The Truth – The Whole Truth – And Nothing But The Truth.

April 4, 2010

This is what kept going through my mind yesterday as I sat, quietly, through a PRSA seminar for PR newbies / wannabees. The event was called JumpStart and was intended to give people wanting to get into the industry insight into the glamorous world of PR – mainly from the agency perspective. In principle I think these are very good, or have the potential to be good, if done in matter of full transparency. The problem however, is it wasn’t and I question the real value to the attendees – all whom paid somewhere between $35 – $45 to attend. While that may not sound like a lot of money, I’m guessing it’s a meaningful amount for a student who is likely unemployed.

The morning – 9:30am on a Saturday – started fine with a nice opening by Kevin from the Seattle office of Sterling PR. He made great points about candidates needing to think like the client/reporter, use social media to get to know backgrounds, make sure candidates are looking for a good personal fit in a career, etc. All good info. But following Kevin’s intro I felt like the day was turning into more of the same dribble that somehow keeps getting retold about life in the agency business. I tried to put myself in the place of all those young, fresh, eager faces, wondering “am I really getting anything meaningful out this?” I was curious if this group truly walked away in a better position to succeed in PR than before they arrived, nicely dressed, on this Saturday morning. I hope so – but I’m skeptical. And this is a fundamental problem with our industry – lack of preparation. And I believe it starts at school.

I have an awesome team at BPR. In fact the best success we’ve had with stellar employees is by home-growing our own. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part we like bringing folks to the agency who are super smart, incredibly eager, and are not afraid to be a squeaky wheel. But our great team didn’t become great because of what they learned in school or through PRSA. I don’t want to get into the whole UW vs. WSU debate, although I’m a Husky and I’m surrounded by Cougs. I do think WSU has a better program for PR, but even a better program doesn’t mean it’s a great program. In fact, I’m not sure such a college level program exists. The truth is, 99% of college graduates are not ready to jump-in and start “doing” PR work that’s strategic, and done with any level of confidence – and it’s not their fault. They’ve been taught, in most cases, that to be successful in PR you have to follow the AP style guide, write in prose, use adjectives, and always listen to your superiors. Then they graduate, get involved in PRSA (which is a glorified job searching network) and they hear from supposed experts about how to make it in the PR world. The problem is, they only get a little bit of the story.

As I sat in the back of the room listening to the esteemed PR pros from agencies in town talk about the world of agency life, I wondered why they don’t give a complete picture? Why they don’t say that the likelihood – based on history – is that 75-80% of the people in the room won’t make it in PR; they’ll either quit or be fired in the first 2 years. Or that most of these people, if they end up at an agency will eat their lunch most days at their desk, they’ll have a manager who dumps a mountain of work on them, they will likely be driven by fear (fear of losing the client, fear of upsetting the client, fear of missing a story, fear of talking in a client meeting, fear of getting on the phone to a reporter, fear of having to write a press release, and so on). Why aren’t they told that the typical life span of a PR person goes something like this (for women – who dominate the industry): get the entry level job, work your ass off for a few years while your boss takes credit for your work, become an account manager and at or around 3-4 years get burned out and quit, go in-house to become “the client”, or decide PR is your life and stay at the agency. Then a few years later, get pregnant, take maternity leave, and either not come back or come back part time. But after coming back part time and realizing you could do the same job as a consultant, quit the agency, open a home office and have your – now former agency – become your first client. And that’s how it really goes. Again – not always, but a majority of the time. This is not based on my narrow view of the world but on conversations I’ve had with other agency principals, and by observing what’s happened at other agencies.

Guys – nothing against you – it’s just in my nearly 20 year experience I’ve seen way more great PR women than guys. That’s not saying that we don’t exist – it’s just the numbers aren’t on our side. Women make excellent PR executives which is why our industry is dominated by females. But guess what – no one talked about any of this yesterday. So what did they talk about? Glad you asked.

I sat in on a few of the break-out sessions ranging in topics from: Healthcare PR, Hospitality PR, Social Media, Big Agency, etc. Since I’m not a fan of big agencies I thought it would be fun to hear their secret sauce. I won’t name names, but the Big Agency table was staffed by a 5 year PR pro (a guy – imagine that) who was representing the 800-pound PR gorilla located in Bellevue, Washington. He talked about how great it was to work at a big firm since there were SO many people who could do a lot of the work that he had to do when he was at a smaller firm. Really – this is a good thing? Outsourcing your work? I was floored to hear that at this particular firm, the account execs don’t write the press releases -they have a team who does nothing but write releases – seems odd, but whatever. I bit my lip when one starry-eyed, pretty blonde in a black suit asked “so how did you make all the way to a big agency? That’s what I’d really like to do.” Mr 5 year expert talked about how he “knew someone” who was there, who also worked on the account of the large software company in Redmond. He didn’t give the secret formula exactly, but did sound like a baseball player who had made his way through the Minor League (where he had to work on multiple accounts -ooooooh) to the Big Leagues where he had the luxury of having other people amongst the hundreds, worldwide, do his stuff. Sounds awesome! I should’ve grabbed an application right then.

Following that riveting session I made my way to the Hospitality PR table where we spent 8 of the 10 minutes talking about the importance of editorial calendars. Okay – but what about all the other stuff? Nope – all ed cals, all the time.

By the time lunch arrived I lost my appetite and decided enough was enough, so I left. I was really disappointed, not that I had woken up early on a Saturday (after heading to bed at 2am) to be there at 9am, not that I had missed my iPad delivery when I got home since a signature was required for delivery, not because there was no coffee at the event, but that all of these great students spent the morning in dressy clothes for a mediocre session that probably didn’t prepare them for the career they’re about to embark upon. I feel strongly about this issue and would love – I’d even say “I’d be thrilled” – if an organization provided students with the PR Real World so they knew what to expect, and how to best succeed. Believe me it’s got nothing to with an AP style guide.


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