Sam Howard wonders do we really need tech PRs?
A recent survey by Careers Cast suggested that the life of a PR was second only to being a pilot in terms of stress.
“It’s not rocket science!” blasted journos all over twitter.
Very true, but PR can be a trite fraught on occasion. To illustrate my point lets imagine a world where there were no PRs, because everyone in The World of Tech was just so good at connecting and communicating…
Once upon a time, there was an incredibly enthusiastic and irrepressible young journalist, to him the glass was always half full, not that he was much of a drinker, mind! One day he had to catch a bus into the village to buy more type writer ribbon. He planned to use this time on the bus to fact and spell check his work before submitting it to his editor. “You are such a perfectionist!” The wise, old gentleman would kindly chide him, whenever he handed in his copy just a little late.
In the next village there lived the most charming and charismatic inventor you could ever hope to meet. She also had to catch the bus to visit the local ironmonger, who she had commissioned to make some more phalangees, a critical component in her latest invention.
Well, it must have been fate, for on that day, these two jovial people just happened to sit next to each other. Both of them being out-going types, in possession of exceptional social skills, they soon fell into a happy rapport. In no time at all the earnest inventor was telling the curious journalist all about phalangees and their properties in an extraordinarily level of detail. The journalist had all the time in the world to listen to the long list of features that each permutation of phalangees delivered; indeed he was gripped. Having both missed their stops, they were now walking companionably back into the village together and the journalist used his psychic skills to ascertain the unique business benefits that phalangee-based engineering could deliver to his readers.
And so with a great shout of excitement the journalist stopped in the lane and cried, “I believe this to be the singularly most important technological discovery of our time! And even though my beat is actually musical theatre, I’m sure my editor will give me the cover story to tell the world all about it.”
Well, the inventor was somewhat overcome and demurred, “Golly that’s terribly decent of you, but do you think you might wait a while before you write anything as I now realise I’m not quite geared up for discovery just yet?”
The journalist nodded solemnly, and true to his word the story was published quite some time later, once the inventor had taken her suit to the cleaners, decided on her company logo and got the phalangee-based product range to stop blowing up.
Within hours of that one story breaking, everybody was talking about it, and, Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Stephen Fry were all begging to be among the first to beta test it and the company share price shot up and overnight the inventor became a multi-millionaire.
As for the journalist, he was ever after regarded as a technology guru whose wise words would forever be commissioned throughout the land. And they all lived largely ever after…
Yeah, like that happens all the time!
If it did there might be no need for PRs to help companies articulate their offering in a coherent way that delivered compelling copy to the media. But it very rarely does and and making it so is sometimes a thankless task. But the second most stressful career?
OK if it wasn’t for us PRs the wheels of commerce might have to travel a road more pot holed, but no, it’s not rocket science, nor is it like flying a plane, or being a nurse, a fire fighter, a policeman, a prison warder, a teacher, a carer, or even a journalist…All jobs have a level of stress associated with them and in PR I think we might secretly like it, it’s nice to be needed.
Is a badly written press release down to the PR officer as journalists love to think, or all the layers of people it must go through to get sign off?
It’s too depressing to cite examples of dreadful press releases here, but editors still get them daily. This could be because the PRs can’t write, in which case don’t let them on the account until they can. Look at your training programme and your time investment in this, even the most clunky of junior writers can make great progress with some guidance and ground rules. But if you are paying someone to do your PR and it’s obvious they can write, then really I think you should just let them. But sadly that’s often not what happens.There is another reason why editors receive such toe-curling, bland brochure-ware – and it’s more common than you might think – and that’s thanks to all the people that contributed to its creation.
For the uninitiated, here’s a typical sign off cycle in a midsize tech company:
- The PR drafts the press release for a product launch, let’s assume it’s pretty good: it tells a story, makes a point, does it succinctly.
- Then the head of comms reviews it, make more of the key messages, it’s a bit more evangelical, but what can you do?
- Then the head of product reviews it, and adds a load of technical detail that probably no one is ever going to read cos it’s very boring.
- Then the head of sales gives it a quick once over, and just adds ‘world’s leading’ to the company descriptor, cos he’s read press releases before and they always have that.
- Then the head of the division takes forever to review it because he is so very important, and adds some outlandish testosterone-fueled statement that says more about him than it does about the product launch.
- Then the company lawyer reviews it, and she removes anything remotely interesting at all and what’s left is littered with trademark symbols.
- Then, and only then, can the PR send it out – obviously three weeks late and to howls of derision from the very same journalists that she really rather admires and would very much like to impress…
Going for goals is great, but investing in experience is not to be sniffed at. Fast track, meandering, or blind leaps of faith, which career path is the one for you?
When I was a child in the 70’s, I had one ambition, to be on The Michael Parkinson Show. I saw myself, sitting in that chair regaling Michael with my stories, taking the occasional sip of water allowing for the audience laughter to die down, as Michael crinkled his twinkly eyes in appreciation of my charm and self depreciating wit.Why I would be on Michael Parkinson in the first place, I was less sure. All my little friends at that time wanted to be ballerinas, since I wasn’t even little, let alone attending dance classes, I wasn’t sure that was my ticket. A vet? I had a love of all things furry and school was easy. But would Michael want to talk to a vet? Didn’t James Herriot have the celebrity vet market all sewn up? An artist then? I was ever so arty by nature, my father despaired of me. But wouldn’t I only be interview-worthy after I was dead? Or at least on a nodding acquaintance with heroin? Seemed like a high price to pay. A model, then, I was long enough and who knew what I might look like once I got rid of the brace, the glasses, the knock knees? Even at my tender age, it seemed like a bit of an outside bet…
As it was, I tumbled through my education and my career. Sometimes landing on the balls of my feet like a magician’s assistant with a wide, star-struck smile, making the most of the opportunities that came my way. Other times I landed on my backside accompanied by my own howls of dismay as I blundered my way through roles that were clearly designed with someone/anyone else in mind. By the time I’d ‘arrived’in the world of comms, Michael had left the building.
But now bright young things have a Masters in PR by the time they are 24, they already know their preferred sector, and whether to go agency of in-house. Many have immovable career markers to hit every couple of years that usually include being an account director before they are 27 and they work with an unholy commitment to make sure that is so. Having worked with a number of such focused individuals I can testify that they share a drive which is genuine. They are still prepared to work hard from the bottom up, but in a very straight line. No tangential wondering for this next generation communicators.
Not that I can complain really, having an open, ‘how hard can it be?’ attitude to my career fared me well enough, I took the scenic route leaving home when i was 17, finding a live in job as a nanny, then answering an add in the classifieds to wrap presents all day, which lead to being a merchandiser, which lead to an exec training scheme which lead to retail management in a very posh shop, which lead to becoming a flower buyer, and then a hamper buyer. Then I took some time off and became a market stall holder and a volunteer. Then I ran out of money and went into project management which evolved into PR – my forever role.
In PR the pace is fast and the situation changes every day, which matches my attention span perfectly. It appears that I thrive on change. The subject matter ( B2B tech/financial services) is challenging and difficult, the people are whip smart and grounded, the projects demand strategic thinking and creative implementation. I fared well, ended up fronting a big PR division in London and New York, lots of clients, big team, lots of money, fancy job title. So yes I got’ there’ in the end. Meanwhile a friend and a straight shooter kind guys having hit all his career markers through to his mid 30’s, then chucked the whole lot in to go and be a janitor in an ashram.
I reckon we’d both have Michael wiping away the tears from his mirthful eyes.
A month into being a freelance PR and each day I lurch from dismay to delight – here’s a taster:
High – first day, dancing around in my kitchen to Katie Perry ‘Firework’ deciding that was me, that was – a freelance firework.
Low – second day, no fireworks just housework which I never do but now don’t think I can afford for anyone else to do.
Low – first week, emailing myself to see if email was working (it was).
High – first blog, getting comments and being retweeted.
High – first client meeting, in a cake shop. Decided henceforth all client meetings shall be held in cake shops.
Low – first follow up, realising notes taken in said cake shop had to be actioned by me, and they take AGES!
High – office view, it looks out on to a snowdrop-littered garden with a giant rabbit hopping around in it. His name is Maximus.
High – office colleague, my desk has a cushion with a small cat on it. Her name is Lily. She looks at me with purry pride.
Low – office banter, turns out giant rabbits and small cats are not that great at office banter.
Low – office comfort, I just can’t get warm and the chair is wildly uncomfortable, I finish the day looking like a frozen Quasimodo.
High – office economies, my new printer was real cheap.
Low – false economies, my cheapo printer doesn’t photocopy I have to walk half a mile and pay 10p pay for one, so takes about 30 mins out of my day.
Low – office technology – still can’t get my Outlook to talk nicely to my HTC phone.
High – food, munching lunch while following the Archers (it’s all going on).
Low – food, my sandwiches are just not as nice as Prêt, nor is my coffee, I haven’t had a muffin in a month. I don’t know how to make sushi and don’t even mention Burritos.
High –food, lost two pounds in weight, go figure.
High – making decisions, making my own decisions and implementing them in the same 10 minutes is truly liberating.
Low – making mistakes, two hours later, realizing that half the time they are the wrong decisions is somewhat disconcerting.
What can I tell ya, it’s a learning curve…
PRs invented hype, they don’t need to read it in your CV.
When I was in LA, I fell into conversation with a stranger who by way of asking me the New York question, “So, what do you do?” instead asked, “So, are you an artist?”
Isn’t that great? His take was to assume I was somebody until I proved I wasn’t. How very LA. Here I think it’s safer to assume the opposite, especially in PR.
PRs by nature have to be among the most cynical, of course they don’t believe the hype – they wrote it. So maybe a more grounded approach to your PR CV might cut through the traffic.I read about an experiment ages ago, two identical CVs were circulated. The only difference being that one CV had a flaw, can’t remember what the flaw was now, maybe the person had been fired out of a job or something. Anyway the result was startling; the CV with the flaw was called up for way more interviews than its perfect counterpart. Reasons being:
FLAWS = TRUTH
PERFECTION = LIES
To me a strong CV, like any good narrative ‘shows’ not ‘tells’. I read a LinkedIn profile the other day that began, ‘I am an exceptionally talented leader…” I can’t tell you any more I hit the back button.
God-like statements of self-belief are great for The Apprentice but seem to resonate less well when the cameras aren’t running. I mean for all your fabulous attributes, clearly humility isn’t in your chemical mix. Besides you sound like a knob and who wants to work with one of those?
Author, broadcaster and businesswoman, Muriel Grey at the beginning of her career in fashion was advised, “You’ll have to embroider your CV.”
Her response was, “But that will take ages!”
Indeed, but at least it would have been more compelling than your standard puff piece that so many feel compelled to write.
Has sam gone LA LA?
A long flight, a big immigration queues and too many healthy looking people. Everybody’s smiles are perfect, everybody’s thighs are toned. I’m tired. I’m disorientated.and I’m not going to like it here. I decided that when I was about 14.
But just as my weary, cynical, sooty, London soul was about to curl up and demand room service, that Californian sunshine played some rancid trick on me and my inner Tigger came bounding out. Just like that! And before I knew it I was hopping on and off the buses (a remarkable event in itself) visiting 50’s shops, farmers’ markets, the Kodak Theatre, the Walk of Fame, and the place with all the signed paw prints of the famous and the dead. Since the beginning of time it seems Hollywood A Listers have had very small feet, as do LA gang members I noticed, not that I pointed it out. I even visit the gym everyday and courtesy of jet lag can be found there at 6.30 every morning, working out and smiling. I can’t explain it myself.
Then after catching up on an episode of Millionaire MatchMaker ( I LOVE that woman) and dressed in American Vintage, I sashay over to campus with my big cup of something all psyched and ready for my post grads. Everyone is engaging, bright, kind and respectful. It’s culturally shocking but don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it, it’s quite infectious. Today I even sit in on a class to hear all about US privacy laws and how they apply to news reporting. It appears that people no longer put their hands up anymore in class, even registering this at the time I could not help but go all Hermione-like, with my arm shooting up with a bad case of girly-swat tourettes, so determined was I to participate.The group coped with me as best they could. Seems they were expecting some bored, aloof, disdainful English chick, (so was I) so this bouncy bird with the bad teeth has taken them by surprise.
The only time my enthusiasm faltered was when I noticed how sexy everybody’s technology was. The power supply for my machine was bulkier than the entire classroom’s kit put together. So who knew that I’d get out to LA and shrug off all my body/lifestyle/age/fashion neuroses, and just come back with gadget issues!
At least I still have issues and for that we’re all truly grateful.
One week of being a PR freelancer and Londoner Sam Howard is off to LA. What can possibly go wrong?
So, I’m in the final throes of preparation for my trip tomorrow. As brag factors go, jetting off to LA, a week after turning freelance, has to be right up there. I’m off to a super swanky US university to mentor post grads. And it’s not that I’m not grateful for this opportunity, I am.
Really I am.
It’s just that:
Among other things, I’ve volunteered to give a three hour workshop; and although I’ve worked in the comms industry for 17+ years I’m not sure I can talk about it for longer than 20 minutes…
AND I’ve prepared all the materials from scratch, AND in an enormous hurry, it’s a shiny new deck and probably every slide harbours a typo which will only declare itself when projected onto a 20 foot screen in a room full of clever people…
AND, LA is 500 square miles, I have a disgraceful sense of direction, I am a rubbish driver and walking apparently is not an option. I know I’m going to get lost on my first day, arrive late, look a total twat etc etc…AND, I don’t know anyone, any restaurants, any shops, any neighbourhoods, any reasons d’être to be in LA. I could just go to the beach, but it’s Venice beach and it’s February and I’m not sure my pale and imperfect bod will even be allowed on it…
AND everyone keeps telling me that I will love LA, everyone. That the people are like the weather – warm, beautiful, friendly and relaxed. But the thing is, I am more a product of our own inclement climes, frigid, haggard, hostile and neurotic. What if I make students cry?..
Besides I love New York, love it, love the people, the food, the shops, the art, the weather, the architecture. I know my way around New York . I know my way around the people. Everyone says that LA is nothing like New York…AND last night, I phoned a friend and whimpered that I’m about to go down more like Ricky Gervais than Piers Morgan. Obviously I wasn’t actually looking for a practical solution, just to hear the sound of my own voice bleating. But he only goes and ‘helps’! Hooks me up with his fabulous friend, an LA local, assures me we’ll get on like a house on fire. Turns out she’s a supremely successful fashion stylist, dresses the A List for the red carpet…
AND so now, on top of everything else, I don’t know what to wear. I’ve always been so disdainful of labels. Will that catch on do you think? In LA??
So think: a badly dressed – Ricky Gervais – arriving late – at the Golden Globes – no one to talk to – and fluffing his lines – on already ill-judged script.Only difference is, I do want this gig again.
Another of Sam Howard’s pet
In PR you hear a lot about being ‘On Message’. This is very important isn’t it? Being On Message, having your people rehearsed and slick, so they can always be On Message? Oh pulllease.
If a journalist knows what you’re going to say before you open your mouth why would he/she bother to rock up for the interview? I mean seriously, what’s in it for them? If they just want the corporate spiel, they’ll check out your website. If they want to talk to you it’s cos there’s a vague hope that in and around the adaptable-scalable-innovative-flexible monologue you might actually have a view, say something interesting, topical, original, human even, and actually provide some decent copy.
The best view to have, I think, is one that runs contra to the stream. Back in the mid 90s when I laboured over my very first press release, I was super diligent about being fact-based and succinct, (I had been trained well, forever in debt Mr Springett) but I didn’t have the confidence to write the quote for my boss. So instead, I wrote, “Say something contentious here.” And he did, and it worked a treat. Mr Caplin, gotta love him and even if you don’t, he always makes great copy.
On occasion, it’s OK to fess up to that slightly dodgy implementation when your record is normally great, and you can demonstrate you have learned from it. Or to admit the recession might be taking its toll on you too, but you are gonna haul your weary backside out of it, or die trying.
You see the joy of sometimes wondering off message means that when you do get back on it, your audience might actually believe you. And isn’t that quite important? Besides, whoever wants to hear somebody else’s diet is going really really well?
When I work with my PR clients we work hard on looking at where we can first and foremost add some value/originality to the debate. You know not everything that comes out of your mouth is necessarily going to be that great and that’s where your trusted PR comes in – they can tell you what to run with and what not to bother banging on about, because it is irrelevant or just actually not that interesting. Sometimes it is all about the team singing from the same hymn sheet, but other times you just need to know a good tune.
Sam Howard asked a question of the UK Technology Journalists and PR Group on LinkedIn – what makes a great PR? One word answers only.
At the time I wrote this I’d had 41 answers from presumably a random selection of PRs. Having turned freelance only weeks ago I have some time on my hands so I tidied it up a bit and here’s a word cloud of how it looked…
If you add to ‘determined’ ‘resilient’ and ‘resourceful’ you’re looking at about a third of the vote. Seems we are just as well-suited to being long distance runners, a mountain climbers, swimming the channel or something else equally draining. ‘Strategic’ always a good one, gets a double name check, as does ‘personable’ and ‘creativity’, my own guilty pleasure.
Not sure about ‘magical’ myself, but I guess if you are the rest of it is easy.
But the one for me is ‘credible’. To be credible in front of your clients, your journalists, your team and your management generates trust, mutual respect and a sustainable reputation. After 16 years in this industry, my integrity, if not my ego is just about intact. Doesn’t mean I was ever the most popular girl in the room, and I was certainly an acquired taste among our clients, some of which we thought it best if I never met. But, as I used to whimper when I’d lock myself in the bathroom, “I’m not paid to be popular”.
Actually once you let go of the vague hope of ever being popular, it is quite liberating. Give it a go if you haven’t already.