‘The relationship between a journalist and a public relations practitioner is like the relationship between a dog and a lamp-post.’
This crass expression was in popular currency when, starting out on my career, I was undertaking a two-year night course in public relations in the late 1980s at the Public Relations Institute of Ireland. Looking down on PR people was regarded as fair game by many who ploughed their wares in newspapers, magazines or broadcast media.
Hard men ruled the roost in newsrooms in those days and held court in the pubs near Dublin’s O’ Connell Bridge, all a stone’s throw away from Burgh Quay (Irish Press) Middle Abbey St (The Indo) or D’Olier St (Irish Times).
In the eyes of many of these journalists, PR professionals were puff merchants, irritating gate-keepers or in extreme cases, mysterious purveyors of the dark arts.
As a young journalist, I remember seeing an editor literally hiding under a desk when a particularly persistent PR person came on the phone again and hearing another recount the opening lines of a conversation the ‘worst PR person in the world’: ‘Howarya – were you at the ting the other night?’
For the most part, however, in my 30 years as a journalist dealing with PR people, I have encountered professionalism, sound judgement, courtesy and a desire to help that has made it considerably easier for me to do my job.
I’m grateful to the in-house PR person who has, on more than one occasion, got me out a hole when I needed to access an expert opinion late on a bank holiday Friday. I appreciate the PR people who have been frank and honest about their clients or who have been generous beyond what was required with their time and advice when working on a complex story.
I’ve had plenty of enthusiastic pitches but I have rarely been ‘badgered’ by PR people to provide coverage for clients. Only rarely now am I asked to see a draft of an interview before it goes to press.
I’m sure that learning the craft from ‘the other side of the fence’ has helped but I have huge respect for PR people. The last quarter century or so has seen public relations come of age as a profession in Ireland. It’s about a lot more than organising gin and tonic lunches to butter up cynical hacks (a rare occurrence these days) and issuing ‘catch all’ press releases.
I learnt on my course that in an ideal world, PR should have a seat at the top table when corporate strategy is being formulated and that the consultant should report directly to the CEO. What was an aspiration then is the norm today.
PR people are not simply mouth-pieces for their superiors or gate-keepers with a highly cultivated line in smooth talk to make bad news ‘go away’. Rather, they are trusted counsellors, strategic advisors and specialist communicators, skilled in navigating increasingly complex environments.
PR, I learnt all those years ago, was the planned and sustained effort to maintain goodwill between an organisation and its publics. It has many facets with numerous possibilities and career options.
I have had the pleasure to watch the career progression of many smart young PR executives in Ireland, moving between in-house and agency roles, launching their own successful consultancies or using their transferable strategy and communication skills to pursue careers on a global stage. For those with an interest in media, communications or the broader strategic management of organisations, it’s a career path well worth considering.
Part of my work these days involves teaching PR students to understand the way journalists work and how to better develop media relations. If in some small way, I’ve helped a few budding PR professionals to realise their ambitions, that’s a neat circle completed.