For me it happened in a recent phone call with a public relations student. Her assignment was to interview this old—er, make that “seasoned”—PR pro about his career. Toward the end of our delightful conversation, she tossed up this question: “What’s one thing you wish you’d known when you started your career?”
To my surprise, the answer to this predictable query didn’t come right away. And when it did, I wasn’t sure I was ready to give it.
But I did. Taking a deep breath, I told the student, “I wish I’d known how stressful this job could be.”
I don’t recall hearing about the pressures of PR in my college classes many years ago, and my youthful interviewer couldn’t cite an example, either. That left my wondering if we’re doing her and others a disservice by not equipping students to understand and cope with the stress of a career in public relations.
Just how demanding is PR? The profession typically ranks high in surveys and studies—most recently landing sixth on CareerCast’s most-stressful list, not far behind police officers and airline pilots.
How much confidence to put in such lists is debatable. But it’s true that stress comes with any job in PR. We’re often on the front line for our organizations and clients. How we perform can have broad and lasting ramifications for their reputations and even their bottom lines.
Ours isn’t a daily deluge of fancy dinners, glittering galas and celebrity elbow-rubbing. It’s hard work. We constantly counsel our clients on communicating well, building relationships and empathizing with audiences. We stay abreast of a changing array of tools and a shifting media environment. We represent the perspectives of leaders, employees, customers and more—sometimes all at once. We serve as the conscience of our organizations, meaning sometimes we must say things leadership doesn’t want to hear.
Some days we get to ballyhoo great news; some days we bear bad tidings—and the slings and arrows of those affected. Some days we’re the winners in delivering the right message in the right way; some days we’re the losers in a ruthless budget battle.
All of that involves stress—the stress of what we know, what we can manage, what we don’t know and what’s outside our influence.
Part of the challenge, of course, is that stress affects each of us differently. What is exhilarating for one person might be soul-crushing to another. What’s more, public relations owns no corner on workplace stress. Every job has its unique pressures, many far exceeding anything in PR.
I urged my young interviewer to go forth with eyes wide open—and to make it a topic in the classroom. We do the next generation of PR pros a great service by helping them understand and prepare to cope with the stress they’ll inevitably face.
A career in PR is immensely rewarding, exciting and inspiring. It’s also demanding, unpredictable and relentless. Be ready for all points on the spectrum. Do your best work. Find your center.
And enjoy the ride.