Alice's Voice

Three Things I Learned in PR 

I’ve been in nonprofit promotions since my first job out of college. Graduating as a theater major in a town with no professional theaters meant I either needed to move or I needed to get building. I have been involved with the launch of too-many-to-count theaters, arts groups and nonprofits over the years. Launching usually means doing all the jobs from marketing and PR to cleaning gum off of the seats before the shows. In the beginning PR was writing a press release, then making posters and pasting them up all over town. A decade later, I’m able to hone in on being a publicist for shows and artists. Working in public relations I quickly learned three things that have informed more than just my work, they’ve changed my thinking. Here are the three things I learned in PR.

This photo is an image of a sign for News, papers and magazines with the slogan “Read All About It”
Photo by Madison Inouye on Pexels.com

1. How to Ask 

Here’s my PR motto: If you’re not the decision maker, don’t make the decision. 

I learned this by being asked so many times by a reporter, a photographer or a fan for something from a celebrity. My internal response would invariably be no — no, former Vice President Joe Biden does not want to have his portrait painted in the hour prior to his talk on his latest book; no, Diana Ross can not attend your school talent show; no, Tom Jones does not want to extend a photo pass to the Elvis impersonator fan club.  

They seemed like easy answers to me. A clear no — except that I was not the decision maker. My job in PR was to ask. I had to muster the courage to send the request on to the agent. When I first started, I wasted a lot of space in the email, “Well, I hate to bother you, I know you’re busy, I’m sure this is a ‘no’ but….”  They are busy because they are the decision makers and they don’t have time for my tap dancing nervousness before the request. Just ask. 

 “Hello, I have these three requests for Mr. Jones.”

In my real life, I am not good at asking for what I want and need. Being in PR has put me in the position of practicing this skill over and over. Forward the request, ask the question and do it as simply as possible. This has been a tremendous help dealing with healthcare, customer service and help desk tickets of all sorts. Just ask. Because you never know. It turns out that Mr. Jones does indeed care about the Elvis impersonator fan club. 

2. How to Say No 

Learning how to ask led to the discovery of how to say no. Saying no is something I don’t do very well either. I end up attending lunches that I don’t want to go to and buying magazines that I don’t intend to read. I’ve done a lot of boundary work in my life for sure. Possibly my inability to say no is also related to my anxiety about asking for what I want and need. I’ll save the analysis for another time, but being in PR showed me how to say no. 

In fact, it was the answer from then former Vice President Biden’s representative that gave me the right words. To my forwarded request for a portrait sitting the elegant response was, “Thank you. We respectfully decline.”  

How lovely. Thank you. I respectfully decline. So simple, kind, even appreciative of being asked and still, a no.  

3. How to Let Go of the Outcome 

Here’s the best part of being in PR for me. I can’t control the outcome. I can’t promise what you’ll get. In this world of digital analytics my poor peers in marketing and media buying are tethered to some goal and pressured to achieve some number. It makes my stomach hurt.  In my world, I can’t force a magazine to put us on the cover. I can’t decide that our story will get picked up by the major daily or local TV station. If our article does get picked up, I can’t even decide what the headline will be or what the reporter will say. I can exert as much influence as possible, ask clearly and directly, but ultimately, I’m not the decision maker. 

I work really hard on my pitches to the media. I’ve been told ‘no thanks’ many times. Sometimes, I let that go and accept that our story won’t be told by that outlet. Other times, I’m like a dog with a bone — I keep trying until I find the angle that hits. I was once told three different ways — no, we will not be doing an advance story on The Lion King, my editor says we’ve done too many on that show in the last decade.  I walked down the street to their office and dropped off a beautiful coffee table book on the twentieth anniversary of the show. The reporter gained a new angle and I got the advance. But it wasn’t guaranteed. 

The other week, I pitched a story about a change of leadership at a local arts organization. Central Florida Community Arts added three vice presidents and we were announcing their names. To me, this was big news! But then, I’m the target audience for that story. It could have been too ‘inside baseball’ for others. I wasn’t certain the story would get picked up at all. I crafted and shaped. I talked with the reporter in advance. I set up interviews. I crossed my fingers. It worked. The article appeared in the digital edition of the major daily and got a fair amount of shares. Then the next day, there it was in print, on the cover above the fold with a giant photo of one of the new VPs. How about that. Who knew? Not me. Because I had let go of the outcome. My job is to share the story in the best way I know how and then see how it lands. 

These three things have been valuable life lessons, especially in this season of uncertainty. I craft. I shape. I produce to the best degree I can, then I wait, see what happens and respond to that. I can tell you that learning how to let go of the outcome has made the first two lessons a lot easier. When you can’t control what happens, asking for what you want and need is simply a request. When someone asks me to attend that lunch, knowing that it is simply a request makes it easier to respectfully decline. I may even drop the subscription to that magazine I will never read. 

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