20 things I have learnt over 20 years in PR – Part 1
As we celebrate 20 years of Spark, I thought it might be interesting to write about what I have learnt over the last two decades in tech PR. Starting my career in the last century(!) in 1999, I remember the fear, then the damp squib that was Y2K, then the subsequent downturn/bubble bursting. My PR career began with a stint at Cohn & Wolfe working on brands like Reebok and Coca Cola, followed by more tech-relevant stints at Lewis and Spreckley. One of my first memories at Spark was attending a drinks party hosted by Computing magazine in a really swanky place in Soho – sadly this wasn’t to be a sign of things to come – but lack of parties aside, the years have been both fun and varied. I still remember my first ever by-lined article, which was on frequency hopping between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for Land Mobile and my first FT piece, also on the potential of Bluetooth – suffice to say I am now a self-confessed geek. So, rambling over, what words of wisdom can I share from the last two decades?
1) Tech PR is fun and creative (yes, really)
Starting out, as mentioned, at Cohn & Wolfe gave me great experience working with household brands, but for me technology PR really is where creativity comes into play. After all, it takes real skill to apply consumer thinking and storytelling to B2B technology companies to ensure that they are of interest to a mass audience.
2) Variety is the spice of life
It is one of the reasons why I got into PR in the first place as it is such a varied role, from writing, to comms, to research, to project management. That said as much as I have enjoyed the last 20 years, working that long in any industry is bound to make you question yourself at points and for me the key to keeping things interesting is ensuring you work on different clients and that you evolve the programmes you run for clients. Though at the start I was always more of a hardware person, now I have more software and services accounts and I enjoy the challenges that starting up new clients and new sectors bring. Some of my personal favourites when it comes to technologies include AI, cyber security and satellite communications. Similarly, if you do the same activity day in day out it will get boring, which is why we are always thinking of new ways of doing things such as Freedom of Information requests and news creation.
3) Working in PR is all about the different people you work with and learn from
As Lauren rightly pointed out, PR really wouldn’t be the same without the people that you work with. To continue on the theme of variety, it’s so important to recognise that we are all different, but it’s those differences that make life interesting and that we can all learn from. Take our senior team: with Dom Walsh, I love the creativity he brings to our work; with Alex Crawshaw, I love the outstanding results and tech knowledge he brings and with Cathy O’Neill, I love the drive and passion and focus on getting business outcomes. And take my business partner, Kewal, we may drive each other mad at times (we really are yin and yang) but we learn so much from working together and constantly challenge each other, which keeps things interesting!
4) You should never stop learning
I have learnt so much from different people over the years and hopefully also helped others along the way. Certainly, that would be one piece of advice – never stop learning. Be curious and make sure you are always putting time aside to read about new technologies, new developments and new sectors. Take every training opportunity given to you and ask for ongoing coaching. I myself am a member of PRogress, an advisory group of other agency owners where we all learn from each other, which I can’t recommend enough.
5) You need to believe in and be passionate about what you are doing
If you are not interested in your own piece of content or in what you are pitching to a journalist then why would anyone else be? Always apply the ‘so what?’ to everything you do and think about why someone would want to read your writing or speak to your client.
6) Ask good questions
Asking good questions is critical to getting the best content and that means preparing before a call or meeting and understanding how to draw the golden nuggets of information out.
7) You need to listen
You can ask the best questions but if you aren’t truly listening and probing then you won’t get what you need for a perfect piece of writing or to inform a PR programme.
8) Journalists are not ogres
Editorial teams have got smaller over the years and advertising budgets have gone down, which certainly means that journalists are under more pressure than ever. That said, if you call journalists with a solid story and have done your research on what will interest their audience then they will be happy to hear from you. By keeping in regular contact with journalists you will build long lasting contacts, and even friends, over the years. I have certainly found that to be the case.
9) You need to build and retain relationships
Similarly, on the client side make sure you are always thinking about how to build and maintain relationships. The best way to grow a business really is through organic growth and word of mouth referrals. Certainly, the majority of Spark’s own new business comes through referral.
10) PR has become a lot more issues-based
PR has always been about storytelling but over the last 5-10 years this has become even more apparent. Journalists really aren’t interested in company news, such as the latest product or partnership, unless the impact on the wider industry is clear, or a company is announcing a customer win. So, creativity and storytelling really are critical to success.
Hopefully some of these will prove useful and do let us know in the comments what you have learnt in your careers so far. Next week I will go through the next 10 learnings, including some of the critical elements to a successful career.