Is PR really one of the most overrated professions?

October 01, 2013  |  Boyd Neil  |  Comments

The careers website Careercast recently determined that public relations manager is the fourth most overrated job in 2013, behind advertising account executive, surgeon and stockbroker. But “overrated” is an odd concept since ratings can be in the eye of the beholder.

Most of us who have been in the profession for many years, as I have, don’t find it overrated at all. In fact we love it for the opportunity it provides to influence the course of public debate, change thinking and behaviour, work closely with committed people in companies big and small, non-profits or the public sector, and to sit at decision-making tables.

Whether agency (as I am) or client-side, we also see its downsides – captured pretty well in this survey, including the stress of demanding clients and bosses and an over-heated competitive job market.

In fact, the stresses have gotten worse in the past 10 years as the social and digital tools to do our job better have become more ubiquitous and powerful.

The job of the public relations professional is tougher than it has ever been. The public and regulators scrutinize organizations and companies with steady intensity. Demands on our organizations and clients for accountability and transparency have swelled exponentially as the social web has given voice to public anger, cynicism and criticism. And we are usually right there taking the first hit.

Yes, some things are more satisfying and easier today. We can now bypass the public gatekeepers of the past – mainstream media – and go directly to our customers, clients and constituents, which means having to put up less with prickly and self-important journalists. (Although many in the profession still cling to old models that equate PR with media relations.)

But these social and digital tools add to the load of what we need to know as professionals. In fact, as an educator I can say this is an enormous problem. As I wrote in a recent blog post (forgive the lack of humility in quoting myself):

“There are too many graduates of PR programs with only cursory knowledge of social and digital strategies; of the hard skills of managing social communities; of how to use Facebook Insights to alter content strategies; of setting the right visual and aural tone for a social platform; of building relationships with influencers in social networks and dozens of other social knowledge or experienced based skills… Too many see social media and digital as extensions of media relations – with similar imperatives, strategies and relationship dynamics – even though ‘owned ‘ digital media now offer better options for storytelling than trying to get media to ‘buy’ your pitch.”

There used to be a certain glamor in the job, especially if you equate publicity with public relations. Of course, they’re not at all the same, something many of my students who long to work for a luxury brand or with celebrities foolishly believe. “Publicity” is what people do to hype or spin something; public relations is what you do to reveal, explain, inform and persuade. “Hype” has nothing to do with it (or shouldn’t have).

That’s where the true “glamour” in public relations – if that’s the right word – lies today. We help organizations manage their relationships with customers, stakeholders, regulators and legislators. We tell stories that change minds. We influence the shape of political campaigns and consumer buying behavior.

We are so needed. Overrated my ass.

Boyd Neil is a senior vice-president and senior digital strategist with Hill+Knowlton Strategies and an instructor in reputation management and social media at Ryerson University and Seneca College.

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