By Annette McLeod
Special to The Toronto Sun
Ask most people what public relations is all about, and they'll offer some vague reference to writing boring press releases or organizing ribbon-cutting ceremonies at the local mall.
But public relations encompasses a variety of roles, tasks and environments that isn't so easily summed up.
PR firm Strategic Objectives was behind last August's media preview of the global launch of new The Body Shop makeup line, which featured Chase Aston, International makeup director at The Body Shop.
In essence, it is an organization's effort to establish and maintain its desired image in the public consciousness. It can take place in an advertising or public relations agency, a corporation, the government, a not-for-profit concern ... the PR professional's milieu is as diverse as the tasks therein.
As a PR professional, you may be called upon to write press releases or annual reports, plan events, liaise with the media, produce newsletters or any number of related duties, which leaves one common denominator: PR practitioners are communicators. Writing ability is the single most important among the skills necessary to succeed, but there is a variety of soft skills that count too.
"We prepare (students) not just in academics, but the business skills as well: teamwork, interpersonal skills, developing a resume and portfolio, conducting interviews," says Jennifer Leonard, a professor of public relations at Humber College. "You definitely need the the interpersonal skills, the ability to conduct and interpret research, planning and problem solving, and strategic thinking."
Humber's program is offered either as a three-year diploma, or a two-semester post-graduate certificate. Both programs concentrate on writing labs that assign appointment notices, biographies, op/eds, public service announcements, even obituaries, to hone those all-important skills.
Other important courses include public speaking, media relations and event planning. This semester, Leonard's students are planning and executing Humber's student appreciation banquet, learning the ins and outs of publicizing the event, planning the menu and setting up the room.
Once graduated, students head into the work world in a variety of environments, which may include a PR agency, an ad agency, a corporation or government, with recent grads expected to earn from $28,000 to $30,000 (diploma students about $2,000 less). Once established, "the sky's the limit," says Judy Lewis, co-founder of Strategic Objectives, an award-winning Canadian public relations firm based in Toronto.
But there's more to its allure than the money.
"It's very exciting," Leonard says. "You don't always know what your day is going to be in PR. And it's challenging."
Strategic Objectives orchestrated last August's DVD launch of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for Future Shop via an outdoor screening.
John Arnone is manager of public affairs for Ford of Canada, and one of many PR practitioners who came to the business through journalism. (He won a national writing award organized by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada and was subsequently approached by Jaguar of Canada. Jaguar later took over Ford.)
"Despite my intentions to be a journalist, it turned out to be about a five-year career," Arnone says. "Then 15 years in corporate automotive public relations."
Arnone, as he puts it, manages issues, rather than products -- another example of the diversity of public relations, even within the same corporation. Arnone offered one of the best definitions of the business: "A public relations practitioner protects, nurtures and furthers the reputation of an organization, its people, its products and its brand."
It's a mouthful, but what it boils down to for him is PR as it pertains to Ford's three engine plants and three assembly plants. He also looks after labour affairs, public policy and customer-satisfacation issues. In negotiations with the Canadian Auto Workers Union last year, Arnone was one of Ford's go-to guys for the media.
"The fundamental difference between being a corporate person or an agency person is where you call home," he says. "Home for me is the Ford Motor Company. By extension, I have a deep and visceral sense of my company's aims and objectives, which would be different than arriving at a company on a scheduled-meeting basis and learning about (it).
"On the one hand, you live it. On the other, you learn it," he says of the corporate vs. agency lifestyle.
Strategic's Lewis also started as a journalist, which, she says, gave her an invaluable understanding of what the media needs.
"That's the power of public relations," she says. As a contrast to traditional advertising-driven campaigns, public relations "conveys the message in a very natural and effective way that is highly credible. The more educated people become, the more we mentally eliminate a lot of the information that comes at us. But PR provides information to consumers so they can make the best decision. It lets the public use their own intelligence.
Judy Lewis, co-founder of Strategic
Objectives, one of Canada's leading public relations firms.
"PR creates emotional connections," she says. "Not just the brand concept, but a product come to life."
All the practitioners inteviewed agreed that a university degree is an important step to a PR career. All also agreed that a committment to lifelong learning is a must.
"Usually the people who come through university advance quicker," says Roxanne Cramer, founder of Cramer and Company, an executive search firm specializing in PR. "Those who come through a college program usually find that they need some further education once they're in a corporate environment -- a securities course for instance."
Cramer says that, because the field is so diverse, people are able to "find the niches to which they cane bring their strengths."
An agency person, for example, may have a creative flair that points him in one direction, while a politically-savvy activist may find herself writing speeches for a cabinet minister.
Says Cramer: "Whether your aim is to get your company's name in the paper, or to keep your company's name out of the paper, it's PR that has the power."
Big brother is watching you
Jumping on the 'brand' wagon
UP & RUNNING- Build a better business than your boss
HEALTH CONNECTION- U of T hosts ALS chair
YOUTH FORCE- No Grade 12 diploma not an obstacle
Think work is boring?
THE NATIONAL JOB FAIR- A world of opportunities
THE NATIONAL JOB FAIR- A world of knowledge awaits job seekers
THE NATIONAL JOB FAIR- Put your best foot forward
THE NATIONAL JOB FAIR- Maximize your prospects