Public Relations: Tools of the Trade

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The PR person's best friend is the typewriter. "Know your typewriter," DeCicco is fond of saying. '*You can study all the marketing and business education courses you want, but if you can't write, forget it."

In DeCicco's end of the business, public relations is used as a marketing tool. In essence, PR is used to solve marketing problems, he says. For instance, 3M had a line of sanding wheels which weren't moving all that well, primarily because hardware store owners used to display them in their paint departments. By moving them to the much more visible and attractive display areas that included power tools, 3M boosted its sales of the wheels. Problem solved.

An analogy of this problem-solving technique that DeCicco likes has to do with insurance: 'Tor years, people were told that they needed insurance. They knew they needed it but they didn't really understand it and they didn't really know why. It was a good public relations campaign that explained insurance and told them why. Look at today's TV commercials for the big insurance companies. Their image has been changed."

When DeCicco says that you should know your typewriter, he isn't kidding. In a typical week he, or some of his co-workers, might be called upon to write a PR program for anything from Scotch tape to sandpaper. There are press kits for all manner of things, from marinas to power tools; there are outlines for television and trade magazine interviews to be set up.

DeCicco estimates that he works somewhere between 50 and 60 hours a week. He's no stranger to juggling papers and reports on a commuter train, and he's no stranger to constant travel, either. He figures that he spends some 20 percent of his time on the road, mostly flying between St. Paul, Minnesota - the corporate head quarters of 3M - and New York.

He is a man who can handle product public relations for anything from soap to tractors. He can and has written speeches and audio/visual presentations. He is a generalist in the true sense of the word. This is what he'll tell you about the public relations business. It may be the best advice you'll ever get:

Most agencies and corporate public relations operations today won't hire you without four to five years of newspaper experience. Deadlines are important. You have to learn how to handle them.

"You have to know how to organize your time. I'm not sure that this is something that you can learn in school, which is why so many good public relations people come from a newspaper background."

Airline Public Relations

Jim Ashlock is an affable Texan who is the news bureau director for Eastern Airlines at the International Airport in Miami, Florida. You want to know about his job? Listen to what he wrote in the Columbia Journalism School's newsletter in New York recently: "A few interesting wrinkles during the year. The Miami Herald did a piece on me as spokesman for the area's No. 1 employer and I endured considerable exposure on the wires and TV responding to queries about the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike, airline fare wars and all the other stuff that seems to make news.

"I'm also teaching courses in public relations for Barry College (in Florida) and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, just to see whether teaching might be worthwhile for me sometime in the future."

Ashlock is fairly typical of many public relations people. He came to the job via daily newspapers and the thought of teaching the art grows more and more attractive to him.

He recognizes that this sort of instruction has more than its share of problems. He says that when he gets resumes from hopeful young people interested in a public relations career, he tells them not to be in a big hurry to strike it rich in the wonderful world of PR.

"The first thing you're looking for is a good writer and the only way I know of to learn to be one is with a news background. You can't teach people how to write, but you can teach them how to communicate and that's the name of this game. If there's one word that sums up public relations it's 'communication,'" he says. * There's a lot of drama and romance that somehow got attached to this business. I really don't know why. But what people who want to go into it have to remember is that you have to master the essential tools," he says.

Handling public relations for one of the country's major air carriers is not easy. This is a high-risk, high-visibility profession. One learns to live with the possibility of catastrophic events like crashes or crippling strikes that affect a lot of people. As Ashlock says: "We're on call 24 hours a day. They can call you day or night, and they do."

He's generally in the office by 8 or so in the morning. He doesn't leave until 6 and he fields perhaps as many as 40 telephone calls a day. "It's a response-type job. You respond to whatever the situation happens to be and you have to do it quickly," he says. Ashlock detests the word "image." He prefers the word "reputation." And that's what he thinks PR is all about - building a corporation's reputation.

"You have to remember that the media can get down on a company," he says. "You have to remember that and you have to avoid that."

During his busy day his functions are many. His primary responsibility is corporate. But, on top of that, there are media relations, internal communications and the general role of providing marketing support for Eastern. The way he describes it is: "We're not into sales promotion. We play an information role. We precede and supplement the advertising department.

"Don't misunderstand me. It's a lot of fun. But when I get a letter for a job from a young person, I have to deal with the realities of a situation in which neither I nor anyone on my staff has the time to train them or to teach them."

That's why he tells young job applicants that if they go right from college to the PR department of a big corporation that they might be disappointed. Instead, he advises, go out and work at something that you really like, "something you really get a buzz out of. Learn the basics, build up a reputation, then come to a big company."

Ashlock himself is probably his own best example. He was nuts about aircraft. He'd fly anything he could climb into and thought might make it off the ground. He knew from the start that he wanted to work with something that involved planes.

He flew them and he wrote about them and, in short, he learned his trade.

That's how he wound up at Eastern.
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