5 Unexpected Life Lessons I Learned Working in PR

This is a guest post by Nova Halliwell, a PR professional in New York City.

Forty minutes. That’s how long I waited in a conference room for my future boss to arrive for my second interview.

“I don’t know where he is, but he said you could leave if you needed to,” his assistant told me after a half hour.

I stayed. Not because I wanted the job so badly, but because I had just returned from a volunteer stint in Nigeria and found myself to be unemployed and in dire need of health insurance.

In hindsight, waiting around was a big mistake. After all, anyone who was so inconsiderate during the interview process was likely to be a real nightmare on the job – a theory that my new boss confirmed in a matter of weeks. Not long after I joined, I made a new rule: Never work for anyone who kept me waiting.

And because that idea was so liberating, I decided to apply something similar in my personal life too. Don’t accommodate anyone who doesn’t respect my time — that’s one lesson I learned working in PR. Here are five others:

1. The world doesn’t run on smart. 

Several years ago, my boyfriend had an interview for a computer programming position at his company’s San Francisco office. When I wished him luck, he said, “I’m sure I’ll get it. I’m pretty much the smartest person there.”

I had my doubts about that statement, especially since the week before he attempted to mail a postcard without a stamp and claimed to not know what a Q-tip was. But even if it was true, it failed to account for something I learned working in PR: Being smart is rarely enough.

Like it or not, for the vast majority of the workforce, intelligence alone does not dictate success. “Soft” skills like communication, teamwork and creativity — are just as important, if not more so.

This concept is especially relevant in a relationship-driven industry like PR, but it applies to most others too — even programming. And it goes double in your personal life, where you don’t have to be a genius to switch cable providers, but it certainly helps to have the patience of a saint.

2. Good is good enough.

One of my former managers edited documents so heavily that when I sent him something to review, I joked that the draft was on its way to “Caveat Hill.”

For important deliverables — new business proposals, communications plans, even news releases — his rigorous review process made sense. It helped produce a draft that was airtight, which is exactly how client-facing work and public materials should be.

But then there were the call notes. And the internal presentation decks. And our agency’s committee charters. Each of these items went through the same heavy-handed review — which would have been fine except for this pesky little detail about there only being 24 hours in a day. No one has time for multiple discussions about what shade of blue to use on the agenda slide for the monthly staff meeting. No one.

While I appreciate the quest for excellence, not everything needs to be perfect. Sometimes good is good enough. It’s for the best that I follow that rule in my personal life, too. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house without a professional blowout.

3. The best stories last 30 seconds.

PR Life Lessons - Stopwatch

This past winter I went out with a guy who kicked off our date by providing an hour-by-hour account of his trip to the Bahamas — the highlight of which was when he sneezed on his way down the world-famous Atlantis waterslide.

If he had given me a chance to speak, I would have shared a secret that every PR professional lives by: good stories last 30 seconds. Give the elevator pitch, check the person’s interest and then tell the full version.

Remember: No one likes a monologue. Consider yourself lucky if you learn that lesson without getting hung up on by a reporter.

4. Everyone makes mistakes.

I know that people read my posts because after I wrote Pitch Perfect: Dusting Off After a Dust Up, my friends and co-workers wasted no time reminding me of all the spectacular failures that didn’t make their way into that piece.

For everyone who wanted me to include the bit about the time I closed an email by apologizing for “any inconvenience,” but mistyped the last word so badly that spell check changed it to “incontinence,” here it is. Are you satisfied?

But seriously, I said it before and I’ll say it again: mistakes are inevitable. Whether you make one that’s personal or professional, just admit it and move on.

Sometimes mistakes lead to crisis. Are you prepared to handle one? Click here for our free crisis communication white paper!

5. Few things are a matter of life and death.

Here is a list of situations that I have seen treated as actual emergencies during my career: someone left a scarf in a taxi cab; a news release contained tracked changes; the office pantry was out of spoons; a document did not have properly formatted footnotes.

I’ll admit that I am responsible for one of those fire drills — though I’m happy to report that I’m not the lady who sent an office-wide email on a Saturday alerting 80 people that the printer closest to her office was out of paper.

PR is important, but it rarely warrants the level of hysteria that some professionals bring to it. If there’s one lesson I’m still working on, it’s how to take my work seriously while keeping things in perspective. I think most of us in the field need to do the same.

But then again, what do I know? I never claimed to be the smartest person here.

Nova Halliwell is a public relations professional living in New York City. You can follow her at www.adviceicouldhaveusedyesterday.com and @adviceineeded. Check out more of her posts on Cision here!

Image: Flazingo Photos (Creative Commons)



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