so it’s important for PR pros to have “go getter” personalities and a sense of creativity, he says.
It’s important to find new ways to promote your client, so creativity is an essential skill, agrees Gross.
Pop quiz answer: The HR person was incorrect to say they were 6 percent short of their goal because they were actually 6 percentage points short of their goal. They were short 6 percent out of 18 percent, so that’s actually 33 percent short! *High five* if you got that right!
Grace Lavigne is a senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect. A version of this story also appeared on the blog Beyond PR.