There are certain career paths that seem to elude people in terms of what they are, and how people actually get jobs within them. Public relations (aka PR) is one of those.
Especially in circles among other people working in media, PR seems to get a reputation for being full of former high school “mean girls.” My first introduction to the world of PR was probably through Samantha on Sex and the City — perhaps not a mean girl, but certainly a beautiful woman whose work life seemed to depend on her ability to simply get rich and famous people into the same room. PR also has an air of mystery to it — if you were to wonder so what do these people actually do? you wouldn’t be the first.
I had my preconceived notions about how the PR world worked — until one of my close friends, who we’ll call Anna, started working in it. She works in a large city at a branch of a global PR firm. It’s pretty much the opposite of my current work situation, so I’m always fascinated to hear about the ins and outs of her work world. But not only is she the furthest thing from a stereotypical PR mean girl, she is one of the most intelligent and hardest-working people I know (plus an extremely kind and considerate friend, not to brag). Below, I asked her some of my most pressing questions about why she decided to go into PR in the first place, how she feels about some of the ever-pervasive stereotypes about PR, and how she honestly feels about her job.
1. First, tell us a little bit about what you do. What is your job title? How many people work at your company? What about in your team/department?
Anna: I work for a global PR firm on the company’s public affairs team. My current title is Account Executive, though titles tend to vary by agency. Companies like mine tend to be very striated, so there’s a lot of different titles. Mine is basically upper junior level with one more to go before a fully supervisory role.
Globally, we have over twenty offices with varying numbers of employees in each. My office has just under 100 people. When I started, my team was roughly 15 people, but we’re now down to just under ten.
2. How long have you worked there?
I’ve been there for just over a year — which I can’t believe.
3. What was your starting salary for this job? Have you gotten any raises/promotions? Do you think your pay is standard for the industry?
I make just under $50K per year. My company has a pretty robust review/promotion system, so having just passed my one-year anniversary, I’ll be undergoing this process soon! It’s relatively intense and includes a self-assessment and the combined feedback of over ten of the colleagues with whom I work regularly.
My company is somewhat unusual with its reviews and its compensation. At most other agencies, promotions and annual reviews are not guaranteed. My salary is slightly below average for my agency and my position, but still above the industry average. Just a note about other benefits (since TFD readers, if they’re anything like me, know that those are PRETTY freaking valuable). I can get health, vision and dental insurance through work and I have a 401k (HOW GROWN-UP). Our clients include a number of airline and hotel companies, so depending on the brand, we get some discounts there as well. Pretty decent package, when you add it all up.
4. To me, it seems like getting a job in the PR world is highly competitive. Would you say this is true? If so, how?
I think it’s relatively competitive, particularly to break into the communication industry at the start of your career. Like many other non-STEM jobs, there are limited openings and lots of people who studied some related field and are qualified for the jobs. The good news is that the “PR world” is so incredibly broad. There is straight up PR, there’s public affairs (what I do, which focuses more on issue management, advocacy, government & regulatory affairs), there’s publicity, there’s lobbying — not to mention the vast world of social media and digital design. This is strictly based on anecdotal evidence, but it seems like there is a weird paradoxical thing where if you can specify your skill-set a little, the market widens.
5. What was the interview process like?
My entire interview process was less than three weeks, which according to our HR lead, is unusually fast (our team landed three new clients in about a week around the time that I was hired, so hires were expedited). In our company, we have a multi-step process.
First is a screening phone call with the HR team, which I am pretty sure just verifies that the candidate is a human person. Next, you send writing samples, which HR shares with the team you’re vying to join. Next, the in-person interviews. I met with five different team members on two separate occasions, essentially meeting the whole senior leadership level on the team. Then, I did a writing test that involved drafting some media materials and providing rationale beyond a campaign strategy. Then my references were called and I got the job offer a day after that!
6. Why did you want to go into PR? How is the job like/different than what you expected?
In college, I studied literature and film, and for my whole life, I’ve been obsessed with stories. Somewhere along the line, I also got a taste for public speaking and issues advocacy. As I headed toward my college graduation, I began the age-old, months-long panic attack of “how could I have studied so hard and worked so much and not have a job lined up.” I started to think about how I could use the skills I learned in college, like critical thinking, writing and an understanding of social science. That line of thinking, coupled with my propensity for public speaking and issues advocacy, led me to consider communications as a next step.
The things that surprise me about the job are maybe not what you’d think. When I opted to go agency (rather than in-house at a company in their communications shop), I knew what it would be — lots of clients, long hours, and shockingly fast-paced environments…more on all that later.
What continues to catch me off guard, though, is the near constant state of change I’m in. We get new clients, old clients leave. Our account team structures evolve, depending on budgets and monthly run rates. Our whole team changes when someone announces they’re leaving or we bring on someone new. For me, at this job, “not normal” is my new “normal.”
7. What things do you like about your job?
I work with smart, creative, funny people. That is my favorite part by far. I didn’t realize how incredibly important good team dynamics were before this job. The fact that we get along, work well together and laugh at the same sick jokes makes the long hours and high-stress environment easier.
I’ll never stop learning in this job — and I love that. In the past year, I have become, if not an expert, then at least a person “in the know” about health care, cybersecurity, biotechnology, trade policy, and a great many more topics. I need to know what matters to my clients, and I need to know when big moments happen in their industries.
I get to write — sometimes. Maybe not the sprawling epic fantasy novel that bounces around in my head around 2 AM most mornings, but I do get to write and feel that this job (and again, the SUPER smart people who review my work) has made me a better writer. It’s mostly blog posts for clients, but other times, I ghostwrite bylines and op-eds that end up in real media sources.
8. What things do you dislike?
I already mentioned the instability, which is really difficult for me to deal with. But aside from that, the biggest thing is billable time. In agencies, like in law firms, everyone has a bill rate and a minimum billing requirement. For me, this means that of an eight hour work day (HA…eight hours), I have to be billable (meaning my time is spent on client work) for all but 30 minutes of that. Now, in theory, that sounds fine, but when you factor in nonbillable time (with internal meetings and time spent managing my direct report) it adds an extra level of stress.
We also, as an agency, are owned by a large communications conglomerate, and the profit-driven priorities of that company, for all the efforts of our team, impact us. I mentioned earlier that my team has shrunk significantly in the past year. The reason we’ve been able to continue is because the current staff has been stretched to cover holes left by people who’ve taken other jobs (which happens frequently in agencies like mine). Because it’s working, and we still uphold our standards and get out work done with a smaller team, we haven’t been able to hire. Because the leadership that makes that decision is miles away, they don’t see what the impact of months of short-staffing has created. Namely, very, very tired junior people who are stretched very thin.
9. Do you think people have a misconception about what Public Relations is? If so, what do they get wrong?
PR is so huge as a concept, I think most people fail to get their arms (or minds) around it. It’s not following around a celebrity and setting up photo shoots. It’s an immensely complex and dynamic field. We crunch data, we do social listening, we tell stories. It, like most fields, is not one thing.
I think there is also a really counterproductive stereotype out there that being a “PR person” automatically implies some of “mean girl” persona. This, in my experience and as with most stereotypes, is painting a massive, diverse group of people with the same brush. Sure, some “PR people” suck. But that’s no different from any other field. Some of my favorite people in the entire world are PR people and they are clever and engaged and passionate. They care about their clients and they take pride in their work.
Some can also drink pretty much anyone under the table, so that’s kind of fun.
10. I know you went to graduate school for a master’s degree in PR. How did that help you in your career, if it did?
I did indeed. I have a Master’s in PR. It was a professional degree, which was largely based on practical skills (though my thesis was more theoretical). The best benefit I experienced from grad school was the network. I attended a university known for this and boy, were the rumors true. I met my mentor through my connections at school and got to study under and work with people who shaped this industry. I got my current job by way of referral by my mentor to my current boss — they worked together years ago, and the professional relationship builders that they are, they kept in touch.
11. Can you speak a bit more about the crazy hours you mentioned? Is that par for the course for this industry?
I DO work crazy hours and unfortunately, it is par for the course in a junior level. It is a constant and conscious effort on my part to separate my work and home life. Having email on my phone and having clients with my cell phone number further complicate that effort.
What I really dislike about this is that I have begun to feel like a flake in my life outside of work. I used to write to my friends — not texts, but real letters. I never used to miss birthdays or be late sending gifts. But now, there is so little time to do those things and have some modicum of enjoyment or relaxation. The pressure that I feel from this is very strong, and balancing my professional and personal commitments is a thing I struggle with every single day.
What I have learned though, is that just because my job is a huge part of my life, I can’t let it be my whole life. I try actively carve out time for the ever-elusive alone time that I and introverts like me crave. I do yoga and I have writing projects that I work on during the weekend for fun. I got glasses that have tinted lenses so that a 14 hour day spent staring at a computer screen doesn’t give me a migraine. And at the end of the day, even if it means I get a little less sleep, I do things for me.
Image via Unsplash