• Lyle Neff

How do you get into public relations?

Updated: Jun 11

So how do you get a good job in PR? The long answer is, go to school, then cultivate your curiosity, imagination and a tremendous work ethic. The short answer, apparently, is: start as a journalist or poet, then fail.

This is your after-action briefing, with quotes and notes, on Mind Meld Vlog #5. The video touches on bylines, blunders, coincidences and the Calgary Herald. We’ve added a footnote or two. Annnd we’re live!

Public-relations jobs can be trained for -- or wandered into

I like to say I'm a failed journalist and that has the benefit of being true. I made a living as a fill-in guy at Sterling NewsWire. Like, I was in the Calgary Herald with no byline. It was weird to me -- there weren’t actually a lot of PR companies that seemed to focus on tech -- which seems to be my thing that I get excited about. So I made a bit of a jump and it seems to be working -- back then I was thinking about getting into this… When you're putting your pants on you eventually have to choose a leg, and you have to stick with that choice. So if it took longer than I would have liked to get from journalism to PR -- well, I had a skillset I developed over years, a process that seemed to be getting results, and it seemed like there was a need for it.

And a friend of mine who was a VP for a software company mentioned that they needed press releases because -- they were working with an agency based out of New York that was charging them 750 bucks per press release. Maybe 15 years ago. I said, 750 just to write the press release, nothing else, no distribution, no strategy? I said, I’ve seen 10,000 press releases. I can beat that price… So I started writing press releases and they actually got some hits. Then they had me writing web copy and I started getting to the marketing side and so -- long story short, partner -- I transitioned over a period of several years from journalism into marketing.

You can get a university major, even a master’s, in public relations -- it’s sometimes called “media relations” or just “communications” -- and thousands do. No doubt this is helpful for the technical side of things, especially these days when you typically need to master business-intelligence, CRM, media-distribution and analytics software just to start your workday.

But writing is at the core of PR outreach activity. You need to compose to deadline - that is to say, quickly. You need to write a lot - a reporter like the late, great Christie Blatchford, who seemed to have no problem working up 5000-word pieces in the space of a day, would be known in journalistic circles as a “Bigfoot”, for the size of her imprint. But every PR writer has to be a Bigfoot. And you need to write about complex subjects you may have just learned about 30 minutes previously.

But most of all, PR pros need to write well, and nothing gives you that skill except practice. So it’s perhaps not surprising that many PR people are in fact officially uncredentialed -- uneducated, really! -- and learned their chops in analogous trades like journalism.

Public-relations jobs require exacting writing

“Did I fall into tech PR or was I dragged into it kicking and screaming? That is arguable -- I would say it’s arguable. It was certainly a string of coincidences and blunders, you know, buddy. I wrote for city weeklies and sometimes national outlets -- I wonder if you and I ever appeared in the same edition of the same paper. I wrote for the Sun and I had a column in the Westender. I’m sure we did -- like ships passing in the night.

But I was doing book reviews, author interviews, like literary commentary. And writing and publishing poetry of course. I had an office job, this was around 2005 or ‘10, and as a sideline, journalism -- it started to dwindle. And also the literary world around then started requiring a certain obedience to certain principles I don’t subscribe to. I don’t care for saluting and little stock phrases and the sayers of the things that are said. It’s distasteful. So I spent some years on construction sites, and cleaning houses.

So when you asked me to come on board full-time at Mind Meld I said - “But I’m a poet, man! What if my poet friends see me gallivanting about Madison Avenue or wherever?” But to my surprise I found it fun. This is a stretch, but when you’re writing a villanelle or a sonnet, like commercial writing, it’s an extremely rigid form, the rules are hard and fast, and all the juice comes from working within constraints.”

Writing the attention-grabbing lead, or opening sentence, is one of the trickiest skills to learn, in both journalism and PR. Packing in useful information that sets the stage for what follows, you also need to add some humour, flair and/ or insight -- while remaining simple, straightforward and factual. Oh, and jargon, buzzwords and cliches are terrible crutches: you have to throw them out. All of this in, ideally, 15 words, 20 at the very most.

It’s hot cognitive work, really, squishing things down like that. But when you’re in a public-relations job and you manage to pull it off, it’s tremendously satisfying. And the reward is high, if not immediate.

When you’ve said exactly what needed saying, when clients, readers and reporters respond with enthusiasm -- well, at moments like that, you feel that writing PR is the best job in the world.

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