Thoughts from SMPR: Part 1—This Isn’t Rocket Science

Mature Businessman at lectern outdoors, holding microphone and documentsI had the rather unexpected honor of being a panelist at the recent SMPR event at Social Media Week New York for a discussion about social media use among agencies and client initiatives. The panel, hosted by my good friends Elliot Schimel and David Teicher, was a compilation of bright young minds discussing how their various agencies integrate social media initiatives within other client work.

I say “unexpected honor” because I was not initially slated to speak on this panel. Having shown up about 30 minutes before the panel started, I was chatting with Elliot and David about various social media topics of the day and the panel itself, and Elliot was kind enough to extend to me an invitation to be on the panel after someone had been forced to drop out earlier (great thanks to you, Elliot, as this was a tremendous event, and a terrific pleasure to be a part of).

Each panelist went through their various discussions and back-and-forths about how they integrate social media activities into client work. Below is the first of my two main points that I discussed (I’ll save my other main point for next week, as it can be an entire post by itself.):

PR Isn’t Rocket Science . . . It’s Mostly Common Sense

That single statement has basically defined my entire career, in terms of how I think of the work I do and what steps I take, and advise others to take, to achieve great outreach, engagement and brand awareness results for companies. A great mentor of mine, Daniel Newton, who is now the Sports Information Director at Lindenwood University in St. Louis, said this to me when I was still an undergrad working in the Truman State Athletics Media Relations Office.

Daniel’s point was basically that what we do—no matter what form of PR work we are doing (media relations, public advocacy, sports, agency, online community engagement, etc.) isn’t nearly as complicated as people in the business often try to make it out to be. And we shouldn’t try to make it all that difficult. Being communicators, and trying to get others talking, writing and being passionate advocates about our companies and brands shouldn’t be all that difficult either. We’re humans—that’s what we do. We talk. We write. We talk about what interests us.

When I said this at SMPR, I prefaced it with something along the lines of “I’m really not trying to offend anyone by saying this . . .” because I know a few people in PR don’t believe this. They want to think that what we do in this business is terribly complicated and deserves the utmost respect. The latter part I agree with because we’re all professionals, we have experience and expertise and most of us do damn good work enhancing brands and connecting them with their target audiences. But this isn’t rocket science. Let’s not forget that.

And apparently, my statement resonated with at least a few people in the business, as this Tumblr post from “aaannnaaa” demonstrates. (And hey, aaannnaaa if you’re out there, THANKS!)

So, that brings the inevitable question: Who agrees with that statement? Better yet, who disagrees with me? How would you change around what I said?

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  • laurenfernandez

    You're right, to those that do it right, it's not rocket science. To those that are more logical based thinkers – (take my sister, who is a finance/biz whiz kid) it isn't like second nature. She has to work at it. She asks questions and reaches the logical conclusion.

    I think its more of an individual based, but for those that live and breathe this profession? No, its not hard. But businesses hire PR firms to do what they can't do naturally – strategize, guidance and overall get the message out there.

  • Keith – this is a great post. Maybe it’s just the PR people I’ve met, but I think we all take ourselves far too seriously. What we do each day is not brain surgery. Heck, it’s not even considered a “profession!”

    That said, in defense of how I earn my paycheck 😉 PR people have been responsible (going out on a limb claiming that) for some of the most incredible PR saves in history (Tylenol) and disasters. Despite most of this career being common sense (which I’m pretty sure a lot of people lack), it does take a good amount of tact, intelligence, hard work and strategy. Joe Schmo couldn’t be dealing with the Toyota crisis right now…he’d be curled up in the fetal position, pulling his hair out under a desk. I have a degree in PR. I went to school for four years to do what I do today. There is a certain amount of training and skill necessary for this job.

    But again, definitely not rocket science or brain surgery.

  • I'd have to agree. (Not to offend anyone also), PR peeps spend a lot of time trying to figure out the right way to reach an audience through SM when in actuality there are only so many ways you can do it anyway. I agree that HOW and WHEN you use social media will make a difference, but that still doesn't take too much thought, does it?

    (Not to devalue the PR degree) – This really takes me back to the fact that I wish I'd gotten a degree in, perhaps, business instead of PR. (Let's be honest), it doesn't take four years to learn PR! I guess that's why the University of Miami requires communications students to declare a second major and we still graduate on time.

    Stick to your words, Keith! Let's be real!

  • keithtrivitt

    Kate & LAF, thanks for the great comments. Very much appreciated.

    I should probably briefly clarify my stance on this, before more comments come flowing in:

    I agree with both of you that yes, absolutely, PR takes a great deal of tact, strategy, knowledge and experience/expertise to ensure that your company's/client's reputation is upheld to their highest standard, and that their name, brand, whatever may be is in front of and engaging with the key audiences within their industry.

    What I meant more clearly by the “it's not rocket science” statement is that even during crisis situations, such as the one you mentioned, Kate, when it comes down to it, most of the strategies we develop and our execution are based on common sense – done right. And that last part is key. It has to be a strategic form of common sense, based on years of experience and insight, and both of you are right in that this ins't something that some guy or gal off the street could easily do. That's what separates us from others, and makes us the professionals that we are.

    Thanks for chiming in, ladies!

  • I agree with you Jasmine – it doesn't take four years to learn how to be a PR professional. But I can speak for my co-worker Danielle (@daniellecyr) and I that not one of our PR/comm classes were easy. I also participated in three unpaid internships to gain experience in the world of PR. I amaze myself (and chalk it up to the great company I work for) at the amount I have learned in just a year and a half of working in this field. Not everyone can do it.

  • laurenfernandez

    I'd add that crisis communications is also about adrenaline and how you react to it. I experienced executing a crisis communications plan first hand when a former Mensa member turned out to be the Holocaust Museum shooter. 5 hours and 100 + media calls later, I was out of the zone. It's all about how you react and use that common sense under pressure.

  • keithtrivitt

    Jumping off this a bit, I agree that education may play a role in my viewpoint about this. For anyone that knows me, I don't come from a traditional PR/comm background. I actually don't have a degree in either. I have an undergrad and master's in exercise science/sport management, but I worked throughout school in sports PR.

    But overall, my general point still stands: PR isn't rocket science. It has strategy, tactics, tremendous experts and passionate professionals, but at the end of the day, we are communicators. And since a basic premise of being human is our exceptional ability to communicate, we shouldn't take everything we do so seriously. It's all part of our basic human instinct to communicate, connect and engage with others.

  • I don't quite know how I feel about the assertion that PR isn't rocket science. I agree that it definitely not as complicated, but I think it does take more learning and effort depending on your natural skillsets. I won't try to say that PR is as hard as something like particle physics, but I do think that there are particle physicists out there who could not do my job as well as I can.

    To your point about social media, I completely agree. I jumped into social media with very littler knowledge in July, and I already feel like I've got the lay of the land. I wouldn't call myself an expert, but I know my way around and would feel comfortable giving advice and helping teach someone about SM. That being said, doing SM well does take effort. May not be really tough, but it does need time and effort.

  • I realize now that you weren't saying SM isn't rocket science, I got confused because you were at SMPR. Ugh. Morning!

  • keithtrivitt

    Thanks for the input, Rebecca. I agree with you that PR takes a tremendous amount of effort, insight and knowledge to do right. My more overarching point of all this, again, was that in general (and that's a generality, I know), we need to look at things from a PR perspective in terms of common sense (i.e. how would normal, everyday people want to be communicated and engaged with and informed of information/crisis). All too often, I feel like these common/typical person responses go out the window for over-thought and too-analytical responses, communications and engagement practices that do little to actually help grow brands, as companies and PR folks forget that communication is a basic human instinct.

    Like I said earlier, to me, it's about common sense – done right and strategically.

  • Great post, Keith. First, let me say that I don't think professional communications is necessarily easy – not rocket science, but not necessarily a walk in the park either. I've always viewed PR as an exercise in mental gymnastics – either you like the workout or you don't (I love it!). I agree that most professional communicators don't view what we do as rocket science (social media or otherwise), and that it is our natural passion and love for our profession that makes us excellent representatives for our clients, brands,etc. That being said, it does take a certain amount of training and constant evolution and learning to keep up with the changing dynamics of the communication field. Constant growth, research and creativity are needed to put our “common sense” profession to good use. I've seen too many agencies not grow with new media; too many companies scared and petrified by risk analysis to pull the trigger on new communication initiatives. I am reminded almost everyday that while we professionals may view, plan and execute communication campaigns with confidence that is driven by “common sense” (Keeping it straightforward), our “sense” becomes the expertise that companies will question, challenge, and rely upon for guidance. So yes, I agree, but with the understanding that sometimes common sense isn't so common.

  • jeffespo

    Common Sense, something I feel many people miss when coming into our industry Keith. I also think that coming from the specialty that we both did, it kind of puts a different spin on it.

    In sports you kind of learn through trial by fire with some kind of crisis each day and it's one of those things that one would really have to experience.

    Going along with Kate and LAF's comments, education is important, but so is experience. I have never worked in an agency, but rather for teams and now a company so you get a ton of exposure to hot-button issues at every level. From my assumption of agencies, this may be something that could be improved to produce more well-rounded PR folks.

  • keithtrivitt

    Jeff – Great point re: PR in the sports world. It is VERY much a trial-by-fire and learn-as-you-go type industry, and there is very little instructive material for how to do it well or effectively. (Have you read the seminal book on the sports info industry? I can't remember the name, but it was written by some guy in the 1970s about everything you could ever want to know about sports info.)

    At any rate, I would agree with you to some degree that agencies do tend to over-analyze certain situations and strategies. But then again, they are also working with other people's and company's money, so it's a bit hard to generalize it that way.

  • jeffespo

    Keith, never heard of the book. Only one I ever got was a media guide and a go get this done.

    I see the point with an agency, but also wonder id there is a way to teach/incorporate younger workers into the fold on some crisis or major situations even as an observer.

  • beccameyers

    It may be common sense to us, but to others, it is not.

  • ashleyparker

    This is a great post and raises a point that I often think about when my non-PR friends/colleagues are in “awe” of what I do- Thanks, but what I do isn't rocket science- it's common sense and using that common sense to best relate to a number of audiences. That being said, I have to echo laurenfernandez's sentiment that I think it's common sense to certain types of people, and these are the people most drawn to PR as a profession, but I think for someone who is more analytical and logical, it's not so easy. What I deem as “common sense” is a mixture of intuition, being attuned to others reactions and needs in terms of how they are approached/communicated with, and creativity to keep things fresh and interesting. I definitely feel like, similar to a lot of other jobs such as finance, law, etc., those who do it best have a natural affinity for it.

  • mikeschaffer

    Fantastic post, Keith!

    PR isn't rocket science, indeed. It's an art form, in a way. Establish your credibility, form relationships and funnel information from the client to the media.

    It is a skilled art form, because not everyone can strike the balance of a good PR pro. And even the good ones struggle with it on a daily basis.

    It is also subjective AND objective at the same time. Good work doesn't always get good results. And, sometimes, bad work gets great results.

    But having the guts to keep working at the craft every day is what makes us pros!

  • keithtrivitt

    Great points, Mike. I love the enthusiasm, too! You're right: There is very much an art to this business, and just like great art, sometimes, you do all of the right things, take all of the right strokes (strategies/tactics) and put in a ton of hard work/effort, and things just don't out your way.

    But other times, you sort of fall into something, you throw a few edgy strokes out there (odd story angles), and it goes off like gangbusters, and all of a sudden, you've got all of the big influencers you were trying to reach talking, blogging, tweeting, GBuzzing (yeah, new word) about your client, and you're golden.

    Again, it's not rocket science. It's common sense, for the most part – done right and with great strategy.

  • keithtrivitt

    Ashley, I like your points about being attuned to certain reactions and trends, and having a good dose of intuition. Both, I feel, are tremendously important assets to have to be great professionals in this field. And we have our experiences, our senses and our personality to thank for those, IMO. Again, it's all about tapping into what is already in us – the common sense to look around us, notice new trends and ideas, what people are talking about, and then think, “Hmmm, how can I work in XYZ into this trend/idea/etc.”