For a profession that is all about managing reputations, Public Relations (PR) has more than a good share of its own reputational challenges.

From accusations of spreading propaganda to spinning the truth, PR has had it rough virtually since it was recognized as a legitimate profession. The rise of social media and “fake news” has not made the work of PR professionals any easier.

Phrases such as “PR machinery” are often used to discredit public information efforts by governments or private corporations, especially during a crisis. You’ve probably heard of the long-running joke that President Uhuru Kenyatta “puts the PR in Presidency.”

Yet here we are. Many high school graduates will next year enroll for PR and Communications courses in colleges across the country. More journalists will leave media houses to “handle Communications” for public and private corporations.

Despite the unpopular image PR holds in much of the public eye, it is still considered a legitimate profession with a code of ethics. Many people still believe PR is a reputable career path.

Are you considering a career in public relations (PR) but you’re finding it difficult to come to terms with the negative image often associated with the profession?

PR people, can’t live without ’em…

I used to tolerate them. Today I am one of them. In fact, this week marks exactly two years since I became a PR practitioner.

I remember interviewing for a Content Management position at a PR agency in 2016. My interviewer asked me what I thought about “PR people”, especially since I was coming from the media.

The conversation that followed marked the first time I noticed how often I used the phrase “PR people”. It wasn’t always in good light.

PR people were those nagging callers who often got in the way of a good story. They seldom had the information I needed. Being an investigative journalist, my interaction with PR people wasn’t always rosy. A PR person in government once threatened my job because he didn’t like how I wrote about their client.

PR people often “bought me lunch” after I attended their press event or interviewed their client. Though they seldom verbalized it, I assumed the “expensive” lunch was an incentive to write a more favorable story.

Sometimes PR people were helpful, especially those working for private corporations. PR people facilitated access to top management in otherwise inaccessible organisations. Some PR people were very helpful with facts and numbers about their organisations, especially when I was working on a tight deadline.

What’s more, PR people were behind almost all of the best local and foreign trips I ever took as a journalist. Trips funded by private companies granted me access to stories and people my media employer could seldom afford to facilitate.

A necessary evil

In short, I saw PR people as a necessary-evil. I didn’t trust them but often needed them because they sometimes made my work easier and funded my trips. Otherwise, they were largely a nuisance and something the media fraternity could do without

So, why did I make the move to the dark side? The reasons are myriad. It is no secret that journalism, especially print journalism, is struggling to pay its own bills. I got into journalism because I was passionate about writing stories. Experience had also proven that I was good at it. This passion did not diminish when I started contemplating the move.

However, I also had life plans that required more money than I was making. So, yes, money was a big motivator. But it wasn’t the central motivation. I was still determined to keep my eye on my mission to write stories that change the world for the better.

This is the reason I was sure that no matter how enticing the monies in Corporate Communications got, I had to stick to my most optimal career path. Though I was venturing into the world of PR, I would pick roles that maximized my skills and passion for writing. In other words,  for me, the role had to be primarily editorial in one form or another.

That’s what I have been doing for the last two years. Conceptualizing stories. Researching and sourcing stories. Editing stories. Writing stories. It’s what I do best. It’s what I hope to do for the rest of my life, despite the form my job takes at any given moment in my career journey.

School-work

I have learnt a few key lessons while working in PR. It turns out that instead of simply warming up to the profession, I ended up buying into it! I’m all in now (for now). The fact that I worked in an agency also means I had to learn fast, often on my feet, and dabble in topics that were as diverse as the businesses my clients dealt in.

Unlike working in one corporation where the mission is singular and the calendar more or less predictable, life in the agency world is more chaotic. It’s a good chaos, though. One moment you’re drafting a celebratory press release on company profits with one client. The next moment you’re strategizing on how best to communicate a downsizing with another client. The two events often taking place simultaneously.

Working in an agency feels like being in school and at work at the same time. It is like “school-work”. Every task is a test and every job a training-session for the next one. In this one way, the PR agency is not very different from a newsroom in terms of diversity of subject-matter handled and crazy deadlines.

This is also one reason I would advise anyone contemplating a career in Communications to first enroll into the agency boot-camp. It will toughen and refine you. Often against your will. Working in an agency will also define you. It will clarify what areas you will eventually want to specialize in later in your career.

Falling in love with the enemy

It is in the midst of this grind that I developed a better appreciation for the work PR practitioners do. I now believe Public Relations is one of the most misunderstood professions in the world. Which is ironic, considering their our work is to get people to understand and better relate with the organizations we represent.

This is also the reason I will invest the next several posts sharing the lessons I have learnt on the job about the job. I will do my best not to sanitize the trade. Like any profession, it has its good share of rogues, quacks, and ethical grey areas.

In my next post on this “You PR people” series, I will share briefly why working as a journalist before venturing into PR made me a better writer for PR, and why organizations need to “learn from” instead of just “engaging” journalists if they ever hope to tell their story in a way that moves and influences the world for the better.