PR Pressure Cooker: Balance, Boundaries Key in Handling Stress

With Chick-fil-A’s same-sex marriage controversy nearly played out, one thing about that crisis that made PR pros pause was the tragic death by heart attack of the restaurant chain’s longtime head of PR, Don Perry. While we don’t know if that controversy and the stress associated it had some bearing on what happened to Perry (the company preferred not to comment), it does bring up the subject of pressures that PR pros face while on the job.

In fact, PR executives ranked No. 7 in an infamous list of Top 10 Most Stressful Jobs released in January 2012, sandwiched between event coordinators at No. 6 and corporate executives at No. 8. Given the frequency of PR crises, the technology-driven 24/7 nature of the job and the ever-increasing demands on communicators to prove their worth, PR News decided to take a look at stress in PR; the factors that cause stress the most and how PR pros deal with the pressures that accompany their jobs.

First, let’s be real: PR is not neurosurgery. But from a business perspective the stakes can be high. That’s why Judy Martin, a work-life journalist and consultant, likens a public relations executive to an ER doctor in terms of pressure. A negative article from the press, a damaging tweet from the public or an unforeseen physical disaster are all cause for triage, and that can cause much stress.

For Ike Richman, VP of public relations at Comcast-Spectacor, it’s the crisis that has the most effect. You see, says Richman, PR pros by nature are organized. “We like to plan things out, we like to be proactive and anticipate,” he says. “You are reactive in a crisis, and sometimes things don’t go the way you planned it.”


How does he get through a stressful situation? “I take a step back, and try keep everything in balance,” says Richman. His mantra in handling the demands and pressures at work: It will all get done. “I remind myself of that all of the time,” says Richman.

A crisis isn’t the only cause of stress for communications pros. For one brand director in the consumer goods industry (who prefers to remain anonymous), internal pressure is a major cause of stress. What creates the most pressure? Getting approvals. “When you’re in a big corporation, everyone has to approve external messaging,” she says. “If something goes out from PR that hasn’t been approved, a senior leader could get blindsided.”

Stress can strike even when a mistake is made by a corporate partner. The brand manager says a partner recently sent out an unapproved announcement and the mistake reached the CEO. “No one had prepped him on the announcement.” Now that’s some stress.

In terms of a crisis, this brand manager feels stress in handling negative social media comments and negative traditional press. How does she deal with it? “I make sure that I’ve done everything I can do to make sure everyone knows the facts,” she says. It’s about being confident in your decision making, coupled with planning and preparation.


While its tough to prepare for the unknown, Bill Hughes, chief communications officer at CA Technologies, says that’s exactly what he does, learning from a stressful job at an agency. “The demands that clients put on agencies cause a lot of stress,” says Hughes.

“What you deliver affects whether or not the agency will keep the client.” When at the agency, Hughes over-prepared—something he does today in the corporate setting.

“Stress for me is making a call on something where it could go either way,” he says. “You have planned to handle your decision’s ramifications, but you don’t know exactly how it’s going to fly.” But that’s PR. “If PR were a science, it would be easy,” says Hughes, who feels that a little stress will actually improve performance.


But what about the fact that PR executives are now always “on.” Richman tries to strike a balance. Coming home at night, he might walk into the house and tell his family that he needs a few extra minutes, “then I’m all yours.” He tries never to mix the two (see the sidebar on handling weekend calls). On vacation Richman checks his e-mail once in the morning and once at night. “The great thing about e-mail is you can respond when it’s convenient for you,” says Richman. “If something were urgent, my staff would pick up the phone and call.”

Hughes wonders whether technology has been good or bad for the PR executive. “Today you’re always accessible and people are always calling you,” he says. “Fifteen years ago you didn’t have that. When I try to get away I’m carrying every connecting device.”

Has technology helped alleviate stress? Hughes says no. “I long for the day when I can get on the plane and sleep or watch a movie,” he muses.


Then there’s another source of stress: staff. Not having a team that you can rely on, that’s stressful, says Hughes. Trust in that team is a big factor, adds the brand manager, who says it’s most stressful when there’s a poor performer on the team that you must keep tabs on. “When your team is running on all cylinders, it makes your job so much easier,” she says.


It’s important to note that our sources for this story weren’t complaining about stress. They handle it and often thrive on it. But they do try to alleviate the stress outside of work.

All of them exercise. Richman runs or bikes to relax. “I try to put the Blackberry down and forget where I am,” he says. Hughes plays squash, tennis and golf—pointing out that frequent frustration on the links is not the same as stress. The brand director is also big on running, 3 miles, 4-5 times per week. “I drink a lot of wine, too,” she says, kidding.

As a PR pro, Martin says you’re expected to work with integrity and be confident in your skills. And that’s how to handle stress: be confident and also be true to yourself. PRN

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Ike Richman, [email protected]; Bill Hughes, [email protected]; Judy Martin, [email protected].

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