Four Ways That Being In Public Relations Is Like Being a Backup Singer


When I first watched the 2013 documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” I was captivated by the storytelling, the history, and the music that made it an Oscar-winning film. I also felt some personal connection to the characters, and I couldn’t help but see their relevance as metaphors for the public relations profession, at least as I know it.

In my experience, being a PR professional has been all about working outside of the spotlight to make others look good. Rather than a Flavor Flav-type hype man, if the client is the “star,” then in many cases I’m the “backup singer,” adding detail, accentuation, and the necessary ideas to flesh out a plan or initiative and make it feel complete. In that spirit, here are four ways that being in PR is like being a backup singer.

1. You work to make the star shine brighter

There’s no doubt that public relations takes talent to perform well, but you’re always applying your skills to draw the attention to the main attraction, whether that’s an individual, a business, or a product. It’s a role we play mostly anonymously. Some PR folks do become rock stars in and of themselves, like Richard Edelman or Peter Shankman to their Luther Vandross/Sheryl Crow counterparts, but it’s clear that they’ve succeeded on the merits of their core work ethic in addition to their talent.

2. You understand what can be accomplished as part of a team

There are great independent practitioners out there, but nobody works in a complete silo, especially those of us at agencies. When you have colleagues that you can bounce ideas off of, share insights with, and talk through problems with, it’s possible to work at a different level than you can alone. As recounted in this Washington Post article on the movie, a festival-screening participant addressed director Morgan Neville, saying; “Most of us work collaboratively, for bosses, in positions we’re proud of and which are key to the successful running of an operation, creative or otherwise.” I believe this is true no matter how talented you are.

3. It’s the depth and details that sell the story

What would “Young Americans” be without the backup singers? Would “Walk on the Wild Side” even be considered a classic if not for the “do do do’s”? Let alone the wailing of Merry Clayton in “Gimme Shelter”? The details and the hooks brought out by the backup singers add richness to the story of the song, and are often what sell it to the listener. In much the same way, PR professionals find the information that substantially transforms an ordinary pitch, press release, or piece of marketing content into something much more valuable.

4. Success is defined by the love of the art

As Merry Clayton says in the film, “there’s no guarantees in entertainment,” and the same is true in public relations. We can’t guarantee a media placement. We can’t guarantee the messaging will be relayed verbatim, or even accurately. We can’t guarantee an article run date. But we can guarantee putting in the time and critical thinking and creativity to make sure a client’s goals are achieved to the best degree possible. Every one of the best public relations practitioners I’ve worked with has had many times where things didn’t work out as planned, but they’ve continued to persevere in the industry because of their integrity and their work ethic. What keeps a true PR pro going is the inspiration of helping to get a story told, just as delivering the music drives the singers in the film.

Public relations has its ups and downs, just like any job. We work not to garner accolades, but to provide a foundation for communications and often guide the direction for clients. It’s a presence that is felt and is vital, yet when executed properly is hardly noticed. By filling in the details, public relations ensures that the background is developed, providing complete harmony instead of an awkward silence.

Adam Leiter is a PR professional with ab+c Creative Intelligence, responsible for the strategic development and implementation of communications programs for clients in a variety of industries. Working with a team of communications professionals to earn media opportunities for accounts including B2B, B2C, non-profit, and civic engagement programs, he seamlessly weaves in social media strategies, digital services, and creative development to ensure an integrated marketing program on behalf of clients.

*This post was previously featured on LinkedIn.


3 Stories You Should Be Following Right Now

As someone working in the communications industry, a big part of your job is knowing what is going on in the world. You need to keep tabs on your clients’ competitors, happenings in the local news and more. No matter who you work for, these three stories could have an effect on you.

1. The Government Shutdown

Last week, the federal government of the United States began a partial shut down – something that hasn’t happened in nearly two decades. While not all parts of the federal government have come to a screeching halt, there are services that have been temporarily stopped, parks and buildings that have been closed, and hundreds of thousands of workers who have been furloughed.

Whether you (or your clients) are directly connected to the federal government or not, this  is impacting you. As long as the shutdown continues, it will dominate the national media conversation. Even on the local level, the government shutdown will make it more difficult for you to get a story placed.

2. The End of Unpaid Internships?

During the summer of 2013, unpaid internships came under serious fire. Numerous class action lawsuits were filed by unpaid interns against major companies such as Condé Nast Publications, Warner Music Group, Atlantic Recording, Gawker Media, Fox Entertainment Group, NBC Universal, Viacom, Sony, Universal Music Group, Bad Boy Entertainment, and Donna Karan.

In June, a New York Federal Court found that Fox Searchlight’s unpaid interns were “employees” subject to the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act, even though they were receiving academic credit for the internship. The recent increase in cases (and the publicity surrounding them) show that hiring unpaid interns can be a real risk. Additionally, if employers become more hesitant to hire unpaid interns based on these lawsuits, then students will find themselves with fewer opportunities to gain on-the-job experience.

3. Miley Cyrus

Yes, you read that right. For months the former Disney star has been creeping into the subconscious of every American. Between her new singles, outrageous performances and countless interviews, Miley is everywhere.

You may not think Miley is important or even relevant, but she has certainly captured the world’s attention. She is on the cover of several magazines, she’s hosting Saturday Night Live, she has a new MTV documentary, and she trends on Twitter pretty regularly. Lately Miley has gotten more air time and column inches than anyone else in the entertainment industry. In fact, she has managed to overshadow many serious news stories as well. The media’s recent obsession with all things Miley serves as an interesting window into the current state of pop culture in our country, so use this window to help develop some of your own entertainment-related pitches.

This post was written by PPRA Blog Chair Lauren Cox. Lauren is a Public Relations Specialist in the Office of the CIty Representative, where she works on the City’s major events like the Wawa Welcome America! Festival and the Philadelphia Marathon. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.