Most of You Will Fail.

February 6, 2012

Those are the five inspiring words I used to kick-off a recent discussion with PR students graduating from the University of Washington. It wasn’t meant to be a catchy headline or a wake-up call, although I did see a few reactions close to what you’d expect if I yelled FIRE in a theatre. I find this opening statement a much more real and interesting way to begin a conversation with students rather than have them ask the same tired question “so tell us how you got into PR and what you like about it?”  I really see it as a professional obligation to be straight-up with students rather than fill their heads with the nonsense they’ll hear from speaking with other PR agencies like “engage your audience and delight your clients…blah blah blah.”

The reality is most new PR wannabes will lack both the skill-set and confidence to have a long term career in the industry, unless of course they take the path of least resistance aka working for a large PR firm. In that case all they’ll need is a pulse. This is a topic I’ve talked about before and I wish I could report feeling better about the next generation of PR pros. What’s going on? There are multiple factors at play but I’ll focus on the top few issues.

  • Social Media is to Blame: Obviously one of the biggest changes in the industry  since Edward Bernays coined the phrase Public Relations is social media. If you’re reading this you get it. But while social media has changed the way folks consume information it hath made PR people become myopic; they view social media as the totality of PR not just another channel. Clearly at Barokas Communications we’re big fans of technology but we also embrace the old-school ways of doing things. While we don’t use typewriters we do use the telephone. Technology has enabled young PR professionals to hide behind tweets, updates, posts, and emails. But what happens when a client asks for counsel, real advice, live and in person? Or when the only way to sell a story is by t-a-l-k-i-n-g to a reporter.
  • Lack of Understanding what a Client Needs: Somewhere between college and an agency, many PR people forget what it is they are hired to do. We’re hired to get our clients ink (digital or otherwise). Yes – we do other things like help clients out of jams, get them to where they need to go, jump-start product launches (hey we’re like AAA), but our primary directive is get coverage. Seems like it should be obvious, no?
  • Inability to see the Forest through the Trees: Unlike factory workers on an assembly line repeating the same one task over and over, PR people should understand the larger vision of the client. It’s almost never just about this release or that upgrade. Too often, and typically driven by fear and a bitchy boss, PR people get stuck in the now and fail to think about the client’s long-term goals and how success will ultimately be measured. This tunnel vision leads to missed opportunities and an inability to provide true strategic counsel.
  • Failure to Communicate. It’s always interesting when communication professionals have problems communicating. Typically it’s a failure to set proper expectations like when a client believes their product or announcement is something that everyone will care about – but it really isn’t. Often PR folk sit silently in those meetings – with their silence signing them up to deliver what they can’t. Instead of having the hard conversation at that moment, they fail to get press- then have to explain to the client what happened. Client is disappointed, begins hating PR agencies, and the cycle starts. All of this could’ve been avoided with a proper expectation setting dialogue.
PR work is not brain surgery, but it does take a beautiful mind to make all the pieces work. So grads and future PR folk listen-up: if you want to have a successful run in the adrenaline filled, 24/7, crazy, intoxicating world of PR forget almost everything you learned in school. This isn’t a career about writing press releases or hiding behind social media. Speak up. Be confident. Have opinions. Don’t be afraid to disagree. See the bigger picture. And maybe take a few acting classes along the way – you’re going to need it.

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