Frequently Asked Questions about Public Relations

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Public RelationsLast week, I had the privilege of speaking in my friend and long-time local journalist Christia Gibbons’ class at ASU’s Cronkite School. The students were split down the middle as to whether they were looking to go into careers in journalism or public relations.

At the close of the class, I asked for all the students – no matter which way they were leaning – to email me with one question they wanted to know about public relations, promising to answer each one here.

So, students, take it away – what do you want to know about public relations?

How often you think, as a PR professional, you rely on journalists to do your everyday job?

When a PR professional is focused on a media relations project – or perhaps issues management – he or she will work with journalists all day, every day. But, the term “public relations” really encompasses much more than media relations. On any given day, I might be helping to plan an event, doing research, collaborating on collateral materials or a website, writing a speech, setting up a photo shoot, arranging a community partnership or working in digital communications. On those days, there is less of an overlap.

Is it difficult for you to work with a client who you personally think isn’t a genuine, good person/company/organization?

We are lucky at HMA Public Relations in that our team does not take on projects that we don’t feel right about. And, if for any reason a team member isn’t a “fit” with a particular client or organization, we are happy to reassign the project or campaign to ensure everyone is happy. In all things, not just your career – trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.

What sort of preliminary questions should student journalists ask themselves in preparation before approaching a public relations representative about brainstorming story ideas, or inquiring about certain information?

Google is your friend. Google the person and the company. Find a connection beyond just an email address. Learn a little about the person or the organization and see what commonalities you have to build a bridge to a relationship. For example, if you google me, you will see I am a Cronkite grad (like you will be!), love Notre Dame (like you should!) and prefer cats over dogs (because everyone should!). Any of those would be great conversation starters, even in email

Is PR more of a behind-the-scenes career, or do you have to be comfortable with being on camera?

While you do not have to be comfortable on camera, you do have to work to help ensure that clients are. Often, the best way to do that is to go through a media training program yourself, or to film yourself and watch yourself back with a critical eye. The only time I was actually on camera was when I served as spokesperson for the Circle K Tempe Music Festival, and many PR folks are never in front of the camera. But, in order to truly help clients get comfortable at doing it, you should try to experience it for yourself at one time or another. I actually know several who ended up loving it so much they made entire career swaps after a decade or more behind the scenes.

One suggestion – when getting into more public relations-focused classes, see about shadowing an agency performing media training session. Many, like HMA, offer media training programs for clients.

What advice do you have for journalists who would like to connect to other sources through public relations specialists?

First and foremost, if you have questions on the initial story or aren’t sure about something – ask us! While we know we can’t see the final product, we are always happy to give certain areas a quick look to ensure everything is correct. After that, share the story with the PR person you worked with, if they were a great help to you in getting it done. Often, PR people spend hours and hours trying to pull clips for clients, and so when a journalist reaches back out with the clip, we are eternally grateful. After that, follow-up with coffee, or even happy hour if appropriate, meet in person, develop them as a source and see how all they can help. And then, once into your relationship with them, ask them to help you meet others to grow your network organically

I think I want to do magazine writing or PR as a career, but am unsure which one would fit better with my skill set and comfort level.

Not knowing your comfort level, magazine writing in today’s world often means “freelance writing.” As a freelancer, you need to be out seeking story opportunities – ones that pay. As a public relations person, I work on magazines in my spare time, which is a joy and real creative outlet. It also helped me to grow my network, expand my mind, and think faster – and more creatively – on the job.

If you could change one thing about PR (besides the amount of work) what would it be?

Often, and because there are some people who do this, public relations professionals are called “spin doctors,” or are referenced as working to “spin something.” That isn’t what we do – at least not the vast majority of us. In fact, we have a strict code of ethics you can learn more about here that we take very seriously.

What is the hardest part of working in the PR field?

Time management is tough. There are times I work 24/7 – there are always new ideas, new stories, new events, new advice and new clients. It took me until I was about 35 to step back and smell the roses. I now focus on making sure those on my team do it far sooner and far more often than I did.

A close second – it takes a pretty thick skin to work in this industry. Between managing clients’ expectations (and your own), getting told “no” quite often and getting your seemingly perfect work edited (yes, I still get edited!), you have to find a way to accept not everything will go your way all the time.

What was the biggest shock to you when entering this field, what surprised you about the job?

Waking up at 6 a.m. five days a week! Aside from that, I was actually surprised at how this field requires you to know at least a little about pretty much everything, all the time. Over the past 15 years, I’ve learned about the inner and outer working of banking, law, real estate, restaurants,  accounting, finance, technology, tribal governments, nonprofits, disability rights organizations, and so much more.

What are some overlaps with the PR field and Journalism?

AP Style – know it, love it and use it. Also, we all tend to be curious, eager to help and always ask questions. I approach much of my work with my actual clients as a journalist would approach a source, seeking answers and developing other angles at all times.

From your experience, what would you say are the biggest similarities and differences between public relations and marketing?

I am actually going to refer you here for a handy dandy list of general similarities and differences. Note – we are a great long-term partner. J

What has been your most challenging project to date and why? Was this particular project one of your favorites or least favorites?

Here are two, and each standout for different reasons:

The Circle K Tempe Music Festival:

For five years, I worked on the development team helping to do everything from taglines to branding to key messages as well as led the media efforts and acted as the spokesperson to the media. That was my first time being thrust in front of the camera – I think I was all of 24. And it was 4 a.m. The event itself had 30 bands, three stages, interactive entertainment elements including a 20-foot python for kids and Red Bull water sports arena for extreme athletes, sponsors who needed “love” and even a charitable element. Developing a strategy to effectively share all of these elements with the media and the local community took over my life for about 100 days each year. But, the relationships I developed back then with media, fellow PR folks, the performers, and the hosts are those I cherish to this day. My favorite work is always the work that ends with people who remain close to my heart.

Weekend Jetaway:

A few years after the recession effectively ended the Tempe Music Festival, a financial client of ours approached our team to help them to develop a first-ever charity event with them and a nonprofit client of ours…in a private jet hanger…with a dozen restaurants sampling their menus for guests….and high end wine and cocktails…and poker…and live music…and the winner of the poker got a free trip on a private jet. I had to use all I learned about event production from the Tempe Music Festival to help create this event from scratch, from propositioning restaurants to securing auction items to hiring entertainment. And I had to take all I learned about corralling a lot of different elements into one overarching promotional and public relations plan that would actually work (and it did!).

Alison Bailin
Alison Bailin
Senior Account Executive Alison has a lot to say…about pretty much everything...all the time. From the current state of public relations to the social media impact on Shark Week to crisis communications in the sports world, Alison’s blogs are focused on “amusing through her PR musings,” and then some. Check out Alison's full bio

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