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Is public relations an accidental career?

PR was not a deliberate career choice for many people who now work in PR, rather PR found them! We talk to seasoned PROs to find out how on earth they ended up in the comms world. They also explain why they love the industry so much, and the types of skills you need to survive, and indeed thrive, in this competitive world.

How I got into PR

I started as a journalist
Denise Kaufmann, CEO at PR firm Ketchum London, trained as a journalist before moving into advertising: “I started my career working for a newspaper having trained as a journalist, but quickly realised it wasn’t for me so moved into advertising and began working as a copywriter and creative. It was here that my skills as a writer were recognised and my boss began to ask me to write press releases in addition to my other tasks. This ask then grew and I began calling journalists for clients to secure press and eventually ended up running a PR division of the ad agency I worked for. I did that for about 10 years before I finally moved over to Ketchum and I haven’t looked back since.

“So you could say that I ended up in PR a bit by accident, but it was by far the best thing that could have happened to me. It harnessed my love for writing, my creativity and my desire and ability to connect with an audience to become a job that I love. I think that’s what’s great about the industry – it has the ability to attract people from all backgrounds and from different disciplines. As long as you have some fundamental skills and a desire to continually learn and evolve, you can do really well in your career wherever you’ve come from.”

PR chose me (I chose advertising first)
David Telling, partner at agency Newgate Communications, says that he was only drawn to PR after working in advertising in the 1980s: “I started work in advertising in the 1980s which was Mad Men with Miami Vice styling. Very fast, very exciting and very creative. The rock stars were the creatives who could conjure magical images from precise briefs under tight deadlines.

“I was drawn not only to the creatives, but also the insight and deep thinking of the planners. Their ability to look at problems from an objective basis, and to understand deeply why people felt the way they did and what might make them think differently was awe inspiring. They had the most enquiring minds of them all.

“That is what drew me to PR, as the 1980s turned to the 1990s, I realised that the real communications battle was happening within all communications not just ads. Applying planning disciplines to overall comms and especially PR opened a whole new world of opportunity. Approaching problems from the broadest possible perspective, and bring new insight and deep emotional engagement meant that PR chose me not the other way around.”

I applied for a PR internship
A PR career evolved from studying media in Vienna for Helen Nassey, account director at agency Propeller PR: “Unlike many other PR execs, I have no journalistic background. I followed the academic route from the outset, starting with a degree in media and communications in my home city of Vienna. A degree is useful, however, as we all know, this is a career that is best learnt on the job. Keen to build experience, I applied to intern at a PR agency, not fully knowing at the time what a PR agency actually did. After a few years of plying journalists with the latest Apple products for them to ‘test’ I gradually realised the ins and outs of influencing the media and that the foundations of PR are relationships and good storytelling. I remember the first time I sold in a story to a notoriously difficult journalist and landing it in print. It was a real watershed moment and I realised that this was the job for me.

“Hungry to experience everything the industry had to offer, I moved to London, the epicentre of media and communications. After a number of interviews, Propeller PR gave me a chance to prove myself. Living and working in another country is the best thing I could have ever done, it’s the one piece of advice I would give anyone who has the opportunity. I’ve grown and learned so much, not just careerwise, but in life.”

I spotted an opportunity in a small PR outfit

Andrew White, managing director of agency Triggerfish Communications, started out in marketing in hospitality before PR chose him: “PR chose me rather than me specifically opting for a career in the business of comms! Having worked on the marketing side of the hospitality sector, I got the opportunity to test the water in a PR role in a small practice. I loved it so much, I managed to buy the company out. At the time it was quite a significant move for me, going from the comforts of the large corporate world to the uncertainty of a small company where I had heard of few people. Hard graft and ability to spot an opportunity and maximise my contacts has helped me grow the business and develop the name of the company within the hospitality sector. 

“For anyone starting out or considering a career in PR, my advice would be: it's all about hard graft, the ability to be able to spot an opportunity and knowing people and making the most of your contacts. PR is neither glamorous nor is it for the fainthearted; it's a delicate balance of keeping things out of the public eye just as much as driving awareness. Add in a crisis and it's a case of keeping your head, being meticulous with your messaging and looking ahead to counter any negativity. I love the diversity of what clients want to achieve – the different personalities that are thrown at you – either the clients, the media or the online community. Most of all it's being trusted by the client to act in their best interests that is the biggest mark of success. If you like people – office politics and the papers – it's a great career to make a mark. 

I fell into it
Working in PR was not a deliberate plan for Kate Matthews, head of PR at integrated agency Kiss: “Like many people in my profession, my PR career came about more by accident than from a conscious career choice. Following a stint at Time Out I developed a vague notion that I liked working with the media, but had no real desire to become a journalist myself. Keen to start earning, I got a job as a receptionist at a London PR agency to tide me over until I decided what I wanted to do. But once I had that all-important foot in the door, I learnt more about PR and slowly became hooked.

“For me, it was the people that made PR a great option. I loved the social side of agency life, the variety of people I met, the talented and tenacious people I worked with, making lifelong friends in the process. The plus side of this accidental-style career path was I quickly learned you get nowhere without the donkey work. My mindset was to try everything and do it to the best of my ability, even if that was stuffing hundreds of envelopes. And we had to do a lot of that back in the day kids!”

I moved from events
Chloe Matthbury, consultant at communications agency Aberfield, feels lucky to have found work she enjoys so much: “My job in PR combines three things that I love; writing, creativity and being organised so I feel quite lucky to be able to say I really enjoy what I do. After graduating in events management in 2013, I worked at an events agency for over three years. My role often involved marketing and PR activities which sparked my interest for creatively thinking for specific audiences, and which ultimately led me to make the move into PR. Now I get to create and engage with people every day and contribute to pitches and campaign ideas. I enjoy the opportunity to keep learning as we work on new projects; looking at audience insights and understanding changing consumer behaviours as the media and communication methods change and evolve.

“An agency environment means that my work is varied, keeping me engaged, challenged and motivated. I like that I can walk into the office each day knowing that I’ve got a number of client projects to work on, and that today will be different from yesterday which will be different to tomorrow. I choose to work in PR ultimately, because it’s so diverse and I love the fact that what I do has the potential to influence someone’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours.”

There are many different routes into PR, but they all have some things in common. They are routes that appeal to great communicators who are prepared to try new things and, naturally, are prepared to work very, very hard.

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