Confessions from inside a top PR firm

March 2, 2012

This past week, I was filling out PRWeek’s annual ranking for PR firms and thought to myself, if there were a couple of things I would love the world to know about public relations, what would they be? So I determined to share with the world the five confessions from inside a top national public relations firm.

1. PR is lots of boozy lunches with media types and dinners schmoozing with clients. The truth is, I start every day at 7:10 a.m., a couple hours before the regular world just to catch up and prepare for the day ahead. Three times a week I am out through the evening for events or meetings. An average workday is 11 hours. Sunday mornings are reserved for homework, writing, or editing media materials. An average workweek: 55 hours.

2. The real skill of PR is people skills. Yeah, they are important. But still, the single most important skill that separates the good from the bad in our industry is writing. Just this week, we landed a new account and negotiated a premium for our talent, because we can deliver national-magazine-quality writing for the company’s press kit, website, and investor presentation. I spent my early career writing, intensely, hourly, daily, amassing the 10,000 hours needed to attain competency in four short years.

3. Things are easier today in a virtual world. All you have to do is start a Facebook page or create a viral video, right? Nothing is further from the truth. The splintering of media has made media placement — especially the old-school, long-form feature article placement — rarer and more difficult than ever to secure. Too many PR people are selling social media simply because they can’t do the tough stuff, the New York media tour or wedging open an opportunity in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. It ain’t the easiest of times, even though it’s the most exciting.

4. I could start a PR business today and make it go. I don’t think so. Today’s top agencies have such an installed infrastructure that it makes it impossible for small agencies to give the full range of service needed to succeed. Today, great agencies know as much about Google as they do about the nightly news. They have remarkable areas of specialization — everything from investor relations to digital communications, in-house studios and media training, media monitoring, social media, and crisis communications, as well as an embedded network of media contacts dating back decades. The costs alone are staggering. We just had our social media policy reviewed and vetted by outside counsel to make sure our client advice reflects the latest SEC, FTC, and FDA standards. The cost? $40,000 for a client value-add, simply to protect client interests. Or how about the $2 million of errors and omissions insurance often required in major RFPs? And the continuity plan needed to do business with global 1,000 companies? The list goes on and on, creating a significant barrier to entry that simply didn’t exist when I started Gregory FCA 20 years ago.

5. PR is a young person’s game. Being young has its advantages, and personally, I thrive off the energy and enthusiasm young people bring to the table. But along with gray hair comes tremendous wisdom and confidence in how to structure a story, construct a message, and confront or compliment the media when necessary. I value the arms and legs a young, energized team brings to projects. But the best coaches have the experience to outfox the opponent regardless of his team’s strengths or weaknesses. So age has value.

Last year, when the national PR rankings were published, Gregory FCA and its 50 employees ranked the 44th largest PR firm in America. That’s pretty much in line with our positioning as a firm that sticks to its knitting — media relations, social media, and investor relations — but oh, there’s always so much more to the story when you’re on the inside of a top PR firm.

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