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PR: “The Thankless Profession” — as It Should Be

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Every now and then, I think about how a client and friend of mine once framed PR.   “I do not envy you, you work in a thankless profession,” he said.  His wife had been in PR for many years, in consumer products, and so he had a unique perspective on the subject, as clients go.  He had a front row seat to the dance between clients, journalists and PR professionals. His main point was that every win on behalf of your client is fleeting – individual media appearances can get lost in the shuffle when everyone is focused on the larger objective of building a strong media profile. He had a valid point – but an irrelevant one. 

Fact is, from the client’s perspective, PR is like Chinese food – it is fantastic while you’re in the thick of it, and for about an hour afterwards you cannot imagine ever eating again – then 3 hours later you feel compelled to raid the fridge.  Even the cover stories, profile features, widely covered news announcements and well-received contributed articles are but components of a bigger picture.  So we celebrate the near-term media opportunities and get excited about them right alongside our clients – but then it is time to turn focus back to the gameplan, the larger objective.  This is where the focus must be, rather than ever looking for high-fives from clients every time you make a lay-up.

If you are a PR pro and you go seeking validation, or you expect to get a pat on the back, some effusive praise or any acknowledgment that what you do takes skill, tact, finesse and very hard work, I’ve got news for you – you should find another profession.  Your job is to highlight credibility already built or in the process of being built – and get out of the way.  Your clients’ clients don’t need to know that they employ a PR firm.  Does it feel good when a client appreciates a strong effort that yields results they can use to strengthen their business? Of course it does.  Positive affirmations of your work from clients are always nice.  But certainly not expected, or needed.    

The hard part for PR professionals is that for some, if they are not constantly getting that credit, the acknowledgment that they had a role in things, self-doubt starts to creep in.  An insidious need to justify themselves takes root – perhaps self-consciously.  So it is helpful from time to time to reflect on what we do, to step back and seek a reality check.  We are in the business of representing and promoting others, not ourselves.  Whenever I see a PR firm announcing that they are now the “agency of record” for a new client, it bothers me – because I know it has little to do with the client’s best interests.  I have never heard an explanation for this practice that holds water.  Marketing and promotion are necessary when building a business – but using your clients to publicly toot your own horn should be universally banned from PR playbooks.  If you do your job properly, similarly to how things work in the financial advisory realm, your clients will refer you, word will spread – there’s your validation. 

Our view is that our clients thank us by staying with us, period.  If we do our jobs well, they will rise in public profile, with the only traces of our existence being the proud social media posts sharing their exploits.  And sure, we’ll celebrate a bit internally when we do something on behalf of our clients that we’re really proud of.   The best professional athletes neither expect lavish praise nor are they affected by boos when they miss the three.  They simply get back out there and keep after it, day in and day out.  They focus on consistent blocking and tackling, good game planning, thorough analysis and putting in tremendous time and effort.  Play the game, enjoy it, but do not seek gratitude for it.  Thankless profession? Who cares – we’ve got work to do. 

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