How to Move Up in PR (Hint: It Takes More Than Good Work)

Scrabble Career

PR pros in the circus for a number of years know what newcomers might not: Good work often is not enough to advance a career.

There are factors that management considers before promoting someone. They include presentation skills, personality, appearance and the most insidious–even though management will deny it–office politics.

There are aspects of dealing with management that you probably didn’t learn in communications school. You should know them. Here are a few:

Human Resources and Your Career

There's lots of propaganda that HR exists to help employees. HR works for management. So, avoid saying negative things about the agency or supervisors to HR. To put it bluntly, you can't always trust HR.  They may not be your friends.  “Anything you say can be used against you,” as arresting officers say.

Annual Reviews

Some agencies ask employees to complete annual review forms. Employees are asked to list ways in which they can improve job performance, or as I see it, admit their failures. Answer these questions carefully. Your answers may remain on file. Should you complain about your salary or a lack of promotions, you'll hear them resuscitated.

After filling out an annual review form, my supervisor told me, “You turned every negative into a positive for yourself. Re-do it.” I replied, “Do you think I was born yesterday?”  I never filled out another review form. (Note: I led several accounts; I wasn’t worried.)

Saying Goodbye

Never leave a job on a sour note. Ours is a small business. The person you disparage when discussing your departure might decide your future at another agency.

Many agencies ask departing employees to avoid informing clients until the agency does. Even though it upset higher-ups, I always advised my staff to do otherwise.  Make sure clients don't think you were dismissed. And then thank them for the opportunity to work on their accounts.

A supervisor reprimanded me the first time I gave such advice. My reply: “I have to look in the mirror everyday...I’m not in the business of making an individual look bad.” Nobody reproached me on the subject again.

When I began freelancing, 99 percent of my work came from people who'd reported to me or worked with me at Burson-Marsteller. The takeaway: Treat people nicely.

'You Have an Unlimited Future Here'

As new employees soon learn, agencies are in business to make money. Your value depends on the agency's immediate needs, which can change quickly, as accounts are lost or won. It’s not unusual for a supervisor, in an effort to stop someone from jumping to another agency, to tell that employee, “You have an unlimited future here. Stay.”

I advise employees in this situation to read “The Prince," Niccolò Machiavelli's 16th-century book. In it he writes, “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

Promotions Without Salary Increases, Titles Without Meaning

The following conversations are common between a supervisor and a subordinate:

Supervisor to subordinate: “Because of your good work, we’re increasing your salary, effective X months from now.”

Or, “Because of your good work, we‘re moving you to a larger office.” Or

Or, “Due to your good work, we’re promoting you to (fill in the meaningless title.)”

All three scenarios have one thing in common: Your salary will remain the same for months.

If this happens to you, my advice is to immediately express disappointment to your supervisor. The supervisor's response will indicate what the company thinks. And don’t fall for, “The salary review board will meet again in six months. At that time we’ll take up your situation.”

The Most Important Lesson You Probably Didn't Learn in Communications School

If there's one aspect of PR that's most important, strong relationships would be it.

There are three things that I recommend to foster relationships: excellent work, 24/7 availability and making the client look good.

Excluding good work, which is a given, here's how to do it:

1. Always let the client know how to reach you after hours, on holidays or weekends. Before vacation, tell the client that you will let the account executive know how to reach you in an emergency. If out of the country, call in frequently.

2. Act as an early warning system. Read The NY Times and Wall Street Journal and listen to the news each morning. This lets you leave a message for the client about any story that might touch the brand. This gives the client the opportunity to be the first to notify company executives about pertinent news.

The result is that during annual reviews the client will laud you to the agency for work above and beyond expectations. This will give you a power base. Of course, this might upset the agency hierarchy, but it will work to your benefit.

Takeaway: It takes more than good work to advance in PR. Ours is an aggressive business. Your best friend at the agency is going after the same promotion as you. Supervisors often take credit for others' work.  So, if you have the ammunition, don’t be afraid to use it. You can be assured that others in your agency will do so.

Arthur Solomon was SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. A frequent contributor to PR News, he is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. 

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