media update’s Aisling McCarthy looks behind the scenes of a job in public relations.

Public relations officer, Robert Wynne, writes for Forbes that “the public relations industry does a terrible job of public relations”. This is simply because very few people seem to know what it is that PRs actually do.

Despite the glossy image PR is often given, it actually involves a lot of un-glamourous, hard work in a high-pressure environment.

1. PR is not a 9 to 5 job

Working in the publicity sphere is not like a traditional desk job, with the hours varying based on what is happening. Kisha van Vuuren, co-owner and PR strategist at Tin Can PR, says that when she started out in the PR scene, she was surprised by how fast-paced the environment is.

“’The call that comes at 3am to deal with a crisis is real. Your time is never your own – there is always something happening.”

In PR, the focus is always on the clients, and this often means putting yourself last, says Lauren Fernandez, in an article for PR Daily.

“Your day starts and ends with a cup of coffee. You get so used to putting the client first, that half the time you forget to eat lunch.”

2. Versatility is key

A successful career in public relations requires a huge amount of versatility, says Van Vuuren, as working in this industry means doing whatever is required.

“You are client service, creative director, account manager, writer, and general miracle worker. Serving drinks, icing cakes with the correct logo, make-up artist, clearing the loo so someone more important can use it, comb carrier, dry-cleaning fetcher, hand holder, taxi arranger, PowerPoint whizz, goody bag stuffer – you name it – you’ll have to do it.”

Multi-tasking is also a necessary skill in order to succeed, as PRs often need to monitor media, review campaigns and write copy all at the same time.

“PR is like having a combination of jobs that are media-related – this is what makes it so hectic, but it keeps every day exciting,” she adds.

3. Internships are very helpful – if you can find them

Although there are some PR-specific courses at university level, Moliehi Molekoa, Magna Carta’s business unit head in Africa, tells media update that the actual work of a PR is not really covered.

“There’s very little emphasis on strategy at university level – much focus is placed on theory, campaigns, and media relations. It’s only when you are in the workplace that you realise that this is a very practical field and if your theory is not supported by sound strategy – you are as good as dead.”

Internships, therefore, are the ideal way to get started in PR.

Pugh believes that internships are essential for newcomers to get a feel for the industry and see if they really are good communicators.

“Like many jobs, people tend to have a glamourised idea of PR – that it’s very social – but the truth is that the job is very demanding and not all about parties and product launches. Particularly when you are working in reputation management and corporate, which is very serious, challenging work.”

Molekoa attributes her success directly to her internship, but notes that there are not enough internships available.

“I learned much of what I know today from those eight months at an internship. Unfortunately, they are not as readily available due to many challenges that the industry (and the country) is facing, [such as] a tight budget.”

Molekoa wants companies to equip youngsters with well-structured internship programmes, and not simply view them as cheap labour.

“We need to pay it forward and open doors for others to follow,” she says.

4. PR is not for everyone

Although a particularly versatile occupation, it is not one that suits everyone, says Van Vuuren, as every day in the life of a PR is different.

“Although I don’t like the term ‘Jack/Jill of all trades,’ in the PR context, I can’t think of a better description. In my opinion, it takes a special type of person to work in PR.
Think about what you have to do: manage client accounts, review media coverage, deal with very busy journalists, develop campaign strategies, create presentations, coordinate with marketing and management departments, identify publicity opportunities, read, write and edit copy and, of course, manage endless social media channels.”

Van Vuuren goes on to say that there are numerous skills which can assist in PR and that is it not just about intelligence.

“Being smart is rarely enough. Skills like communication, teamwork and creativity are just as important and it helps to have the patience of a saint. Being nimble is a key character trait for anyone in PR.”

5. Tips to success

Pugh says that it is imperative to be careful what you say and, more specifically, what you write.

“Words matter. Social media is a minefield that needs to be carefully and responsibly negotiated. Patience is a virtue, and, often, it is best to take a step back and silently assess a situation, before diving in headlong when most people’s emotions are running high – a sober, considered attitude is essential. Keep calm.”

Van Vuuren says that PR rarely warrants the level of hysteria that some people bring to it.

“It’s important to take things seriously but also to keep things in perspective. Your role to your client is advisory and strategic – so don’t take on their hysteria. When it comes to PR clients, they often find the smallest thing and equate it to a crisis.”

She continues, saying that it is very important to try to separate personal and professional life.

“You very quickly learn that you can’t look or listen to any form of media without thinking about one of your clients and how you would have them featured. Or have a conversation with anyone without thinking of opportunities for your clients. Living your clients’ brands essentially become part of your daily routine.”

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Once you’ve decided to go into PR, you want to ensure your success. Read more in our article, South African PR professionals share 7 habits for success.