PR is Firefighting too: Babylon Tells it Like it Is

“I know I look like a police officer, but I’m a firefighter. That’s all I do. I put out fires,” says the head of the Metropolitan police in Thursday’s episode of Babylon (Sundance Channel, S1E3). He’s talking to Liz Garvey, an American PR consultant who’s been hired to improve Scotland Yard’s image.

The show is chaotic, uneven and full of conflicting personalities. In other words, just like real life. Garvey, played by Chicago-born Brit Marling, is trying to get ahead of the media cycle to improve public opinion.  Her big concept is for the Met to create an Internet channel — to stream their own videos for better or worse — so they can restore public trust.

In theory, everyone agrees: transparency is the only route. But in the next breath, she’s being asked to squash stories that would be “uncomfortable” for the top brass. Let’s be honest, but not too honest. And that’s what I like about the show. It’s full of these inconsistencies that help illustrate why public relations is such an exciting and still-misunderstood profession.

Earlier in my career I worked for a health care technology company. I wrote speeches for the president of the company, developed programs that raised awareness of our products, and engaged the medical community, increasing market share. But the head of sales publicly referred to me as their “pr gal,” and employees sent me their wedding and baby announcements for the company newsletter. While I enjoyed what I did, I certainly didn’t feel fully appreciated.

To be good at PR, you need to be strategic and tactical. You need to listen well and be able to craft a clear message. You need strong speaking skills and be able to pick up the phone and interrupt busy people. You need a thick skin, but you also must be sensitive to nuance, tone, inflection and body language. Most of all, try as you might to be proactive, you must be able to react quickly and appropriately in a crisis  — and whenever you see an opportunity.

Whether you work at a company, an agency or the Met, every day is going to be different. If you are good at PR, you’ll thrive on the adrenaline rush. And you won’t let it bother you too much if you, like Garvey, are asked, “Do you do the Twitter Q&A? I love that!”

photo credit: Seattle Department of Transportation via photopin

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