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

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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.

 

Stay Ethical, Don’t Exploit

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When we see an opportunity for a client, it’s in our nature to seize it. It’s our job, after all. It’s also the job of public relations professionals to advocate for clients and we should have the sense to judge what opportunities are appropriate and when they might be crossing a line. Too often companies and organizations are chastised for taking advantage of a current event, pop culture happening or even a tragedy to get their brand attention.

There are plenty of examples where companies took their publicity a step too far after a tragedy or negative occurrence, both accidentally and intentionally.

  • Malaysia Airlines promoted a Bucket List contest, asking consumers what places they’d like to see before they die. This came after the tragic disappearance of Flight 370 and after Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine.
  • DiGiorno hopped on the hashtag bandwagon a little too quickly after the NFL suspended Ray Rice for abusing his wife. Thousands of Twitter users took to using #WhyIStayed to share their abuse stories and DiGiorno didn’t check the context of the tag before shooting out a response of ‘you had pizza’.
  • MSN’s Biggest PR Blunders of 2014 list rounds up more specifics pretty well.

These companies promptly issued apologies and/or made corrections to their public relations and social media efforts. However, it’s always better not to have to ask for forgiveness because you didn’t stray off the path of ethics in the first place.

The lesson your parents always tried to burn into your brain of “think before you speak” couldn’t be more applicable in our world. In this case it’s more so “think before you act and set your client up for some serious negative backlash”. Trust me, even though you might be receiving dozens of emails asking why they aren’t in the news, asking to get them some press, they would much rather sit back and wait for the right story than jump on board with the wrong one.

How can you be sure to stay ethical and not make the mistakes of these well-known, previously well-respected brands?

  • Trust your instincts
    You know right from wrong. If you are feeling a little wary about pitching a story because you feel it might be exploitive, you’re probably right. It’s not worth potentially ruining your reputation with a journalist and painting your client in a bad light.
  • Ask a mentor
    That’s what they’re there for. If you’ve hit a point where you’re just not sure whether you should go with a story or not, just ask. Chances are you’ll be respected for checking in and you’ll get a good conversation out of it where you might learn a few things.
  • Explain
    So you decided to do the ethical thing and your client isn’t pleased. Instead of getting defensive, walk them through your thought process. Create a case study to show them the negative ramifications of pouncing on a story in an exploitive way. This is what they’re paying you for, after all.

This isn’t to say there won’t be instances where your client’s services, expert advice or products shouldn’t be talked about following a sad event or a bad situation. If the organization offers counseling, for example, they should surely be getting the word out after a tragedy; because what they are doing will help others. There are absolutely ways for brands, organizations and companies to respond to situations appropriately and in a non-exploitive manner. The important thing for public relations professionals to do is make the judgment call.

There are some things you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to put a spin on. Exploiting a sad or bad situation purely for client gain is wrong. Knowing and acknowledging that is what separates the experts from those just trying to climb the ladder.

London Faust is an Account Representative at Bellevue Communications Group, a public relations firm specializing in media relations, crisis communications and issue management. She is forever #TempleMade, class of 2014. Follow her personal ramblings on Twitter at @londonfaust or her professional doings at @BellevuePRPhl.