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How important is humour in public relations?

It is obvious that Andy Barr from PR agency 10Yetis, likes a laugh – why else would he give himself the job title Head Yeti? He says: “Humour in the public relations work place is, for me, essential. We work in world where people are keen to try and make our business appear more important than life or death. It isn’t, well, unless you do PR for an organisation for which it is … anyway, I digress.”

“Having a sense of humour when you are getting berated for trying to flog a story is important. Having a sense of humour when you are starting out and celebrating your first ever hit on Press Association, only to realise you are going to have to screen grab all of those 407 regional pickups, is valuable.”

“A sense of humour can also get you out of a sticky situation with clients, colleagues and the media. You misjudged a recent appraisal and asked for pay rise when really they want you out, laugh it off, crack a funny. You make a hugely inappropriate pitch (in my case about a successful sex-offender – don’t ask, it was a Pride Gold waiting to happen I tell you), just crack a funny and move along. And finally, you have a low day and steal the only remaining bar of chocolate left in the office only to realise it is owned by the office psycho, bring out a big pun and hope for the best.”

Freelance consultant Pete Roythorne agrees with Barr about the importance of laughter at work, he says: “Humour is not just a nice thing to have in PR, it is essential. We work in a relationships business and that means being able to win people over and put them at ease – and the best way to do that is through humour. You want to make a lasting impression on journalists or win over prospective new clients – make them laugh. They’ll remember you, and in the case of journalists are more likely to open your emails.”

“That’s not to say that everything we produce should be laced with one-liners and that our presentations should turn into stand-up comedy routines and not PR pitches. When you’re in a competitive pitch process you need to keep it professional, but at the end of the day, both parties need to find someone they can work with. As PROs we need to be able to read people and situations and inject the humour when it’s appropriate – sometimes it isn’t. And yes, I’m sure we’ve all got it wrong. But equally I know I’ve got it right on any number of occasions and those pitches have won over some great clients. I’m sure there are clients out there for whom humour isn’t appropriate. Fortunately, I don’t work with any.”

One of the wittiest women in PR is Julia Streets, CEO of Streets Consulting, who is also a stand-up. Discussing the secrets to using humour at work, she says: “If the key to good comedy is timing I’d add the key to good business humour is tone. Get it right and you can lighten a mood, deflect an awkward moment or create attention. Used inappropriately, you run the risk of killing a room, creating tension and possibly building unnecessary barriers.”

“I often get asked when the best time is and what’s the best type of joke? Simply, when it feels entirely natural for you. Humour must be an extension of you as a communicator. Ever seen a presenter awkwardly punt out a borrowed joke because they thought they needed to? I learned the hard way. Years ago, pressured to write a joke for a senior city executive it failed tumbleweed – badly. It was my fault. I hadn’t thought enough about his style. Ignorance is bliss, however. He thought he was hilarious. Another tip? Learn to read a room.”

“We talk about ‘knowing our audience’ and it’s the same for humour. What does your audience need from you? If they need to feel comfortable and non-threatened, lighten the tone. If your senior female client needs counsel at a stressful moment, a mother-in-law gag might not go down so well. Or maybe it will? Only you should know.”

Examples of humour at work

Something funny happened to me on the way to the office …

Tom Leatherbarrow, head of B2B at agency Willoughby PR:

“Humour is a way of standing out amongst the crowd. I have a client in a very senior government affairs job that I write a regular monthly blog for and we have covered everything from The Archers, through to flooding and Gregg’s pasties. We go off on flights of fancy with him dreaming of standing for parliament or advising the president in the Oval Office. Does it diminish him in the eyes of his customers? I don’t think so and neither does the magazine – we are now into our third year of writing it! Oh and it is great fun for both of us.”

Jeremy Walters, independent PR consultant: 

“My favourite PR use of humour is a story told to me about a client who had just sat through a pitch. Despite all the work that had clearly gone into the pitch, the ego-obsessed and narcissistic client merely looked up and said, ‘So, what are you going to do to get me on the front page of the Telegraph?’ The PR agency director looked at him and said, ‘I'll give you a gun and you can shoot your wife’. I've never forgotten that line.”

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