That is, until I worked on the ethanol account at a public relations firm. For two years, my team and I had an incredible opportunity to shape a national debate: Would ethanol be a part of our nation’s solution to our dependency on foreign oil?
The people who hired us wanted to build awareness for the corn-powered fuel and educate Americans on its benefits. It proved to be a challenge. Outside of the Midwest—where corn is hauled to ethanol processing plants and turned in to pure alcohol—it did not have much name recognition.
Until the Indy Racing League announced that all of its drivers would use 100 percent ethanol in each and every race.
The day that Paul Dana, ethanol advocate and first driver of the “E” car, was killed in a test run at Miami Homestead is firmly planted in my mind. I dropped everything to write a press release about Paul’s death and his legacy, my thoughts bouncing from the loss, to his grieving wife and their unborn child, to my need to get the facts right.
The experience of working on this project revealed what it means to work in public relations and what, exactly, PR professionals do.
Here’s my take:
1. They shape the debate. Ethanol is a mandated fuel mix in many states. But winning the hearts and minds of the American consumer was the goal. My job was to identify the knowledge level of the consumer, identify strengths and weaknesses, and to use public relations channels to inform the public through a variety of means.
2. They research. The only way to measure consumer awareness was to do national research, which my company commissioned. Then, using the raw data, my job was to identify areas in which consumers needed more information, had erroneous beliefs, or simply didn’t care. Knowing how to design and execute a research plan was crucial to my job.
3. They write. After identifying key messages, we wrote them in to all kinds of documents. We wrote an Ethanol insert for all the Indy car programs; we wrote fact sheets, news releases, media pitches, position papers, PowerPoint presentations, op-ed pieces, Web copy, blog posts, and ad copy.
4. They plan special events. The photo above was taken at an event at a Dallas 7-Eleven store. Our second driver, Jeff Simmons, took over behind the wheel after Paul Dana passed away. That event featured two more Indy car drivers, the Secretary of Energy, and ethanol advocates from all over the country. We gave away cheap ethanol and pitched reporters all over the state. It took a lot of time and planning, but it reaped benefits in the local media and taught Texas to pronounce ethanol “Eth-an-ol” rather than “eeeth-an-ol.”
5. They manage crisis situations. When Paul Dana died, the ethanol industry suffered a psychological blow. Not only was the circuit’s most passionate and visible advocate dead, but he died in a fiery crash in the ethanol “E” car. Not a great visual. Moving the organization past this loss and regrouping was part of my job.
6. They talk to the media. I formed relationships with media across the country while working on the ethanol account. It was my job to think of as many angles as possible, so my team worked hard on finding reporters from as many beats as we could. We ended up pitching energy reporters, business reporters, feature reporters, and trend reporters. The most memorable and creative pitch my team did ended up appearing as an AP story in more than 140 different media outlets.
7. They find advocates. There were many allies of ethanol, such as corn growers, industry groups, convenience stores, “Clean Cities” initiatives, and of course, the Indy Racing League. It was our job to reach out to them and form alliances for our client, and figure out ways we could work together.
8. They tell the truth. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, it’s tempting to skip steps, make assumptions, and push the button before the facts are checked. Sometimes the client is asking you to do things that push the boundary of the truth. Sometimes it’s your boss. Don’t be tempted to take shortcuts that will undermine your credibility with your team, client, or employers.
9. They educate themselves. PR Professionals should be among the smartest people on the team. They’re articulate, well read, and care deeply about the subject matter they represent. They keep up on current events, read the newspaper, and know about what’s going on in the world.
10. They use new media tools. There has been much debate about the role of social media in the PR world. Moving forward, I can’t imagine a PR professional doing a thorough job in any industry without using all tools as their disposal.
Through my experience working on this account and many others, I’ve used every part of my brain to help my clients put their best foot forward. I’ve helped them make business decisions, challenged them to think about certain issues in a new way, and given them fresh perspective.
(I want to reiterate: I was only one person on an entire account team. No one person could have done all this work.)
It’s invigorating. It’s why I love my job. PR is an awesome career.
A version of this story first appeared on the author’s blog Public Relations Princess.