‘PR is all about party planning’—and other misconceptions

The false beliefs about the public relations industry held by aspiring professionals.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on PR Daily in June.

Samantha Jones has set a terrible example for aspiring PR professionals.

The “Sex and the City” character works in public relations—portrayed in the TV show and movies as a fabulous job that’s all about hobnobbing with celebrities, planning parties, and drinking expensive cocktails.

Sure it is.

“Lots of people think PR people are like Samantha Jones,” said Beth Monaghan, a principal and co-founder of InkHouse. “It’s a lot more serious, with a lot more strategy and a lot more time spent behind your laptop trying to get reporters to write about topics.”

Or as Lorra Brown, an associate PR professor at William Paterson University, insists: “PR is not about throwing parties, instead it is about coming up with the best solutions to help clients meet their communication or business objectives.”

Doesn’t sound so glamorous now, does it?

Like any profession, the public relations industry has its share of public misconceptions, chief among them that its practitioners simply plan parties and rub elbows with celebrities. (One person interviewed for this story said she heard an aspiring PR professional say she wanted to enter sports PR to find a husband.)

PR people “are smart and savvy, and can understand complex problems and present viable solutions to many media issues in a short amount of time,” said Abbi Whitaker, owner of Abbi Agency. “Our minds are sharp—we can wrap our heads around the stock market, the latest technology, and environmental issues.

“Oh, and we are not all 23-year-olds wearing wedge heels, oversized sunglasses, and colored jeans.”

A look inside the PR classroom

Matt Ragas, an assistant professor in the college of communication at DePaul University, said many of his students hold these misconceptions about the PR field, but that from an outsider’s perspective it makes sense.

“Party planning and working with celebrities and the media seems exciting and fast-paced,” he said. “Do you really want to get into a field that is boring and staid?”

The good news is that students in Ragas’ courses quickly grasp the reality of the professional. They realize, for example, that party planning is just one tactic in the PR professional’s arsenal (one that requires lots of work, said Ragas).

“Students are generally open-minded about the possibilities and excited to learn out the depth and breadth of the field beyond what they see on TV,” he added.

And they shouldn’t get bored with the profession. “Public relations has grown so specialized that I tell students there is likely a [niche] that matches their interest and passions with their communication skill set and training,” Ragas said.

Despite the work of professors and professionals to dispel myths about the industry, certain misconceptions persist. Here are three more common ones held by aspiring PR pros:

It’s a profession for extroverts and ‘people persons.’

If you’re looking for a job in public relations, you might want to avoid telling an interviewer, “I’m a people person.” Brown asserted she would “never” hire anyone who says so.

“The reality is, you do need to possess strong interpersonal skills and be willing to learn, but most of the learning is by being thrown against a challenge or task and learning as you go,” she said.

Elizabeth Sosnow, the managing director of BlissPR, expressed a similar sentiment.

“You should work in PR if you are good with ideas,” she said. “That’s an entirely different skill set.”

According to Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, public relations is not a profession suited to particular personality types, but a career for strategic thinking, critical problem-solving, and relationship building.

“Being an extrovert or a people person does not automatically make you good at communications,” she said.

Strong social media skills will guarantee your success.

Just because you’re a savvy user of any number of social media sites—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, etc.—that doesn’t mean you’ll shine in public relations.

“Every 20-, 30-, or 40-something in PR (and even a few 50- and 60-somethings) possesses knowledge of social media and the potential of the Internet,” observed veteran PR professional Fraser Seitel.

“Where one shines in this field is through a knowledge of business, an understanding of management, and a facility with communicating to help an organization realize its goals.

“That requires knowledge, experience, humility, humanity, and chutzpah. And it takes time.”

Travel is a key part of the job.

Many PR professionals are chained to their desks, working their eyeballs and fingertips on their computers. As Beth Monaghan suggested, a PR professionals logs countless hours at his or her desk.

Of course, there is the opportunity to travel. Some PR pros travel endlessly—and that’s hard work.

“Travel usually means taking a red-eye flight, working 18-hour days, or sitting in a windowless conference room,” said Lorra Brown, who formerly held senior-level positions at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and Weber Shandwick Worldwide.

PR people spin the news in a dishonest way.

This is a common misconception among reporters who jump from journalism to public relations, said Brad Phillips, president of Phillips Media Relations. Former journalists believe that working in PR means telling a story they know to be false or unethical.

“When I’ve encountered that fear, I tell them about my own experiences on both sides of the news business,” Phillips said. “In my career, I’ve found that the work I’m doing as a PR professional is more substantive than the work I did in news, not less.”

Phillips conceded that on occasion “tough ethical decisions” must be made. “But I’ve consistently found that the best PR professionals prioritize their clients’ long-term reputation—and their own—over questionable decisions that produce short-term ‘success’ but long-term pain,” he said.

Any misconceptions you’ve heard that need dispelling?

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