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PR’s Alive?! April 6, 2014

Posted by normanmonkey in Consumer PR, Media.
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flash25smThe spirit of Francis Fukuyama (now there’s a name to say after a few drinks) was summoned this week with Robert Phillips’ PR Week article entitled ‘PR is dead: Public leadership is the future‘.

After the collapse of the Iron Curtain Fukuyama famously wrote a thesis in 1992 called The End of History, not foreseeing among other things: the Balkan conflict, 9/11 and Al-Qaeda, the global financial collapse, the rebirth of Russia as an economic and military power, the tyranny of quinoa and David Moyes. And as anyone who has ever watched a Hollywood horror film will know, declaring the end or death of anything without a certificate inevitably leads to a pair of zombie hands round the throat to open the door for a lucrative franchise.

So I came into work last week expecting an eerie silence, Maddie the receptionist sobbing into a Kleenex and to be handed my P45 by a solemn faced usher as I surveyed the windswept debris of a PR agency that had been singing, dancing and telling jokes only the day before. Not so. We were alive. Rejoice.

Now there is much to laud in the article. PR, laden with many human character traits, does tend to follow the buck. Too much CSR is flawed or tokenistic. Lots of the food that is marketed as healthy is quite the opposite (low fat usually means high sugar and don’t even start me on Omega 3 bread) and so on. But PR is also about forming an argument, debate, building communities and battling it out across media and social networks and direct to consumers. That applies to anything from GM crops, the fifth runway to your choice of soap powder.

However Robert argues that this is not enough. Engagement should be replaced by public leadership and should address societal needs. This same argument has notably been applied before not only to PR but to everything from literature to pop music and, of course, politics (where his argument definitely applies, as this is an area that now consistently follows rather than leads).

We are not only dead but ‘broken’, ‘tired’ and ‘bloated’. That is a broad brush stroke that doesn’t make any exception or allow any give. Especially as every day I see work and ideas that are creative, original, bold and invariably delivered with wit and warmth.

So where does this leave the world of consumer PR that many of us work in? Consumers are pretty good judges of what they like and they vote not only with their money but their heads. It also assumes that those of us working in these fields will peddle whatever message pays the best rates and that’s simply not true. It’s in our interests to give the best advice and stop a client aiming a gun at their own foot as we’ll a) have to clear up the mess and b) get the blame for not seizing the firearm.

Will we see Hob Nobs with a conscience, organic-only Asdas or the Avon Lady quoting Antonio Gramsci on her rounds? I doubt it. Why not? Because consumers will go elsewhere to brands they can relate to and delivers them the best value. That is the flip side of progressive capitalism – you can’t enforce an argument for social change, only deliver it. People make the final decision. Businesses are free to embrace radical change but they can also go bust.

Ultimately, there are different schools and practices of PR serving different needs – all listening and responding to consumers. Sometimes PR is just about being maverick, entertaining and disruptive because that’s what excites many audiences and makes brands stand out. Paddy Power can shock at times but then it can also use its power of reach and influence to pull Rainbow Laces out of the hat when it wants. One example of many.

So is PR dead? Well, if it isn’t then Robert’s headline certainly made good copy, grabbed everyone’s attention and ignited a debate. That in itself is good old-fashioned PR, so in declaring it dead it’s safe to assume that PR is alive and kicking after all.

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How to get into PR and stay in it: luck, sweat and tears March 20, 2012

Posted by normanmonkey in Consumer PR.
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8 comments

It’s the time of year when those young enough fortunate to have a future ahead of them ponder the big decisions in life such as what university course to take or, approaching graduation, what career to opt for – and whether this should be PR. Last Friday I got two emails at work out of the blue concerning both matters.

It’s important to offer whatever help or insight is useful to someone finding their way if others more able don’t have the time. Leon is just about to graduate with a finance degree and wanted to know how to get into PR and make a success of it; Natalie had a number of questions what degree to choose for a career in PR.

Apparently my replies were useful (no other agency director replied to Leon) and Natalie has kindly allowed me to reproduce our exchange – which included a big crib from my response to Leon – so if it’s of any further use I’ll share  some advice from the experienced but the unwise on what may help get you a future in public relations.

It’s fifteen years since I saw my first piece of coverage (in Forecourt Trader) working in-house for a retail wholesaler to a Director of Cow today. It also forced me to recall my first ever interview with a major London agency (Red) where I was close to being escorted off the premises but still got the job.

Since then I’ve seen my fair share of award winning campaigns, front-page splashes, frustration, jubilation and disaster. Nothing here is set in stone and other PRs may have their own take but if someone can learn from my mistakes they will go far:

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To whom this may concern,
In the future I would like to work in PR, and I love the work your company has done and achieved. I was wondering if you would be able to help me choosing the right studying/career path in order for me to make it successful in the PR industry. I have four university offers ˆ Bournemouth (PR), City (Cass business school ˆ Business Studies), Durham (Marketing) and Lancaster (Marketing Management).

Do you think studying a solely PR degree would be an advantage or does it not matter which degree you study as long as you gain valuable work experience? Would studying in London be more beneficial? Does university reputation and degree matter to you when you employ new staff and what do you look for when employing someone to work for your company?
May I ask how you entered the PR industry?
Sorry about all of the questions, I have wanted to go into PR for a while and am trying to gather professional advice so I can make the right decision to ensure I am going on the right path.
Thank you for your time, I hope to hear from you in the future.
Yours faithfully,
Natalie Hopkins

Hi Natalie,

Like a lot of people around my age (late-30’s) I came into PR by accident. The original intention was to be a journalist. I’d done work experience at The Sun and The Guardian, had a decent prose style and wanted ultimately to be the Washington correspondent of the BBC. I ended up shadowing someone in wholesaling trade PR (exciting stuff – key magazine contacts included Convenience Store, Retail Newsagent, Frozen Food Weekly and Asian Trader) specifically because he’d been a journo. He pointed out to me that PR utilised basic journalism skills, but paid better. I was sold.

After a year of working with him in a box office in Croydon, learning the craft, listening to endless monologues about his failed marriage and building up a portfolio of coverage I’d generated I applied for a job at the lowest rung on the UK’s then most successful, award winning agency at Red.

I did a unspeakably bad interview and was rejected without hesitation. Not having a clue about agency culture and following my father’s advice I turned up in a three-piece suit when everyone else was wearing combat trousers and trainers. I was so nervous I asked the MD in mid-stumbling interview if he minded if I smoked and to this day can still see his lower jaw trembling in shock.

Instead of returning back to frozen food chiller press releases in Croydon I decided to show that I could actually manage a crisis, apply creativity and turn a negative situation into a positive outcome. This was done by writing a letter, an assessment of my interview performance by means of parody that was brutal, damning and completely accurate. I got the job. A week later my clients included Microsoft, Guinness and Prudential. I was up and running.

Times have changed. I’m not entirely sure there were PR degrees in place when I first started thinking about a career. Then it was mostly press releases, phones, faxes, the occasional event or photocall. Now it’s all about engagement, particularly with social media as a priority channel.

But you still need content, an original idea / narrative to create impact. That’s a rule that hasn’t changed since the day the printing press was invented and it’s no different with Twitter or Facebook. The medium is not the message, but just another channel of delivery.

Degrees

If you want to work in PR these days a PR degree helps. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll also get a placement. You’ll also learn a lot of irrelevant stuff.

Doing a dissertation on how to handle to BP oil spillage is great in theory, but the reality is often disillusioning for a many PRs who start thinking they are going to be dealing with a global crisis and then find themselves on the phone to Take a Break pleading with them to feature a toilet wipe or packet soup in their next issue. It’s a long way to the top (but if a person can’t get a new packet soup in a women’s weekly that writes features about quick lunch solutions can they be trusted with a client’s oil slick? I doubt it.)

While it will give you excellent grounding, you’ll probably learn more about PR if you are lucky enough to have a good agency in your first job to teach you the basics.

Truthfully, getting your foot in the door for the first job is not about the three-year degree but how you cut it in a 40 minute interview: confidence, understanding of brands, how media works and what motivates different consumer audiences or stakeholders. An employer isn’t actually considering what you did in the past, but what you can do in the future.

Do whatever course appeals to you. We have people here who did English, History, Photography and Journalism, Marine Biology, Sociology (that one must’ve slipped through the net in retrospect).

Make sure it is going to be something that you will most enjoy and find fulfilling now, rather than solely something that may benefit you in a few years time.

For the record, all the offers you’ve got are great options. Our last three grad appointments all went to Bournemouth, had a whale of a time, know how to work but enhanced the social mix (an off the record tip is being sociable and going to the bar with colleagues never did anyone’s career any harm). It’s maybe coincidence they went to Bournemouth, but they tapped me up on Twitter at times we highlighted vacancies and did the best interviews. They’ve been brilliant since.

Studying in London

It shouldn’t make a difference to getting a career. It’s bloody expensive for starters, but choose your Uni for the course and the other opportunities it offers. I went to Reading and did American Studies, liked the look of the campus and had a phenomenal social life to treasure to this day. I also thought I worked hard at the time, but it compared to nothing than when I actually started work.

Your email comes at a good time. On Friday a graduate asked me for advice how to get a job in PR and what it took to make it a success. Life can be hectic, but I was feeling philanthropic  and thought about it in detail to reply. Here’s a crib from what I wrote to him (below) and may be useful now, but possibly more so in three or four years from now when you’ve got your First.

I’ll sign off from here. Hope it helps and feel free to email me if you have any more questions.

Mark
Director
Cow PR

Decide why you want to be in PR

Some come into it thinking it will be parties, events, canapes, celebrities and networking are rapidly disillusioned. Yes, they may be AT the parties but chances are there will be an Account Director or a client screaming at them for most of the night, blaming them for anything that goes wrong. The celebrites, if they bother to turn up on time or at all, invariably turn out to be ‘challenging’ and the PR will still be there cleaning up the debris when the last guests to leave are in bed or at Boujis.

The people I know who have made a success of it came into it because they had a good work ethic, liked a challenge and, when the opportunity arose, to do work that actually has an impact, makes a difference, gets talked about and wins awards and makes their clients happy. They understand brands, media and most importantly the basic psychology of what motivates different consumer groups.

Most client or new business briefs when deciphered represent a problem or a riddle that has to be solved, a muddied landscape that needs sorting (sales are down; the competition has a superior, cheaper product; we’ve hired a celebrity that no one cares about etc etc). One is rarely in the privileged position of being handed a task of a campaign or launch for something that will make instant news, already has excitement building up around it, massive brand loyalty or has the endorsement of an A-list star whom you have at your disposal to do whatever you want. It’s about using your wits in most instances, adapting to the challenges because the textbook formula on how to be successful doesn’t exist.

This is no bad thing. The best work is when you are working with the underdog, the challenger, the unknown, the brand that isn’t so entrenched in heritage or it’s code of behaviour that you actually can’t do very much creative with it.

Know what PR is

This seems like me being patronising, but it’s a true reflection of many people who we meet at interview stage. In other words, familiarise yourself with the PR work other brands are doing. Typically when asked about PR campaigns they admire a candidate who isn’t up the grade will ring the alarm bell.

It’s remarkable how many people will do one of the following things:

  • Tell me about one our own campaigns – showing the  extent of their research (let alone understanding of the industry) is whatever  they saw on the home page of our website
  • Give a flawless description of an advertising campaign
  • Respond with a blank

Know your media and brands
This is obvious but not always applied – even by senior practitioners who can go stale. Read newspapers, online news, marketing, trends and innovation sites and blogs, follow agencies on Twitter, but most importantly look at agencies websites where their best work is showcased.  The older one gets the more one can learn from junior colleagues. The same follows for brands. It’s likely to come up in interviews about brands that you’d like to work for and why.

Decide what type of agency you want to work for

Consumer or corporate? Global, small, start-up, in-house? Fashion, FMCG or tech clients? There’s also agency culture to factor in and the sort of career you want. A lot of agencies do conventional work and that pays just as well, if not better, has less risk. They get third parties to do their news generation, broadcast, social media and they handle the client and do the planning. However, some of us like to wake up in the morning and hear an idea we scribbled down on a torn piece of paper on the bus a week ago talked about on TV after a bad night’s sleep wondering whether their creative hunch has paid off. That’s where the buzz is.

The most important thing is to take any job and acquire any experience you can. Get a foundation, learn the basics and plan your next move from there.

How to get in

Build relationships on Twitter
I’m the worst networker in the world. I like to get on with my work, hang out with my colleagues and then go home to my friends. However, Twitter has been a saving grace to build relationships, exchange thoughts, sick jokes and a rapport with people in PR and other creative fields without having to set a date and a venue agreeable to both (as used to be the case). Get a presence on Twitter, follow like-minded people. It would’ve been inconceivable five years ago a 21 year old aspirant who is trying to get a job in PR could exchange views on football, fashion, food, trends or bitch about a celebrity with someone who might run an agency that employs hundreds of people. Now you can.

We don’t use recruitment agencies at entry / executive level. If a recruiter contacts me and says ‘I’ve got a creative, dynamic person with lots of initiative who is desperate to work at Cow’ I ask ‘Well why didn’t they contact us then?’.

PR’ing yourself
If you were your own client, how would you approach the brief of getting a job in a creative business that sees CVs every day (and very few that say or do anything different or new). Think what is actually going to  make you stand out and appeal to an employer. Be different to stand out, but be subtle – ambition is a splendid, but there’s nothing more annoying than someone thinking that work is a game of The Apprentice. Overconfidence or being ’IN YOUR FACE’ is probably rightly interpreted as arrogance. Humility, nuanced subtly and understatement is a wonderful thing.  An employer is looking for someone with potential and the desire to learn, they aren’t expecting the complete package. However, different approaches though will appeal to different employers with different agency cultures.

The important thing is: don’t say it, show it – Most CVs say “I’m passionate, I live and breathe brands, I’m creative, I’m dynamic, have a great visual eye and understanding of media”. An approach to an agency is an opportunity to bring those words to life.Give an employer a reason they want to know more or, even better, can’t turn you down.

That bit is up to you. Good luck.

The Odd Couple (and Kimberley with the scar) January 15, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in Consumer PR, Friends, Home.
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My older, twice-divorced, cab driving cousin has come to stay with me for a while, at least until ‘things calm down a bit in Egham’. I’ve already established that should he ever go on Mastermind his specialist subjects would be Arsenal FC, Northern Soul and the names of the all girls on the free to view Babestation stations. Dedicated viewing means he knows them off pat and can even provide a running commentary into their levels of filthiness and surgical history: “Look at her, Kimberley that is, all pumped up…oh she’s got the old scar down there n’all…Lets see who else is on…Lindsay! Oh no, she’s had them reduced! what’s she gone and done that for?!”

There’s been a bit of a  kerfuffle, lets put it that way, a fallout over something or other that needs to be settled or as he was explaining to me the other night with the TV set to Arsenal in the background: “I don’t know what I’d do. I’d have to move ‘ouse, I’d ‘ave to move out the area, that would mean having to change my job, not seeing so much of my kids, all my life is there….HE WAS NEVER OFFSIDE!…OH REF!….Did you see that?…HE WAS LEVEL!…so, yeah it’s really bad…I can’t believe that. The left back played him on!”.

That’s my family all over. Older generation aside, we’re littered with black sheep and I, at the very least, come in pastel shades of grey (my cousin was impressed when I showed him pages four and five of from a tattered News of the World featuring a woman I once dated). Still, he and I have always got on extremely well,  enjoyed each others company and its been good to have someone to come home to of an evening  even if to the outside observer this incongruous pairing of mini-cab driver in hiding and PR Director seems like a well crafted Pinter play. Whilst he has now embraced Waitrose, my predilection for books, ‘posh soup’, no bread,  fine wine, The Guardian, foreign films, skimmed milk and unopened mail has been heartily, and possibly justifiably, mocked. Meanwhile, I’ve noticed my consumption of lager, takeaways and Kimberley with the scar has rocketed in the past week.

Having easy going company has been welcome as it’s been a grueling time on the work front. Another fortnight at the coalface, albeit this one of the Chilean variety and no sign if a drill boring its way to us from daylight above.  January is always like that. After a week or so off we returned to four pitches in six days. Ideally a pitch requires a minimum of two weeks to crack the brief, discuss strategic approaches, develop creative tactics and then produce a presentation, so coming back on January 4th dotted with the remnants of festive tinsel and still giddy with the echoes of Jingle Bells ringing in our ears was always going to be a shock to the system at the best of times, but especially under these circumstances.

What keeps one going is the knowledge that it will all settle down again by February. No one dared venture to Village East despite it being the end to a long slog of a week, a combination of detoxing and desire to recharge, no one that is except Martin and I.

We’d felt that after refusing to leave the office on Friday night until we’d properly cracked a brief and by that coming up with an idea that we loved and that would fly rather than a nice set of ideas that would do, we’d earned an Espresso Martini or two. On seeing us and hearing of our stint our drinks were kindly provided on the house by management, meaning I arrived home jubilant and uplifted with the late turn of events to the week and pitched the new PR idea to my cousin on my return. ‘I don’t have a clue what you are talking about’, he said, ‘But I admire that you get paid for coming up with that sort of thing…now stop talking bollocks and have a beer’.

Put on dog on it July 22, 2010

Posted by normanmonkey in Consumer PR, In the news, Media.
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3 comments

When a cab driver looks at you in sympathy and asks you eyeball to rear view mirror ‘You just finished doing a night shift’, it’s a bad sign that maybe one is not looking one’s best. Especially when you are forced at 7.30a.m to reply that you are actually on your way into work. Had I not mentioned it, he may have otherwise solemnly driven me to Harley St and waived the fare in sympathy. Yet, for all the wretched hours of coming up with the elusive ‘big idea’ or solutions to a new brief, all our woes may be over.

In future every PR tactic that goes out of our office will have the words ‘…for dogs’ fastened on it. PR is that simple. Put a dog on it and people start to fizz and gurgle and before you know it the phone rings from News at Ten.

It’s less than a week since I stood on Wandsworth Common overseeing a photo shoot shivering with two Great Danes and an ice cream van. Since then the first ice cream for dogs has ‘gone global’. There’s been BBC Breakfast, Chris Evans, This Morning and The One Show tomorrow. Film crews from France and Mexico on Saturday. Forget the global economic meltdown, we got ice cream vans for dogs. No doubt people are pausing from their struggle for survival in Burkina Faso to talk about the K99 ice cream van with the chicken and gammon flavour.

They can’t get enough of the first ice cream van for dogs. You know what George Osborne should have done with the Emergency Budget? Put a dog on it. The England World Cup squad? Put a dog on it. Raoul Moat….should have put a dog on it. BP? Well, it’s worth a punt! An English Heritage castle is in the news today because a man was arrested having sex with a dog on the site. That castle needed a boost. They know.

Meanwhile I can barely type due to a trapped nerve in my neck. The result is that I can’t raise my head from a lowered stoop and most women suspect I am looking at their cleavage.

While this may be convenient it is certainly not the case. Except for the girl in the Vietnamese cafe on Bermondsey Street. Then again, judging by the looks of things at lunchtime Dan Turner had also trapped a nerve in his neck around the time it came to him placing his order and who can blame him. Having tried Nurofen Plus, Anadin Ultra and Chateauneuf du Pape (finally, in desperation, all at the same time) I’ve given up. If all else fails I’m going to put a dog on it.