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.


The Value of PR

Bill Gates may understand the importance of public relations when it comes to running a successful business, but not everyone shares the mogul’s point of view. For many PR pros, it can be difficult to even explain what public relations is to those outside of the industry, so it’s no surprise that our clients (or sometimes even our employers) don’t quite get the value of what we do.

Unlike other professions, those who work in PR don’t always have a clear way to show ROI. You can show a client hundreds of clips, online interactions and community engagement materials, but what are they worth? Advertising value equivalencies don’t quite cut it. Simply stating the number of brochures or newsletters distributed isn’t enough. So, what do we do? How do we prove the value of our work when most results in PR are qualitative rather than quantitative?

There are no fool-proof answers to these questions, but there are a few steps we can take to help measure the success of our PR-related efforts.

  1. Make sure your goals are clear from the beginning, then do a simple evaluation of whether each goal was met. What do you want people to know? What do you want them do? How many media placements do you want to secure?
  2. Look at the quality and quantity of media placements. Consider circulation, tone and message inclusion for each media mention. It is also important to demonstrate trends – show how the company/client is being perceived by the media.
  3. Include social media analytics in the mix. Benchmark your number of followers, reach and engagement before starting a new campaign, then compare the statistics once that campaign is complete (or at another key point).
  4. Add questions about PR tactics to an existing survey, or create a new one for your client that focuses on audience change. Many companies already have a survey that measures consumer behavior. You should be sure that some of the questions and answer options in these surveys are based on the tactics of your PR campaign. For example: When asking a customer why they chose a certain product, include earned media stories (like a feature in a magazine) as a potential answer.

For a more detailed look at measuring the success of PR efforts, check out this report from Ketchum. 

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 GORE-TEX Philadelphia Marathon. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.