10 Aug 2016

Five things all old(ish) school PROs know to be true

Joanna Newsome – Account Director at Spreckley

I am in a group of 30-somethings on the cusp of Gen X and Millennial. I’m not quite a wisened old flack, nor a fresh-faced heel-nipper, but in my 12 years in this industry I have seen many things change.

It’s true that today I no longer expect Execs to spend most of their afternoons making coverage boards with scalpels and toxic spray glue, nor do I spend two hours updating our journalist database with a quarterly CD-ROM, which quickly becomes useless in the time it took Romeike to send it in the post.

However, there are a few things that have not changed, and I don’t see them doing so any time soon. Here’s a round-up of some key areas where the PRO’s job will remain constant, things we’ve all been through, and I suppose a little piece of advice for each that may well benefit those with a little experience or just starting out in their PR career.

Number one – Reality sucks: Some people still think we have an over-active work/social life where we drink champagne from Jimmy Choos

Granted, I do revere the consumer PR community with its lavish rooftop parties, ‘sleb hangouts, photoshoots in the Maldives and daily Stylist coverage, but I still find it strange when people still assume all PROs have more of a social life than we do in 2016. Years ago, prior to the dotcom crash, this was more likely to be the case. 15 years later, there’s so much uncertainty that nobody wants to throw money at things frivolously that aren’t necessarily going to get a return. I was lucky enough to catch budgets becoming a little freer than they are now in the four years prior to the 2008 recession. I got to visit Madrid, The Hague – even Birmingham for a few days – and meet some amazing people, and form relationships with some of the most brilliant journalists I’ve known, who sadly moved over to the dark side (PR!) years ago.

Perhaps not so unfortunately, the parties and award ceremonies are fewer in 2016 but they tend to be more ROI-driven. While we’re not quite drinking Pomagne out of Hi-Tec trainers, budgets are quite rightly being tightened, and productivity is being boosted – it is challenging to find any value in a jolly. But when we do get a chance to get out on a working social, it probably makes us a bit more productive if we don’t have to do it all the time!

Number two – Be real, not false: Refreshingly down-to-earth beats yes-man when it comes to relationships

People can read through falseness at ten paces, and while flattering the client’s dad jokes may scoop you the odd project, real business (and personal) relationships have always been best built on honesty. I’ve always made the best connections by being refreshingly frank, clear with my counsel and ‘on the level’ with my clients, their staff, journalists, partners and so on. By all means, you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear to save face once in a while (as we all do, all through life), but by blagging and faking your way through you’ll come unstuck one day with nobody to help. Don’t be a yes-man – tell them what won’t work and why, be forthright with what can be achieved and advise honestly the best you can (and wow them when you over-deliver). Be cute and demonstrate your expertise – don’t put on a performance, because you’ll be kicked when it doesn’t work.

Number three – The thrill of the chase: You are expected (and paid to!) organise absolutely everyone

Getting all your ducks in a row isn’t a science; it’s an art. In a multi-supplier or multi-party situation, everyone relies on the PRO to organise everyone and everything, and ensure all is running smoothly. There is no time for Teflon shoulders in this industry, because cracks will quickly appear and projects fall down. You learn to become King or Queen of the Excel spreadsheet, and no one else can touch you. You’re on fire when it comes to knowing every tactic, every task, where it’s at, who owns it and what the deadline is. This has never changed. You didn’t get to where you are without learning a thing or two about the importance of calendar reminders to career progression, and going through those fabulous ‘to do’ books like water. I’ll be honest: I really, really love lists.

Number four – The font of all knowledge: You’re kind of like a human Google

For some reason, although I suspect it’s related to point three, people rely on us for advice or answers on a huge array of topics. Don’t be surprised when a client asks you about the best way to optimise a website, the best venue for a 50-person company away day in Margate, or where they can get their hair cut for less than £50 on a Tuesday afternoon in central London. It is always a good idea to think like a PA – keep a file or contact book full of things your company or you have used over the years to refer back to. Photographers, video production companies, venues, local entertainment and amenities for out-of-towners, meeting spaces, printers, graphic designers, creative marketing agencies, publishers – the whole shebang – should be readily accessible to you, or at least you should be able to recommend someone to a client. If in doubt, Google it – the fact you’ve done it for them, on their behalf, and presented the required information in a clear way will go along way towards goodwill.

Also – be prepared to do anything. Whether it’s dressing up as a Cornish pasty at an event, posing as a wistful model on a staircase for a specialist wood company, visiting a client’s home to get something approved because they’ve gone incommunicado, or phone pitching a radio producer just why he should interview your client, who has just written a book on faeces metaphors (all of these actually happened to me or ex-colleagues), everyone’s faces will slowly look towards the PRO. Be proud that you’re so reliable!

Number five – The Neo-Luddite moments: or, “WHO did I just send that to?”

The nightmare scenarios: sending the wrong thing to the wrong person; a fruity email to a colleague about a supplier; copying in a journalist to a confidential client email… the things nobody wants to go through, and most of us ensure we don’t. Technological mishaps happen – BUT they can be avoided!

I was reminded of stomach-dropping moments when I saw this on Gizmodo. You have to feel for the PRO. But sad to say, they (or their Account Manager or Director, who should have ensured it didn’t happen) weren’t diligent enough.

If anything does happen, the key is to resolve the situation with professionalism and dignity. I could give advice for each example but each situation is different and requires a tailored approach.

Around ten years ago a colleague sent a coverage round-up for an announcement to a client, and accidentally copied in a national journalist. The journalist called her up, and instead of berating her for the error, asked for a client interview. They were so impressed by the coverage that they wanted to run an exclusive follow-up story straight away. Unfortunately, do not be fooled, they don’t always end up happy endings! The best advice I can offer is don’t do it! And also – check, check – and then check again. Absolutely EVERYTHING.