PR Realities You Won’t Find in Communication School Textbooks

newspapers lined up

Ours is a craft with tenets that date back to the Founding Fathers and Mothers–not of our country, but of public relations. Many are do-it-by-the-book rules. They're still taught in communication schools and practiced in the profession.

But many maxims are missing from textbooks. Here are a few that new communicators should absorb and veterans remember:

  • Good work doesn’t assure job security. (Despite what your supervisor or HR says.) Any veteran in our business knows job security is an oxymoron, primarily at agencies.


  • Reading newspapers daily is a priority. As a journalist, my morning assignment was scanning all the NYC newspapers.  This helps reporters know what stories are incomplete or misleading. I never lost the habit. So, as a PR executive I continued reading newspapers first thing, perhaps at breakfast or commuting. Reading the news does several things for PR pros. One, as former Amazon communicator Peter Kadushin says, the PR pro gets a feel for what the media and public consider news. Second, it helps media pitchers know which stories need follow-ups. Third, you can quickly alert business executives about issues that might affect their company. In turn, they alert management, making them look good. That, of course, helps you, the PR pro. Making a client executive look good is the most important facet of building relationships.


  • Most PR pros get incomplete information. This is because they get their news from TV sound bites or headlines, which do not tell the entire story. Even the best broadcast TV news is a briefing service. With stories sandwiched between commercials, segments barely include the 5 Ws. Moreover, TV news, with some exceptions, is ratings-dependent. As such, TV news has an entertainment component that may detract from the storytelling.


  • Many PR execs receive promotions because of allegiance to an important executive. But this can have dire consequences should management change. As such, working well with a range of colleagues is important.


  • Good work will not necessarily result in a promotion... There are many reasons people are promoted in PR. As note above, some people are promoted because of loyalty to higher-ups. Sometimes slots needed filling asap. Other times factors besides merit were important. Unfortunately, PR expertise does not magically accrue when a person receives a higher title.


  • On the other hand, sometimes good people are fired. Those in PR, again, especially at agencies, for more than a brief time realize that firings often have nothing to do with an individual’s competency.


  • PR crises linger. While some consider many of these maxims outside the realm of PR textbook content, this one is not. As such, it's a staple in many a PR pro's writings on crisis communication and likely is found in textbooks. It's nearly common knowledge that once an entity or individual is the subject of a PR crisis, it becomes embedded in its DNA. Digital technology makes it easier than ever for media (or social media users) to revive such unpleasant memories. PR pros should remember that when crafting programs.


  • Vet paid spokespeople–aka hired guns–when using them for promoting products, companies, causes and events. As we said above, it's embarrassing when media rehash a negative incident or full-blown PR crisis. When you've recommended an influencer for a campaign and something that person did previously is exposed, go ahead and double the embarrassment. As a result, it’s important to make certain that hired spokespeople lack skeletons in their closest that might remerge. Similarly, ensure they have not hawked competing or unhealthy products. That information likely will resurface. Very Important: Do due diligence yourself. Never cede vetting to hired guns’ agents.


  • Getting credit for work is a reoccurring problem.  People take credit for work others have done. This is so because of the way PR supervisors report results. In addition, there's the issue of the group concept, which camouflages who does what. Practitioners must find a way to let top management know of their contributions. In PR, the group concept often hides when someone did a good job. Don’t fall into that trap and let your supervisor speak for the group. Top management might never know about your value to the success of a program. Repeat: Find a way of informing senior management of your contribution.


  • Aggressiveness in PR is rewarded. Don’t be shy to suggest or criticize program ideas if asked.


  • Longevity. How long you should remain at an agency before seeking a better opportunity elsewhere is a reoccurring question in PR. Thus, when receiving praise from management for good work, remember what Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote in The Prince. “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

Arthur Solomon was a journalist and SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. Contact him: [email protected] 

[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of PRNEWS. We invite opposing essays from readers.]