How to become a public relations expert
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
So how do you become a public relations expert? 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 studied for -- or stumbled upon
Jonathon - “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. 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. "
"15 years ago, a friend of mine who was a VP for a software company mentioned that they needed press releases -- they were working with an agency based out of New York that was charging them 750 bucks per press release.
"I said, I’ve seen 10,000 press releases. I can beat that price. So I started writing press releases and they got some hits. Then they had me writing web copy and I started getting to the marketing side and so -- long story short -- 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 public relations expert 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, public relations experts 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, uneducated! -- and learned their chops in analogous trades like journalism.
Public relations experts require exacting writing
Lyle - "Did I fall into tech PR or was I dragged into it kicking and screaming? It was certainly a string of coincidences and blunders.
"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.
"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 become a public relations expert 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 being a public relations expert is the best job in the world.