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Public Relations. It ain't all 'peaches and cream'

ANY mention of public relations (PR) as a career option conjures up images of glamour and yes, dollar signs in the mind's eye. But as Marcia Erskine, considered a guru of public relations locally, tells it, the career is more about hard work, with opportunities for good earnings - provided one is able to keep costs down.

Erskine - a trained journalist with a degree in Mass Communication from the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona - is managing director of the PR company Marcia Erskine and Associates, which has offices at the Pegasus Hotel in New Kingston.

We gain insight into PR this week, through her experiences.

What is significant about the work that you do?
I see the practice of public relations as being very similar to the work of a journalist or a teacher. All of us work to educate and inform. All three require similar skill sets - a good command of English, ability to comprehend, distil and impart information.

Why did you get involved in the field?

I worked as a PR Officer in the office of the Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago for one year following graduation from UWI. When I married and returned to Jamaica, I worked at the Gleaner first as editor of their travel publication The Tourist Guide and as contributor to various areas, including business and finance. It was a natural progression from journalism to PR. Working in journalism in Jamaica helped me to learn about the island quickly, meet many influential persons and gain a good understanding about social and political issues. Writing in the newspaper brought me to the attention of a "head hunter" for a local corporation, and they invited me to be their public relations manager. The rest, as they say, is history.

What kind of effort went into getting your company started?

I worked in public relations with three different corporations over eleven years before branching out on my own. Luckily for me, I had developed some very positive relationships with corporate Jamaica, and when I announced the formation of Marcia Erskine & Associates, there were a few organisations that immediately offered me projects. One of them, the Jamaica Institution of Engineers, provided my first office.

What was the experience like?
I was also blessed to have senior colleagues like Corina Meeks, founder of Creative Projects, who also sent work my way even though, strictly speaking, I was a competitor. Of course, I was a "cub" to Mrs Meeks - no competition - and she certainly was confident and generous enough to offer her help to me.

Those early days were interesting. There were no computers so the typewriter was the premier tool. Of course, you start off small, and try to keep costs down by doing most things yourself. So, I was communications executive, telephone operator, secretary, bearer - everything possible that first three months - before I finally accepted that I couldn't do it all and that yes, I was earning enough to hire a secretary.

Starting your own business can be very exhilarating when you have goodwill around you. I did. People I had forgotten I had met gave me work. Persons I had treated kindly at one time or another recommended me to their companies, or who had observed my work. I had to learn diplomacy, that in every new project there will be someone that is sceptical or does not have full confidence in you. But that once you earn that confidence and respect, they become your best ally.

What is a typical day like for you?

My typical day begins at approximately 6:00 am, when I leave my house mostly to avoid the traffic that can spoil any day. But also, because between 6:30 am (when I get to the office) and 9:00 am (when everyone else gets to work), I can think straight and get a lot done - especially the paperwork. Sometimes I go to bed uncertain about how to approach something relative to a project, and by the time I awake in the morning, I have the solution. So I want to get into work in quick time to get on with it. During the day, I may have client meetings, or need to oversee a client function or I may settle down to write project proposals, press releases, speeches, feature articles, media briefs - the works. In the evenings I may have to coordinate a client event - a reception or a banquet or late meetings, especially when we are involved in planning a conference.

What organisations/individuals comprise your clientele?
I do a lot of work in the hospitality field - hotels, airlines; for international funding agencies and professional groups, including doctors, engineers and environmental professionals.

What sort of earnings are there to be made in PR?
PR can be lucrative if you keep costs down. Everything is price competitive and clients are always looking for "the best bang for their buck". So you have to ensure value is delivered or you would have no repeat business and certainly, no contracts. I've been lucky on both counts, mainly because I tend to go the extra mile for my clients and don't nickel-and-dime them. Also, I've spent the time to hone some of the skills that are critical to PR, and so I don't have to "buy" a lot of services. When you have to "buy" all the required services, you end up being a "post office" for suppliers.

Education/skills set required?
I would say writing ability is critical for any PR practitioner. I believe that my training in journalism is a great plus for me. Working those strict deadlines in the newsroom gives you a discipline that is valuable in any job. For all those who think PR is a "pretty smile, pleasant personality and people-centred" profession, forget it. It's long hours, requires strategic thinking and planning, and can be but is NOT generally glamorous.

There's a lot of hard, continuous planning work that takes place before you deliver that perfect event, and even when the guests are filing out, replete with good company and good food, you're agonising about getting it into the news media. Most times you don't get a chance to eat or certainly not until the event is finished, as you are behind the scenes directing traffic and running interference. But when it's all over and the client's expectations have been met, you feel that it was all worth the effort.

Source: Jamaica Observer

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