The Truth about PR: What My Mother Never Told Me

By Christopher Biddle

What does it take to be a PR pro? Ethics tops the list of qualities identified by TCNJ students.

As I ended my discussion with 30 college students last week on what it takes to be a successful public relations practitioner, I added one last quality: “Crazy.” As in: “You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to be in PR.”

Why? PR is onNew Picture (3)e of world’s most challenging professions. It’s filled with cascading deadlines, tumbling crises, competing priorities, a need to constantly learn new high-level skills, and too much to do in any given day. (CareerCast.com recently ranked PR the 6th most stressful job behind the military, firefighting, pilots and event coordinators.)

The students with whom I spoke were taking Adjunct Professor Jake Farbman’s class on PR strategies at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) in Ewing, NJ. I had eagerly jumped at Jakes’ invitation to meet this group of future PR, marketing and journalism professionals.

What impressed me most about the 30 students in his class, apart from their curiosity and perceptive questions (some of which I struggled to answer), was their concern about ethics. When I asked what qualities it takes to be a successful PR practitioner, the first three answers they gave me, in quick succession, were: “Ethical practice.” “Genuine.” “Trustworthy.”
Inexcusably, this was not on the list of qualities I had scratched on a piece of paper before class started. But I was excited to hear the students put ethics at the top of their list!

Here’s why: Most folks think PR guns are like those Madison Avenue Mad Men on TV who will do any kind of foul and underhanded thing to snag clients, bury the competition and make the big money. Subtext: Ethics be damned!

Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to ethics, I share the students’ idealism, and so do the senior PR pros in my professional PRSA NJ network. We are PR professionals with high standards, and we adhere to the PRSA’s code of ethics. With inevitable exceptions, we are an honest bunch.

Starting with ethics, here’s a partial list, assembled by Jake’s students, of the qualities (not skills necessarily) needed to be successful PR professional:

  • Ethical: To quote the PRSA code of ethics: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”
  • Effective communicators: We can write and speak with persuasive confidence. We are good story tellers who know how to engage an audience and hold their attention. We are ruthless editors of our own writing.
  • Resourceful: We can get the job done with available—and often scarce—resources. We are self-motivated and perpetual self-learners, quick to seize opportunities that might not be obvious to others. We persevere in the face of obstacles.
  • Curious: We are well-read and curious about the world around us. We listen well to other people, be they clients, bosses or employees. We don’t merely accept what others tell us. We are driven to uncover the “truth.”
  • Creative: We can take the ordinary and spin silk from it. We can capture peoples’ attention in words and images. We can “envision” a PR project from inception to completion. We enjoy trying to solve a difficult problem.
  • Risk Takers: We are willing to take reasonable risks to get the job done. We are not afraid to advocate for our ideas and to persist in the face of skepticism, even if we are the youngest PR practitioner in the room.

Biddle’s Bottom Line: Jake Farbman’s class of PR students heralds a bright future for the profession.

If you are a PR practitioner reading this blog, please add to this list and share your comments. I would like to share them with Jake’s class.

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