The Sharp end: What, me work in PR?

Getting his come-uppance as a hack, Rhymer Rigby dons a flack's jacket for a day.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Working in public relations isn't a normal Sharp End job. You sit at a desk, you wear what you like and you work in a nice office. But suppose you're a journalist? Hacks have a love-hate relationship with public relations people ('flacks'), who on the one hand can get them access to important stories, but on the other can pester them half to death with endless phone calls, usually pitching lousy ideas.

What makes the hacks 'n' flacks pas de deux all the more interesting (if you're in it, anyway) is that many of the latter were once the former. Why, we journalists ask ourselves, would you leave an exciting, thrilling, underpaid job in journalism for a corporate, dull, well-remunerated one in public relations?

Anyhow, I arrived bright and early at the central London offices of PR agency Brands2Life, ready to be a junior account exec or JAE; the key to understanding this role is the word 'junior', not the word 'executive'. Brands2Life was founded in 2000 and now employs 50 or so people, representing a mixture of technology firms and household names. I was to be working on two accounts called - for reasons of client confidentiality - brand X and brand Y, under the direction of Andre and Sam.

We kicked off with a briefing on my clients for the day. I was working in the tech sector and would be dealing with the trade press - which was probably a good thing, as it meant I wouldn't be phoning up people I usually write for.

Once I was up to speed, I did a little cold-calling with stories. Journalists cringe at the thought of this and I'd been dreading it. But, really, it wasn't so bad. The various editors I spoke to were pleasant enough, regardless of their interest in whatever it was I was pitching. In specialist areas, the relationship between flacks and hacks is probably more symbiotic than it is in the general business media. Or perhaps there's less difference than I'd care to imagine between pitching ideas to people who want to get rid of you and trying to get interviews with people who don't want to talk to you.

Then I worked on the news round-up, hunting for mentions of clients in the media. Google News and related pay services are both a blessing and a curse here. Sure, it's great to have 10 zillion global news services at your fingertips. But it also means that any client of any size gets hundreds of mentions a week and you have sift through all of them to find the five relevant stories.

Next, I wrote a letter. It is an interesting fact that many publications (obviously not MT) struggle to fill their letters pages. So savvy PRs tap out missives on the hot topic of the day and then have their clients submit them. It's a good way to build name-recognition. I duly turned in my letter, which I thought pert and polished and, heck, if I was an editor, I'd publish it. It came back reworked and, to be honest, I didn't really like it - too much information compromised its elegance and flow. But, as it was published two hours later, I'll happily admit that it was a clear example of me not knowing what I'm talking about.

I then got to collate the various weekly media reports (drawn from the news round-ups) into the monthly report for client X. This would have been a simple cut-and-paste job but for the fact that Brands2Life had been really putting in the spadework and its stories were everywhere. Instead of a four-page report, mine ran to several volumes: brand X was certainly getting great value for money. This, of course, is what the business is built on - when it works, PR is much more effective than advertising and costs much less.

It was the systematic approach that surprised me most: the amount of organisation that goes into representing dozens of clients to hundreds of publications and measuring the result is truly impressive. As a journalist, I assumed that PRs spent their lives cold-calling people like me and occasionally taking us out to lunch. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, and they all work rather hard; the stereotype of the industry as a career for the pretty and vacant is decades out of date.

For all that, though, I haven't changed my mind about crossing the floor. But the reasons I wouldn't do so have changed. I'd probably be OK at bits of it - some of the strategic stuff and the writing - but the industrious, organisational aspect would floor me every time. In fact, the only way I could be a PR is if I had a whole team of PAs.

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