Recently I started getting emails from college students who had a lot of questions about the public relations industry. Specifically, they wanted to know how to get their first public relations job. During a recent interview with Bill Lessard of PR With Brains, I thought the topic of breaking into the world of public relations would make for some interesting discussion.
“I am suspect of any young person who says that want to get into public relations,” Lessard said. “I immediately think of the worst stereotypes of people who want to go to parties and hang out with celebrities. I’m more apt to say, ‘Go do something else and if you end up in public relations, fine.’”
Lessard does not mince words.
“The best PR people are frustrated reporters and writers,” he said, noting that flacks, like scribes, essentially want to tell a story.
Lessard, who has dealt with his share of public relations flacks from the perspective of a journalist, says that large agencies are a good place to start in the field, but public relations newbies should understand their role at such an agency.
“If you work in a large agency, your main job is to generate tonnage, and that’s just the fact. That is your mandate and you have to justify a client paying you. At a small agency, you can control your work environment and clients. In the end, I’d like to think I achieve more personally and professionally in that situation.”
That’s probably true in any profession, of course. Being a big fish in a small pond is generally a lot more fun than the reverse. At the same time, working for a large agency is very helpful in establishing media contacts, and good managers and mentors can be found at companies of all sizes.
The large agencies do have a distinct disadvantage, and that is girth. Changing attitudes, processes, and thinking at a large agency can be a difficult task, and in today’s changing media landscape, we’re already seeing some of the bigger firms falling behind the curve.
“A lot of people in the advertising industry are holding onto the old broadcast model for dear life, and a lot of big PR agencies are doing likewise,” Bill said. “The only way you can proceed these days is to cede control these days to bloggers and others. You cannot control the message, you can only steer it.”
Lessard says that “the traditional idea of PR has already disappeared.”
“We’re going to continue writing press releases, but it’s not just about getting a client on the Today Show or in Page Six. It’s about getting them on multiple platforms, from blogs to cell phones, and being aware of the other factors that are at work in your campaign.”
Lessard talked at length about some recent public relations disasters and — perhaps more important from a learning perspective — some successes. Bill’s favorite public relations job was the product of the Shea brothers, Richard and George, who run Shea Communications, as well as the International Federation of Competitive Eating. You may have seen some of their events televised on ESPN, or covered in the major media.
“Competitive eating is so old school that it’s new,” Lessard said. “It goes back to the days of Hollywood ballyhoo. It’s a really crazy spectacle, like a modern-day freak show. I think it’s a lot of fun, with some social commentary thrown in for good measure.”
Much of what Bill told me echoed public relations sentiment I’ve heard in the past.
“PR people should help reporters and respect them,” he said, adding that the respect should be mutual. “Rather than talking at people, you should talk to me and give them what they need. It’s not just about smile and dial, whether you’re talking to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, or some blog — they all deserve the same amount of respect.”
Finally, I asked Bill for a little advice on how to garner new public relations clients. He suggested a sense of humor doesn’t hurt.
“One of the jokes I always say when I introduce myself is, I’m a PR person, but don’t hold it against me.”
We won’t, don’t worry.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.