*Warning: This post contains lightly-censored profanity, which I’m sure many of you have encountered before, regardless of what industry you’re in.
A few weeks ago, I was in the back of a Lyft on my way to the PRSA International Conference. My driver was an observant guy, and he asked what conference I was headed to as soon as he saw the badge around my neck. When I told him, he responded with a question that I honestly wish more people would ask:
“I feel like PR people get a bad rap. What’s one thing you’d want to tell someone about working in PR that they might not know?”
I blurted out:
“That we’re not liars.”
Yikes. While I wish my answer were something more polished like, “Telling the right story about your work to the right audience is critical to a company’s bottom line,” or “We strategically build relationships and trust that lead others to do your marketing for you,” there was some element of truth in what I said.
As with journalists, people have a lot of opinions about our industry, not all of them positive. While a PR professional’s job isn’t as dangerous or difficult as a reporter’s can be, people don’t always react with wide-eyed admiration when I tell them what I do (I probably should have become an astronaut if I wanted that). At the same time, my work can be immensely rewarding. It’s the best feeling in the world when someone recognizes that.
My Lyft driver’s question made me reflect back on all the names I’ve been called throughout my career in PR. Some are more flattering than others. All offered the opportunity for me to learn something about myself and what I do for a living. Here they are, ranked from worst to best.
- “Turd-polisher.” Full disclosure, I’ve never actually been called this to my face. But I have had multiple conversations in which someone who knew exactly what I did for a living referred to a PR pro this way. It ultimately implies that all we do is cover up or “polish” bad behavior, bad news, and bad policy. Multiple professional organizations (PRSA included) have strict ethics codes that forbid fabrication of any kind, and emphasize transparency and truth. Basically, they tell us, “Your job is to get as much information as possible out to the right people, period.”
- “Bullsh*t artist.” I have been called this to my face. Lesson learned: it’s my job to take the high road, in both my personal and professional life. If things get uncivil or insults start flying, it’s on me to not take the bait.
- “A waste of my time.” This was from a reporter during a follow-up phone call. It’s worth noting that he spent the next five minutes telling me how much of his time I was wasting, but that’s not the point. Before calling him, I spent a good amount of time researching him and other journalists I thought would be receptive to my pitch. Despite my best efforts, though, I clearly missed the mark with him. Lesson learned: always do your homework, and research a reporter’s beats and interests more than you think you need to, especially if it’s a topic you’re not an expert in. Also, try not to take it personally if a reporter is less than happy to hear from you. You don’t know what’s going on in their world. As the saying goes, “you never know who just came back from a funeral.”
- “Mouthpiece.” “You’re [person]’s mouthpiece, right?” It’s not necessarily an insult, but it’s not accurate either. Merriam-Webster defines “mouthpiece” as “one that expresses or interprets another’s views.” On one hand, that’s a pretty truthful description of what a spokesperson does for a living. On the other, it implies that your average communications professional just takes what they’re told and parrots it. That’s not our job. Our job is to make sure an organization builds good relationships with their audiences by getting the right information and messages out there—and sometimes, that means telling the boss, “I don’t think that’s accurate,” or even, “you need to address this.”
- “Spin doctor.” Sadly, the person who called me this was not referring to a certain 90s one-hit-wonder. At its most innocuous, “spin” means a positive take on something—but, as one PR Daily writer pointed out, it can also take on a darker purpose: distorting the truth. As a PR professional, I will always find ways to amplify positive news for a client; I will not, however, put a deceitful “spin” on the truth.
- “Flack.” I’ve decided PR pros need to take this one back. It used to be an insult, but ever since I attended my first “Hacks and Flacks” journalist-communications people happy hour mixer in Washington, DC, I’ve realized that there’s power in the word. “Taking flack/flak” for someone means you’re handling criticism on their behalf, since “flack/flak jackets” are a type of body armor one wears going into conflict zones. We’re not literally taking fire for someone, obviously, but I take “flack” as a compliment. It means we’re tough and can withstand a lot.
- “A machine.” People pay me to quickly turn around high-quality drafts of statements, memos, quick-take op-eds, and other editorial needs. I used to take a lot of pride in being seen by colleagues and clients alike as a “machine”—but I would caution any communications professional to remember that you’re a human, as well. Your organization or client hired you for your human skills, and it’s your job to call it out when something is ill-advised. Sometimes when things are moving too fast, you have to take a step back what you’re being asked to do seems too reactive or against your overall strategy.
- “The gal behind the gal/guy.” I like this one so much better than “mouthpiece.” It recognizes that I’m a real person, supporting another real person or people, helping them sound like a human (see what I did there?), and getting their information and message out. Some might view it more pessimistically, like communications people are shadowy figures operating a facade from “behind the curtain.” I’m a healthy cynic, but I think any PR professional who buys into this view of their job dehumanizes their clients, causes, or companies. That’s a recipe for inauthentic, robotic communications and zero trust from your audience.
- “The best PR person in Washington, DC.” OK, objectively I know that this is not true, flattering as it is—but it’s particularly special because this introduction came from a journalist who also happens to be a former coworker. It felt great, but it also underscored the value of just investing in relationships with journalists and other people who can help you do your job well. I am nowhere near the best PR person in my new hometown of San Diego (yet), but I can strive to be that by getting to know everyone I work with as people. Reporters are more than a Twitter bio, an entry in Cision or Muck Rack, or even their best cable news appearances. Get to know them, and then help them as often as you ask for their help.
- “Invaluable.” A former supervisor and mentor of mine wrote this in a reference letter for me, and to this day I look at it whenever I need a boost. It’s easy for someone in communications to feel like their skills aren’t necessarily valued by their organization, or even in the grand scheme of things. But that’s when you need to remind yourself that those communication soft skills are going to be even more necessary for survival in future workplaces—use them well on behalf of others and yourself, and you will have an impact.
We’re about to enter the 2020s, and there’s a lot of noise out there. I know it’s my job to cut through it and form genuine connections with the right people, no matter what names I’ve been called and will be called in the future—and that’s what SLH Communications will continue to do for our clients (at least until NASA accepts my astronaut application).