I spent a while trying to come up with a title for this article that truly established one of my least-favourite things in public relations, and I’m still not happy. I keep thinking back to my first job in PR, where one of my managers (who isn’t even in PR anymore) actively made fun of me for knowing how the very tech we were working on actually functioned. In future roles, I’d have management actively worry about people who played too many games in a scenario where, ostensibly, we were talking to games journalists about video games.
To really drill this home, I want to specifically say that if you make someone in PR feel bad because they actually know their subject matter, you are worse than scum.
What Domain Expertise Actually Means
I have heard a lot of PR people – managers especially – say that they have domain expertise in, say, consumer tech or business. What they actually mean is that they’ve learned the definitions of a few things, and that they can, when prompted, tell you what these things mean and roughly how you’d put them in a sentence. What they cannot do is synthesize this information into further meaning, or have a particularly meaningful conversation around the subject. These are the same people that will also say to young PR people that actually know a subject to “not know too much” about it, because it “gets in the way.”
Domain Expertise actually means having knowledge of a subject, how it works, and the larger industry, and does not just mean remembering the right words and the right people. For example, if you’re doing PR for a gaming company, this means having played a meaningful chunk of recent releases, and completed at least, say, one major game. If you’re working for a major PC manufacturer, especially one that’s focused on performance, this means likely having built and still being able to build a PC, knowing what particular things do, why, say, a person may need multithreaded processing, if that’s a part of said chip you’re working on.
What pisses me off is the large crystallization of PR people who believe that having a surface level knowledge of stuff is enough to do a good job, and that having too much knowledge makes you unable to communicate the core value of a product. If you’re reading this and saying “haha, that ain’t me,” please interrogate if you actually know your ass from your earhole when it comes to your industry. While it’s not possible to know everything, you should be able to understand and bathe in the industry that you claim to know at least half as well as the reporters you’re talking to. And mark my words, they will notice.
Reporters hate this too, because they have to deal with PR people from giant agencies that have held onto big technology accounts for years due to people having varying levels of both confirmation bias and revealing photos on the right people in power. When a big agency gets an email about, say, a tech product’s ability to X or Y, this is oftentimes routed through a manager, which goes to a PM, which goes to another person, which goes back to the manager to approve the content of. Would this not be easier if the PR person could not simply look in their brain and answer the question?
Similarly, when you’re pitching a reporter, knowing what you are talking about actually allows you to pitch better. If said reporter is a consumer tech producer, perhaps they’re not the ideal target for a high-end graphics card – even if they build PCs, there’s not a high likelihood their viewers do. Conversely, when you find a reporter and show them that not only do you know your stuff, but you can actually converse about said stuff with them and help them understand why the thing you’re pitching is good, and they’ll be far more likely to write about your product. It’s just that easy.
To conclude, if you have derisively referred to having knowledge as “too much,” if you have rolled your eyes at a colleague that has said something technical and claimed it’s irrelevant, or if you’ve felt self-conscious because someone has known more than you and made them feel bad for it, please learn more, or quit this industry. Get out. I don’t want you here anymore.
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