Rachel Beanland, APR is a Public Relations Practitioner who runs her own communications firm, Kismet Communications www.kismetcommunications.com. Find her on the Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview. @kismetcomm
What do you do for a living?
I’m a public relations practitioner. Last June, I went out on my own and launched my own company, Kismet Communications, alongside my sister who’s a graphic designer. We specialize in providing clients with sound strategy, great writing, creative web design and development and really good-looking graphic design.
How would you describe what you do?
The other day my seven-year-old son asked me what I do for a living. I told him, “I help companies tell good stories about themselves.” The stories take a lot of different formats, but that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.
What does your work entail?
I spend a lot of time on the computer… answering e-mail, managing projects, writing strategic communications plans and content for the web and print publications. Then there’s the time I spend on the phone… talking to clients, brainstorming ideas with my sister, coordinating with web developers, or pitching stories to journalists if I’m handling media relations for a client.
The one aspect of my job that always sneaks up on me is new business development. People dream about becoming entrepreneurs and starting their own businesses but they often forget that they’re going to spend a lot of time pursuing leads that never wind up turning into jobs. For us, that means meeting with potential new clients and putting together new business proposals. Sometimes we land the client and sometimes we don’t but it’s always a lot of work behind the scenes.
What’s a typical work week like?
So, the one thing I love about public relations is that it’s a great job to couple with motherhood. Since I work for myself, I have the ability to create this crazy schedule that allows me to be home with my kids after school each day. Basically, I work from 5 to 7 a.m. every day, get the kids off to school, work from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., hang out with my kids all afternoon and evening and then work for another two hours or so after the kids are in bed. I’m working a 10-hour day lots of days but I’m doing it around my kids’ schedule, which is important to me. It wouldn’t be ideal for everyone but for me—at this time in my life—I feel really lucky that I’ve got a career that I can build around my kids, instead of it being the other way around.
How did you get started?
I studied public relations and art history at the University of South Carolina. I much preferred my art history classes but, not too surprisingly, the public relations classes have been much more useful on the job market:-) Right out of school, I landed a job handling communications for a small non-profit, and I’ve been working in the field ever since.
What do you like about what you do?
I love to write, so for me, that’s always the best part of any job. Some writers like writing for print but don’t enjoy writing web content because websites are iterative and no content remains relevant for very long. Your words might be there one day and be gone the next. I don’t care so much about the format—I just get an odd sense of satisfaction from taking a complicated idea and using good writing to make it easily understood and even interesting.
What do you dislike?
Working with numbers. When you’re billing your services out by the hour, you’ve got to get a very good sense of how much your time is worth and how much time you think it will take to complete particular tasks. There are only so many hours in a week, and the value you place on your time directly affects your bottom line. You want to price yourself competitively but you also don’t want to undervalue yourself. It’s more math than I’d prefer to be doing! Then there’s tracking your income and expenses and… (gulp)… taxes. When you’re in business for yourself, there’s no friendly director of finance with an office down the hall, so you’ve got to decide which things you’re capable of tackling yourself and which things to hire out.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Depending on the client’s needs, there are three ways to potentially handle compensation. For a straightforward project with clear deliverables, we just quote a flat fee for the project. If it’s unclear how much time will be involved in delivering the project because of unknown variables, we give the client an estimated number of hours we think it will take to complete the project and then charge based on the hours it ultimately does take to complete the work. For ongoing work that has no clear end date (let’s say a client wants us to handle regular website updates or social media management or media relations), the client can put us on a retainer. The client pays a set amount per month in return for a set number of hours of work per month. If something big comes up and the client wants us to go over the allotted monthly hours to handle a special assignment or extra workload, we bill accordingly.
How much do people in your career/field make?
I had a public relations professor in college who said something I’ll never forget. He told us, “Public relations practitioners are underpaid when they’re young and overpaid when they’re old.” I’m somewhere in the middle age-wise, so I feel like I’m hitting it about right. Where I live (in Richmond, Va.), independent PR practitioners and small shops generally charge somewhere between $100 and $150 per hour for their services. Larger agencies might charge up to $250 per hour, depending on the size and scope of the project. Non-profit rates are often available, and firms are good about working with their clients to come up with a payment structure that meets everyone’s needs. Typically, clients get the biggest bang for their buck when they go on a long-term retainer.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
Usually, not much. But the good news is that, with the right job, it doesn’t take long to gain great experience that can be parlayed into better pay over the long run. Regardless of how long you’ve worked, your pay will vary based on your geographic region and also your industry. For instance, you’ll probably make more working in corporate communications than you will working for an agency.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
There’s a lot of debate about whether to study PR in college. Given my background, I’ll tell you—it can’t hurt. You’ll learn a lot of sound principles that will significantly lessen your learning curve when you land your first job out of college (and it might help you get the job in the first place).
If you are planning on majoring in PR, I would advise you to pair it with another subject. PR classes will teach you how to communicate but you’ll be way more marketable when you graduate if you can communicate about something in particular. For instance, if you pair PR with finance, you’ll have no issues landing an incredible job in investor relations. If you pair it with political science, you might wind up working in public affairs on Capitol Hill. Double up with Spanish and you open yourself up to all kinds of communications agencies that are selling their services to Latino markets. If you can handle science or engineering, just write your own ticket—tons of companies need people who can communicate complicated scientific concepts clearly and concisely.
If you’re at a school that doesn’t offer a public relations degree, never fear. Study journalism, English or maybe rhetoric. Get a really good base in writing and public speaking, and then look for internships that can boost your PR IQ. See if there’s a local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America in your town, and go to their monthly luncheons, which always feature educational speakers. PRSA chapters usually offer lunch to students at reduced rates. Contact your university’s communications office (every university’s got one) and see if they need any student workers. It’s a great way to learn the ropes. Also, visit your school’s career center and they can probably put you in touch with alumni who work in public relations. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they got into the field. They may be all too happy to help you get your foot in the door.
What is most challenging about what you do?
It’s fun to implement a public relations campaign that’s got all these creative tactics but where it gets challenging is tying back each of those creative tactics to a real, measurable business objective. It doesn’t really matter whether I’m doing work for an organization that fundraises or sells widgets or gets out the vote… at the end of the day, I’ve got to demonstrate that public relations had a hand in positively influencing business outcomes. I’m always thinking about how I can prove value.
What is most rewarding?
What I love about PR is that no two jobs (or even two days) are ever the same. I get to learn a lot about a ton of different industries and have met so many really interesting people along the way. I think the variety is what will keep me in the profession over the long run.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Whether you’re enrolled in a collegiate public relations program or learning on the job, I’d advise anyone to take at least one graphic design class. Even though, in most jobs, you won’t be expected to wear that hat, it’s a really good idea to know what good design looks like, what’s involved in achieving it and how to talk intelligently to designers. You’ll be partnering with them throughout your career.
How much time off do you get/take?
I’m probably not a good person to ask! I’m at the point where I’m growing my business, and as a result I’m finding it very difficult to step away from the laptop and smartphone. I took a two-week vacation this past summer that definitely wasn’t without its stressors. This coming summer, I’ve already got a one-week vacation on the books, so we’ll see how I do! If you’re working for a company, you can expect to earn two weeks’ vacation per year as a new hire and bump up to three or four weeks’ vacation as you gain seniority.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
There are a few misconceptions about PR that I’d love to put to rest:
I’m a “People Person” So I Should Go into PR
While there’s a definite upside to having an extroverted personality-type in this profession, the number one thing you need is good writing skills. If you’re a college student who hates writing, I’d honestly advise finding another career field.
PR’s Just Spin
There’s this misperception that all PR practitioners do is take bad stories and polish them until they appear to be good stories, or at least neutral stories. Nothing could be further from the truth. When bad news strikes, PR practitioners advise companies on how to confront the fallout honestly and openly. People call PR practitioners spin doctors but a more appropriate nickname would be the ethics police.
PR and Media Relations Are the Same Thing
There are a lot of people out there who assume, when you say you work in the public relations field, that you sit at a desk and pitch reporters on stories all day long. There certainly are PR practitioners who do that but that’s because they’ve chosen to focus on one aspect of public relations—media relations. The PR profession can encompass a lot of different kinds of work: internal communications, community relations, special event planning, marketing, advertising, reputation management, branding and identity development, issues management and… yes… media relations.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
Owning my own business is definitely a dream realized. When I think about my professional goals, I think about what Kismet Communications might look like in the future. I’d like the business to grow with me.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
The Public Relations Society of America is a great resource for people interested in careers in public relations. They also offer a strenuous accreditation process for PR practitioners. If a PR professional has an “APR” after his or her name, it’s noteworthy. APR stands for “Accreditation in Public Relations” and to earn those three little letters, practitioners study all the latest literature, prepare a portfolio of work, defend their work in front of a committee of their peers, and finally sit for a national exam.