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The Cinderella that is Public Relations

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

I first heard about public relations while sitting for my finals in uni. A PR firm posted a vacancy ad in our faculty. Quite a number of my course mates applied. I didn’t. Why? I had always wanted to be a journalist and that was what I was going to be once I graduated.

My good friend insisted that I applied for the PR post. “The MD is quite good looking!” “Just tell him who’s your favourite author and why”, “Go for the experience.”

So, I applied and went for the interview – just to see for myself how good looking the guy was. And that was how I got into PR.

Having worked as a journalist, my initial reaction to writing as a PR practitioner was, well, “It’s a whitewash!” I told that to my supervisor. I never forgot his response “Our role is to present our clients’ side of the story. The media’s role is to find out more and report a balanced story.”

Explaining to family and friends what is PR is a constant challenge. Mention PR and immediately, mini-skirt wearing and booze drinking Guest Relations Officers (GROs) come to mind.

“So, you must attend a lot of cocktails and socials”, “You must be an extrovert and good in small talks,” “You must smile a lot.”

When I first started my career in PR, a good day is getting into office by 7.30am. I scanned the papers for news on my clients, their competitors, the industry and the overall economy and politics of the country. These are compiled and summarized and given to the respective clients.

The rest of the day would be filled with writing media materials, presentation papers, speeches or developing a PR programme. If an event was happening the next day, there would be the dreaded media calls to determine attendance.

I disliked those calls. Journalists those days were hard-nosed and regarded PR practitioners as scums of the earth. Responses were abrupt. Often, we were dismissed without ceremony. Tough when you were fresh out of uni and had yet to develop a thick skin.

On a “bad” day, it would be back-to-back client meetings which would see you back at the office at 5pm. That’s when the actual work started – writing out meeting minutes and rushing for deadlines. If I were efficient, I could wrap up by 8.00pm and hauled myself to the bus stop to take the next bus home to have my dinner around 10pm.

But there were times when I would leave the office at midnight only to return at 5am the same day. Spending a night in the conference room was quite commonplace – we just had to make sure that we woke up before the first meeting!

Over time you learn to work more efficiently. More importantly, you developed a thick skin. Nothing is personal. Take every criticism, every admonishment and every verbal abuse as a learning process. When your copy is returned bathed in red ink you re-write and challenge yourself to submit a copy that will eventually come back unscathed (never happened).

One may argue that the backroom work is more than compensated by the glamour of an event. WRONG!

Good PR practitioners are supposed to be invisible. Our job is to promote our clients not ourselves. Our success is when our clients are known, quoted and sought after; when our carefully strategized and crafted messages are conveyed. Cocktails and glamour do not come into play.

Satisfaction comes when your client’s messages get across. The public does not necessarily have to agree but they get a balanced point of view.

What I love about PR is the strategizing. The strategic thinking that go into messaging and corporate positioning. The forward thinking that identifies and pre-empts potentially negative situations. All these are fleshed out in the playbook that is the PR proposal/programme. The thinking that goes into a proposal is that which separates the wheat from the chaff.

Putting together a PR programme is more than just presenting a shopping list of activities. It is the ability to assess the situation from a macro perspective and yet be detailed in putting forth its execution. It is identifying potential pitfalls beforehand. Therein lies the value add.

More than just a throwing together of ideas, impressive graphics and beautifully-stringed sentences, a PR programme has to be credible, sustainable and executable. It has to be consistent with the short, mid and long-term goals of the corporations. The programme should not only be good conceptually but must be executable realistically.

For this reason alone, PR needs to have a seat with the C-suites rather than at the level where “I think what my boss wants is …”

More importantly, PR is more than column inches of prime media coverage or views per click. It is much more than AVE generated. To me, that is a crude and “syiok sendiri” measurement of PR to boost the egos of the internal gods.

Perception change, key messages acceptance and recall, and share of voice – all of which are intangible and take time to cultivate and grow – are more valuable and sustainable than a column in print or on a social media platform.

You know your PR strategy is on the right track when the media seeks out your previously little-known, small market capital public-listed client for opinions and backgrounding.

You know you are a solid partner and not a vendor when your client trusts you to become its spokesperson and the media sees you as such.

You know you are a valuable consultant when you dare to stand up to your client because you truly believe that their approach is not in their best interest.

Unfortunately, in today’s instant gratification and narcissistic society, it is still an uphill task for PR practitioners to go beyond media relations and coverage. PR is like Cinderella, the maligned step child who is tolerated only to be dragged out to execute its cleaning superpower when the **** hits the fan.

No wonder PR is the first to go in any downturn. Therein lies the PR conundrum.

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