The mid-twenties son of a writer pal is doing publicity for a nonprofit of arts and letters in the Midwest. He pines for a job in journalism, but PR has had to be close enough. Now, he finds, he's not even allowed to do much of that. He occasionally asks my advice about his career. I feel obliged to give it, but never very proud of the product. An email exchange we had last week was typical. Here it is. Could you offer better?
The young man writes:
At the end of the year, I requested a pay raise and new title for the second time. It appears that I'll get the new title now and the pay raise later it … The last raise I got from them was something like 2% so I have been looking around at other possibilities. Before the break, I'd mentioned something along the lines of "External Affairs Manager" or "Manger, Publicity and Partnerships."
My boss came back with "Brand Manager." I looked it up on MediaBistro. Now let's face it, titles are meaningless—except for Supreme Allied Commander (or whatever Ike or Grant was)—but there's something that makes me feel particularly gross about "Brand Manager." Thoughts?
Here are mine: It's not a shock that the non-profit sector has keeled over and given way to a full embrace of late capitalism. I don't know, but there's something about becoming a "Brand Manager" in 2018 that makes me want to head for the hills, apply to Harper's and forget I ever worked in PR. But that title makes me think, more than anything else so far in my life, that journalism is dead.
Maybe it's that I haven't published anything in more than a year and my general outlook about the prospects for 2018 being a decent year are cynical and grim, particularly as I marched across the tundra this morning, but "Brand Manager" feels closer to (for lack of a better term) selling out than I ever thought I'd feel working at this place.
Let’s start with “Brand Manager.” When I was your age, the leading public relations trade publication was a weekly that went out in typewriter face on yellow paper stock, called O’Dwyer’s Newsletter. On those pages, its founder, a former Hearst muckraker named Jack O’Dwyer, argued incessantly and for decades that public relations was not marketing. Marketing was about sales to markets, and PR was about direct relationships with journalists, and with counterparts at constituent organizations. To confuse the marketing and PR was to cut the journalists and constituencies out of the conversation—indeed, to cut the conversation out of the conversation—and eliminate every social purpose of the organization in favor of one: sales.
Jack is still alive. But he will be outlasted by the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.
There was a time when literary-minded, journalistic people graced communication departments in every job from media relations to employee communications. Now those intellectuals are down to the speechwriters. (And, you may have noticed, so am I.)
Here’s the question: Are you still making the connections, with journalists and other prominent folks, that you wanted to make? Are you learning from those connections? And does the content of the job satisfy you? If yes, then it doesn’t matter what your title is. If no, then it also doesn’t matter what your title is.
My mid-twenties was a terrible time in my career, too. At the publisher where I worked, I joked privately, and then it became a company joke, that my title was “Bastard Project Boy.” Some of that was circumstantial, but some of it was that I was experienced enough to be more than an apprentice, but I wasn’t seen as responsible or committed or polished enough to be given control of something important.
I quit—in teary defeat—with nothing in my hand but an offer to work for the same pitiful salary I was making, for a tiny PR firm in the mountains in Colorado. The publisher counter-offered dramatically, doubling my salary, halving my work and handing me control of the flagship publication I’d believed (at first wishfully) that I could handle all along.
I’m not sure you’re there yet—neither quite that discouraged, nor quite sure what it is you want. I do think “applying for Harper’s" is a probably a bridge too far. Are there any local journalists to whom you may confess your possibly misguided but persistent desire to move into journalism?
Meanwhile, if you think hanging in there at your current job could get you the experience and the polish you need to be able to truly achieve something to take to other places (rather than just looking around at other possibilities), then you should hang in there, even as Brand Manager.
As long as you keep building skills—and remain realistic about the dreams that those skills can help you achieve—you’ll get past these awkward years, and look back at them and never wish to be this age ever again.
And a kid will ask you for advice, and you’ll take three or four times as long to give it than he or she spent asking for it.