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Have you got the right qualities to get ahead in PR? Or do you need a personality transplant?

There comes a point in many people’s careers when they question whether they are in the right job, or even the right industry. If you have any doubts about whether you are really suited for all of this, here we give a quick round-up of the sort of people who do best in PR.

Professor of public relations at Bournemouth University and former chairman of the PRCA, Tom Watson questions whether there is a ubiquitous set of personal characteristics that immediately identifies an individual as being perfect for PR. He has studied television and film in order to see if there is a common theme in portrayals of PROs. He gives examples: “The foul-mouthed political manipulator Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi in The Thick of it, is an extreme dimension. The smooth, well-spoken, Saville Row-dressed manipulator Charles Prentiss, played by Stephen Fry in Absolute Power, is another. A third angle is the power-dressing, tactical, event-organising female evidenced in The Devil Wears Prada or Sex and the City.”

Watson argues that looking at the movies and television shows that PR is still portrayed as a middle-class, middle-aged male domain, and adds that this means that “obviously art is not imitating life”. (See here for a complete list of Watson’s film and TV portrayals of PR.)

Fictional PROs may not be as close to reality as their creators may think, but as with most archetypes, there is some truth in them. Watson says that in his own working experience and research, he has found that all types of people can do well in PR with one exception. He says: “About the only people who really don’t fit in PR are those who work alone in a corner and don’t want to build personal relationships.” Discussing his students, he believes it is hard to predict which ones will have the most successful careers, as he says, “I have seen some very odd young people do well and naturally talented ones give up in despair after six months and take up teaching instead. The industry is so diverse that there's a place for most young people with application, writing skills and some understanding of business and media.”

Shy, retiring types, might better be suited for another career, but they are probably not drawn to PR in the first place. Neil Boom, PR director at One News Page, agrees that extroverts do well, but says that there is also room for those who are more contemplative. He explains: “I have noticed that agencies are invariably led by energetic, strongly confident types that can light up a room. Examples are Alan Parker founder of Brunswick PR and Andrew Grant, founder of Tulchan Communications. Personality-wise, I think PROs can be split roughly into two camps. In the first, are people with imagination, flair and extroversion. They love the creative side of the role, love being in the know, and form quick bonds with people. The downside is that they are generally poor at administration. The other, equally important, types are the worriers. Worriers are great on the detail because they fret over accuracy and all the things that can go wrong.”

Pinning down the ideal type of person who shines in PR obviously means generalising. So far, we have mentioned being sociable, confident, imaginative, extrovert, hard working, plus there is no harm in being a bit of a worrier. To broaden it out even more, Katharina Winkler, account manager, corporate at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, says that she believes you have to be a “jack of all trades”, although the one skill that she personally ranks the highest is the ability to write well. This ties in perfectly with the research detailed below. So it’s quite simple. If you want to get ahead in PR, you have to be good at everything. And brilliant at writing.

Research study

A recent study by Shannon Bailey, a BA Public Relations student at Bournemouth University, identified positive characteristics of PROs. She interviewed senior PR people in consumer consultancies:

The top personal characteristics found were: enthusiasm and passion, determination and confidence. There was a clear link between those who were successful and “knowing what you want and where you want to go”. Bailey also writes that “being sociable was deemed to be most crucial for PR practitioners”. One interviewee illustrated this with, “a practitioner is a relationship builder, someone who can develop relationships with clients and media with minimal difficulty.”

The important learned skills were flexibility based on the monitoring of changing trends and the intelligence to cover a wide range of topics: “The best PROs are the ones who know something about everything rather than specialise” was an industry comment, as they can relate to a wide range of industries and environments.

Other qualities highly valued were creativity, writing skills and the ability to listen and to present persuasively: “Communication is the core of what we do ... if you can’t write or speak then don’t bother” was one verdict.

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