Lucy Sharp is a PR professional with over eleven years experience of working for both in-house PR departments and for leading UK PR agencies. This blog is a personal account of her experience of the industry and looks at where her motivation came from and the ups and downs of the world of PR! We are sure you will enjoy reading!
OK guys, you know the title is ironic right? When you tell someone you work in Public Relations, you generally get responses of ooh how glam, you get to schmooze with celebs, drink fizz and eat canapés, receive VIP tickets to premieres, get free products, paid trips abroad, long boozy journalist lunches…and to be on the TV.
Well let's put an end to that myth right now! PR is not glamorous, it is bloomin' hard work, but there are certainly a number of exciting, 'once in a lifetime' opportunities that might come your way if you climb the PR ladder successfully. At 32, I've reached my first decade now and gosh, it's been a ride.
I have to confess; I hardly knew what PR was. I studied an English degree at the University of York (Oxbridge reject, oh the shame!), and then did the obligatory trip to a third-world country to 'give something back' after my boarding school education. I guess looking back, I was a brat with no clue of the real world. All I knew is that I loved to write, and my dream was to one day publish a book.
The truth was, I was very fortunate to have a Dad who grew up in working class Liverpool in the late 30's. Big Al Sharp, a scouse with a business mind and a God given skill for advertising. He became a 60's Ad Man and a legend. Head of Advertising at Tesco before he founded his own retail advertising agency back in Chester.
Know Mad Men? My Dad was Don Draper. Childhood memories include visiting his office where he'd be enjoying a whiskey tipple from a crystal glass, with a ceramic model of Concorde on his desk and numerous beautiful secretaries wiggling in and out of the room! I worshipped him, I still do. "You'll be a super Sharp one-day Lu, an advertising icon like me" he said. So I chose a totally different path!
Instead, I bummed around in India after Uni before returning to the 'real world' aged 20, where Dad promptly said: "Get a job or get on the dole, no child of mine is going to be spoon-fed." So, I went on the dole. I had a good degree and a top notch education but no clue about what I wanted to do with myself.
I cannot recommend enough the power of work experience for 6thformers and undergrads - unpaid internships, holiday jobs, in any field at all (even waiting on) - it all instils a work ethic which I will come to a little later on. It is vital to have experience for a chance to secure a job in this highly competitive time.
One visit to the Chester job centre was all it took! Pushing past glue sniffers and heroin addicts, I accepted my £47 a week and declined a range of jobs including public toilet cleaner and street sweeper. What I knew was I had to give something back to my parents for giving me the gift of an education. I knew the time had come to find a job that stimulated me and gave me a much needed routine back.
Interviews seemed to be my 'thing'. Rather than getting nervous, I found myself buzzing with excitement about getting in front of a prospective employer. My first job was in events and I remember being told by the MD that it was the best interview he had ever had in his 30 years of recruiting up to Senior Partner level (bearing in mind I was just 21).
I started as a junior events producer and quickly realised that prop shopping and making tea wasn't my calling in life! I didn't have the right attitude and could be seen sitting slumped at my desk in a snap-back with headphones in, taking 90 minute lunchbreaks. Needless to say I was 'made redundant'. I was told "you might be better suited to PR", which I know now is so ironic, because PR is one of the toughest industries out there, but I hot-footed it to the nearest PR agency and applied.
Getting the boot gave me the kick up the bum I needed and I never looked back. I interviewed at a cool, young PR agency in Manchester and started working on exciting lifestyle brands immediately. PR really is common sense - you get it or you don't. I knew I could write (vital!), I knew I could talk (to clients and journalists in person and on the phone), I knew I could be passionate (certainly about the brands I could relate to), and when you're passionate, you are compelling. This in turn sells a product / person / brand to the general public. JOB DONE.
One door closes another door opens……
Fast forward a few years, and I had managed the PR in house at The Trafford Centre (one of the best employers in the UK in my opinion), conducting live Sky News interviews on Boxing Day, chilling with a very young Rihanna (just broken into the UK music scene), being asked out by a ton of pop stars (always say no!), and generally learning how to build a PR strategy with a budget and execute it. I learnt from the best - the Director of Ops who is to this day I consider my mentor and the person who gave me the confidence to succeed in PR.
After a couple of years in possibly the happiest role ever, I had a career development opportunity and moved to a leading Manchester agency to work on Liverpool ONE (the big Grosvenor shopping centre), as well as Hasbro toys and Radisson Edwardian Hotels. In this role I made friends with a few celebrities who to this day help me when I need to give my brands a push on social media for example - relationships are key to PR success.
Looking for a new challenge, I switched to unknown territory, securing PR Week's job of the week, as National PR Manager for Caesars UK, the world's biggest casino brand, where I learnt about gaming, corporate PR and crisis management. I made a move from Manchester to London and enjoyed regular travel to LA and Las Vegas. This is perhaps where PR got just a little bit glam…I hung out for 4 days with Hugh Hefner managing his press as he launched a Playboy casino in Mayfair, visited the Playboy Mansion, chilled with Snoop Dogg and pandered to a diva-ish Grace Jones! Rejecting dates with NFL players became part of this role.
After 5 years, it was time to return to what I knew and loved - Retail PR. Working for a cool Soho based agency and getting back into the swing of online and digital, I worked for brands like JD Williams, Fenwick Department Stores, Superdrug, Lakeland, Halfords and Waitrose, before moving in house to Amazon (after a mammoth 8 interviews based on Amazon's leadership principles). Amazon in my opinion is one of the most innovative Tech brands on the planet, and the customer obsessed retail giant we all know and love. I work with the inspirational SMEs who have found their success selling to a global audience on Amazon's Marketplace, by telling their stories to national broadsheets, and every day it is a joy to see British entrepreneurs competing with global retail brands.
So what is PR?
Public Relations is in short, being a brand guardian. It is communicating all the positive elements of a product / person / brand to a target audience (consumer or business), and protecting it from negativity. PR materialises in many ways - through social media, press coverage (news stories, features, interviews, pictures that tell a story), Celebrity ambassadorships (matching a relevant influencer with your brand to build consumer appeal), or campaigns (think John Lewis at Christmas and the story they choose to tell each year), partnerships and speaker events (associating your brand or product with another brand or product or a media partner that will enhance awareness and strengthen your brand).
Finally, the rather scary Crisis Management: protecting your brand from negative public attention (think the Smiler tragedy at Alton towers). Every brand should have a crisis strategy in place which should be refreshed quarterly, because an issue that could quite literally kill your brand could arise at any given time. PR is responsible for leading these efforts. Most brands pay hundreds of thousands of pounds every year (sometimes millions) to lessen the impact of a crisis. It is costly to be underprepared.
PR can have a stigma attached to it: those who do not understand its power, often think it is a bunch of bitchy women, drinking fizz, powdering their noses and cackling whilst desperately trying to persuade the Vogue editor to include their brand. The truth couldn't be more different. Taking PR to the next level and really changing or building a brands perception is damn hard. It takes more than being able to write a press release or send products to a journalist in the hope they will write about them. It is thinking: how do I want to speak to the customer, who is the customer, what tone of voice does my brand need, what makes my brand unique, what potential issues could arise and how can I make my brand famous not infamous. It is building a strategy that you live and die by and doing everything you can to tactically deliver the objectives for that month, quarter or year.
PR is clever marketing - the main difference is marketers pay to put their brand out in the public domain, PRs do it by creating news and no advertising fees are paid. This makes PR more valuable and more credible than advertising. Marketers who do value PR, ultimately win, as PR should always be aligned with Marketing strategies.
So PR agency side vs PR in-house?
Is one better than the other? That depends on you as a person. Agency life is great if you are highly sociable and a great multi tasker, willing to work for multiple brands at the same time. Working client side means spending all your time working on one brand, sometimes not having the luxury of a PR agency to support you, so you become a one-man band, and it means taking a lot of time ensuring you are up to speed with trends - agency life moves fast and the digital era (the speed at which brands can be made or destroyed on social media and blogs) means that being in house for years on end can make you as a PR stale, at put you at a disadvantage to your competitors.
I love being in-house, because I want to wake up every day and live and breathe my brand, work with equally passionate colleagues all chasing the same goal - to enhance the brand and keep improving it.
So, how to make it in PR? Aside from the obvious basic skills required such as writing, talking and forming relationships with key journalists for your sector, you need to be creative, willing to work long hours: a 12 hour day is quite normal in PR, it is the nature of the business. Actually in this digital era, you are on call 24/7, so work ethic is EVERYTHING. Be prepared for evening and weekend emails and calls, but any ambitious candidate should be willing to give everything to their company, whatever field they choose.
If it is PR, best of luck and remember: bias for action and passion will help you deliver results. Never underestimate passion and never fall for a celebrity, just keep them as mates!
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