NON-FICTION
My (Three Month) Life in Public Relations
Adam Swift

Photo by Max Okhrimenko on Unsplash

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Look, I’ve been in and out of the newspaper business for going on a quarter of a century. I’m cool with that, I know I’m in a business going the way of coal-powered dodo birds, the telegraph, and professional jitterbuggers. If I’m the last one standing the day they stop rolling the presses, feel free to chisel it on my tombstone.

For most of those years of professional newspapering, however, I have held out hope, the hope of all the poor newspaper men and women (which is pretty much all the newspaper men and women) of getting a Public Relations Job, in which I would make money, perhaps wear a suit, and write things that are generally ignored by real newspaper men and women. But did I mention the money?

Which is where I during my second go-round at the best newspaper I’ve worked for (and not to ruin the story, but there is a third go-round) on another day with another meeting and another paycheck that paid one or two few bills. So I did what any frustrated, daydreaming newspaper man or woman would do when faced with the frustrations of the job. I went on Indeed.com, entered “public relations” in the search box, and watched the vaunted public relations jobs scroll down the page. I scrolled with as little effort as is Internetily possible, found a job near me, one which did not require a cover letter and I could apply for through submitting my archived, frankly unproofread Indeed resume with a single click. Did I mention that being sick of being called into one more meeting? I clicked. I forgot about it. I went back to my second go-around of the best newspaper job I’ve had and figured I had shown them, strictly in my mind, that I could apply for another job, even if it was a job where my unproofread resume would head quickly to the recycle bin.

I know, this would not be much of a story if the public relations place never called me. So I called back from a Walmart parking lot, was my best charming phone interview self. Of course I can do all the PR things, whatever those were, and I was looking to transition into the field and all those good things! Look! I’m using exclamation points, showing I had already mastered one of the most valuable skills a PR flack must possess.  I thought the phone screening had gone well. At the time, I didn’t reflect on the fact that nothing good has ever happened in a Walmart parking lot.

The president of the company called me back several days later to schedule an interview. I called back several times and left messages without getting a call back. Screw it, I guess I wasn’t that impressive, there’s bound to be more opportunities to apply for jobs with a minimum effort. But eventually the company president calls back, apologizes for not getting back to me because she had a pet emergency and had to bring her dog to the vet. I should trust the reader to find the spots later in the story where this will turn out to be ironic foreshadowing, but I’m going to come right out now and foreshadow the foreshadowing, because screw that damn dog.

This interview is like a bad Raymond Chandler story

I was mesmerized by the ocean view. That must have been it. The ocean view and the money. Two things I didn’t have at my current job and wasn’t much averse to having in a new job. The unwell/injured dog situation was resolved and I had a date for the interview with W___ C____. The company wasn’t in an office so much as it was in a mansion by the ocean in Manchester-by-the-Sea, the type of seaside suburb that’s invariably described as “tony” in newspaper speak. I rang the doorbell and was asked to wait in the anteroom (aka glorified hallway) for the company owner. I felt like Philip Marlowe in the opening of The Big Sleep, not sure if the chair I was in was for sitting or show. The marble-floored room was filled with some kind of Freshman Intro to Art sampler pack. Nautical painting! Human torso sculpture! Japanese print! It was like someone was hired to go to a Sotheby’s auction and the only instructions given were to bid on “art.”

After 10 minutes, the owner brought me into her office/conference room, directly overlooking the sun-dappled Atlantic Ocean on an especially dapply, sunny day. I don’t remember much of the interview, mostly because I stared at the gentle waves of the ocean. I want to work in PR because of blah, blah, blah use my skills to help with the blah de blah I’m just going to stare at this outcropping of rocks offshore, sailboat, beach. I was asked to “help” with a “project” they were working on, was given a pamphlet about some kind of ski school something or other and asked if I could come up with a headline for a possible press release. Of course I knew this was all bullshit and knew it wasn’t that they needed my help, but that it was an itsy bitsty testy type thing. I played along. Headline was something something slope, maybe, should have been we are all heading downhill.

There was talk about how my experience as a reporter would be a good fit for the position, and several questions about types of PR people I have dealt with, how a PR person could best reach a reporter and so forth. The honest answer was that, to the best of my ability, I tried not to deal with PR people. I did not give the honest answer.

I was asked if I thought the job would be something I thought I would like to do.

I started at the ocean, sunny and dappled.

I think this would be a perfect fit! I have the exclamation point thing down cold!

I drove home with the salt air in my nostrils drowning out any surfacing doubts that I really had no idea what I would be doing if I was hired.

A week later, the owner calls and offers me a salary 25 percent more than I was making at my current job. 

I’d be starting the Monday after Thanksgiving. 

I’ve made a huge mistake

It’s hard to determine how much trepidation I had going into my new PR job on that Monday after Thanksgiving. There were nagging worries about things like “stepping outside my comfort zone” and maybe even “learning new things” and “sitting at desk all day without vague excuses to leave.” But hey, I was going to be making some money and mostly doing things like writing, which I was fairly certain I had done before. Mostly, my attitude was good going in. Well, aside from the bit about the offer letter. The owner was really goddamned serious about me mailing back the offer letter asap. Because it was a legally binding document which would hold my soul in the depths of PR purgatory? Perhaps. Paperwork has never been my strong suit. This would be a recurring problem, given the amount of busywork I’d be given. I think I got two phone calls and three emails in two days asking where the offer letter was. But really, I mailed the damn offer letter. It’s on its way. Chill out random art collector lady.

I make it to Day One, offer letter delivered in time to make things official, with a modicum of enthusiasm. I get introduced to the few people who work in the office, the rest work from home and I’ll meet them later, get the typical email setup password here’s how to turn on the computer deal. I’ve made it one hour in with no major damage to my psyche. This is as good as it gets. From here on, the rest of the day is warning signs with all the subtlety of those “Use you-ah blinka”  LED signs the MassDOT puts up and down the Pike.

First, there’s the employee handbook. Honestly, a lot of it I skimmed. It’s an employee handbook, after all, it’s like reading through the licensing agreement for iTunes. They could be telling you that Apple is owed one kidney every time you press play on the abomination that is Piano Man, but you would never know it. Scroll through and click yes. Flip through the pages of the employee handbook and sign and date the back page. But I always make a pitstop at the dress code section. This is shit that impacts my life! Jeans/no jeans? How much ironing should I plan on doing? Ties? Casual Fridays? It was nothing surprising, clean, neat, no jeans except for Fridays, collared shirts, no exposed piercings or tattoos. Hold on. No exposed tattoos? It’s not like I’m Dave Navarro hosting InkMania Tattoo Challenge World, but unless I’ve got my longsleeves buttoned up, I have a little ink showing. Is this the hill I want to die on on the first day? Hey look, exactly how serious are you about this one part of the handbook I bothered to read? Is this an only when I go out to visit clients thing? Does it matter that the tattoo on my forearm is of my daughter’s birthdate and an adorable, preschool looking whale? Exactly how much botox have you been taking for your lips (possibly unrelated to the issue at hand, but also hard to ignore). For the time being, I would let this pass and wear the long sleeves.

More troubling was the handy primer I was given by the employee who sat in the front room of the mansion/office with me, highlighting the things I should know on the job. After beginning to read this, I immediately become nauseous, my heart sinks, and all the other cliches signifying “what the fuck have I gotten myself into” hit at once. The first nine pages of the everything you need to know to succeed at W____ C_____ primer focuses on such important pieces of PR knowledge as: What types of flights to book the owner on (First class, but always look for a deal), what limo company to hire to pick said owner up to take her to the airport, various tidbits about airline and train transport for the company’s vice presidents (in addition to the owner/president, there are three VPs for a company that tops out at nine employees), what varieties of salads to order for staff meetings, what types of sandwiches to order for said staff meetings, how many bottles of flavored water to pick up when you go pick up said salad and sandwich orders for the staff meetings. 

By the time I get to the sections of the primer that are specific, and specifically boring as to actual PR things which I will actually be doing and hating in the future, I am coming to the realization that I have made a huge mistake. I’ve come from the world of the newspaperman and newspaperwoman where we might not make enough money to pay all the rent, every month, but goddamn if we have ever had to buy our bosses a frighteningly specific salad. We have our standards, dammit.

Later in the day, I meet with the owner to discover which PR accounts I’ll be working on. Keep in mind, I’ve spent the past two decades covering ZBA and School Board meetings, and, if not exactly enjoying them, at least appreciating them on a certain municipal level most of society may not quite cotton to as a form of entertainment. But here is a sampling of accounts I’ll be on: truck tires, but not just any truck tires, mostly forklift tires; data conversion, which consists of turning text into other text, maybe, for the computers? And window film, which is a thin covering that keeps out light in car and house windows. Now you know everything you need to know about window film. But there is a monthly newsletter for this shit, the window film beast must be constantly fed, and it will be my job to feed it. There are other accounts, almost as thrill-a-minute as these. 

Each account is managed by one of the three vice presidents, who don’t really coordinate with each other as to giving a shit about what you are working on outside of their accounts. I haven’t met them yet. I will.

Good lord, I go home praying maybe it’s not as bad as it all seems, maybe window film has hidden depths that are nearly as exciting as a good fight over raising school lunch prices by a nickel versus a dime.

Day one in the books, Leslie asks me how it went.

Good!

The joy of the weekend lasts for about five minutes

So my spirit, as much as it’s ever given to lightly soaring, is closed to crush from Day One. New strategy. I’ll try to hold on as well as I can until five o’clock every day, be happy I have a job that can cover rent while Leslie is home with the baby, and keep the griping to a minimum. Does this get me through Day Two? Maybe, I honestly don’t remember. As far as the work itself goes, I’m caught in a trap where it feels both mind-numbingly boring and yet also that I’m out of my depth and can’t do anything right and will never understand the untold subtleties and mysteries of professionally installed window film. Did I mention there is not much you can say about professionally installed window film past the first two minutes of learning about it? It is a film, on windows, that provides tinting and shade. There you go. And yet, I somehow manage to fuck it up enough that everything I write about professionally installed window film during that first week is torn apart and rewritten.

And yet there is neverending cycle of PR endeavors of the wonders of professionally installed window film that must be fed for W____ C____ to keep reeling in that sweet, sweet professionally installed window film money. There are pitches. Blog posts. A monthly press release. A fucking quarterly window film newsletter. Podcasts. Videos. Infographics. Look, I’m not saying window film is not a fine and useful product. But there are only so many ways to entice major publications that window film is a film, on windows, that provides tinting and shade.

There’s no need to bore you with the specifics of the work. It was a job some people are happy to do but for which I was ill equipped. That happens. I can accept that. There are many, many jobs for which I have been ill equipped to excel. Frankly, most jobs I have held I have been ill equipped to excel at. Boiled down to its essence, I have determined that there are two jobs in the universe that I have the opportunity to excel at, newspaper man and grocery store clerk.

So it wasn’t about the work, except when it was. It was about the people, specifically my bosses, of which I had four, which, as I may have mentioned, seemed a bit top heavy for a company with nine employees. Of the three vice presidents, there was one who was slightly demanding, but in the perfectly acceptable way that bosses are expected to make demands of employees. If I was doing work that didn’t crush my soul, she would have been a fine supervisor. The second vice president treated everyone like she was a first grade teacher and we were all six years old. The third VP had the charming habit of never asking you to do something, but telling you to do it with ALL CAPS EMAILS.

I’ve blocked out most of the day-to-day work crap that drenched me in misery. I don’t remember the specific spreadsheets I would spend hours and days filling out with media contacts only to be told I formatted the spreadsheet wrong. I don’t remember the specific pitch e-mails I was forced to rewrite and then rewrite again because I was told that no one, no one would be interested in that boring pitch about data conversion, that most spine-tinglingly edge of your seat thrilling of topics. I don’t remember the press releases where I was told that there is a very specific language that must be used to tell consumers about the magic of professionally installed window film.

What I do remember is telling the owner that I could not make it to the company’s holiday dinner because my daughter was sick and being badgered to attend -- well, you have to eat dinner, you can stop by for an hour, it is a team-building exercise, it is really important that you attend, you should think it over and get back to me. What I do remember is telling the owner that my uncle was dying of cancer and that when he did die and I asked to take time off, I had to send her the obituary and when I didn’t do that right away I was sent emails on the day of his funeral reminding me to send a copy of his obituary. What I do remember is less than three weeks into my new job walking out to my car and calling my boss and asking what the chances were that I could come back. What I do remember is coming to work every morning to the mansion on the ocean in one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen and feeling like I never wanted to see this beauty again, it was ruined for me and the ocean and the dapply dapples and the waves crashing were nothing more than the hard rock in my stomach that doubled me over in pain every morning on the way to work and kept me up at night for hours later than it should have because the earlier I went to sleep every night the sooner I would have to wake up and the sooner I would be back at work. What I do remember is that for my lunch breaks I would go sit by myself in my car, eat a baloney sandwich and watch the clock, calculating just how long I could sit in the parking lot before I would have to go back to my desk. What I do remember is the relief of leaving work at five o’clock on a Friday for the weekend, only to not even have that relief last for more than two turns down the highway when it hits me that I’ll just be driving back the other way on Monday morning.

What I do remember is the shame of finally making enough money to provide for my family but wanting to do anything but the job that made enough money for me to be able to provide for my family. What I do remember is being about a month into the job and being an absolute non-communicative asshole around the house to be around and Leslie asking me what was wrong.

Is it the job? How is it going?

Not so good.

Happiness is going back to the job where the guys who hang out across the street have teardrop tattoos

I was relieved to let Leslie know just how much I hated my job. It didn’t totally stop unidentified internal organs from turning hard as concrete, but it was the first step. All I needed now was a plan for a new job. I could do this. I am the king hell champion of getting jobs. Once I get them, it can be a different story. And hell, I’d even had plenty of other crappy jobs before, I could do this. There was time in the not-so-distant past when I had a low-paying job and made a call to inquire about becoming a professional carpet installer, because, well I don’t remember all the details and becauses, but it wasn’t one of the high times in my life.

So it was time to buckle down and spend my lonely baloney (balonely?) sandwich lunch breaks scouring Indeed.com for job listings. The major difference between this and past job searches was that I was ruling out any and all public relations jobs, at least for the immediate future. For nearly a quarter of a century, getting a job in PR had been the Holy Grail, the obvious next step for which my experience as a reporter had been a mere stepping stone. Then the grail was destroyed in less than a month by the perfect storm of serial dysfunction, boredom, and the inability to really, really, seriously sell the white-hot burning excitement of the supernova that is professionally installed window film.

With public relations off the table and having been jilted by the industrial rug installation complex lo those many miserable years ago, there was really only one option on the table that could fit my peculiarly narrow skill set.

I love you newspapers. I’m sorry I left you. Do you forgive me? Will you take me back?

But the secret, that I kept from my boss at least, was that I hadn’t left newspapers for all that long. When I called my old boss to complain about my new job, there wasn’t an opening to come back at the moment, but there was a chance to write a few freelance articles per week. I was staying in the game, and making extra money, to boot. The days at work when I had an assignment that night were just a little brighter. I was looking forward to sitting for hours at school board meetings and budget hearings. It’s a special kind of sickness.

Also, if people tell you you will never get what you want by being a miserable bastard, don’t believe them. I stopped in the old paper office periodically to pick up my checks and say hi, and let everyone know how fucking unhappy I was at my new job. One reporter would comment on how much weight I had lost. Because that’s what happens when I’m depressed. I have no appetite and food other than baloney is only for those who deserve happiness, but hey, I fit into my old pants again, so it’s not all bad. The publisher told me I’d always have a place to come back to if I wanted, which I didn’t know exactly how serious he was as I measured up whether I’d be able to get my old desk back.

Meanwhile back at W____ C_____, I was upbraided because my pitch selling the many benefits of Big Data XML conversion was boring. Did I even know what Big Data XML conversion was all about? Would you ever bother replying to that pitch? No, no I wouldn’t, because I was pretty sure the one thing I knew about Big Data was that it bored the shit out of me, and I was someone who enjoyed lengthy school board discussions about whether to raise school lunch prices by a nickel or a dime.

Then one day I get a Facebook message from the CEO at the newspaper, asking how serious I was about coming back home. I play it cool, yeah I’ll have to be paid this much. This much ends up being an offer that’s close enough to this much. I will be bringing my talents back to downtown Lynn.

Now the PR handbook states that employees need to give three weeks notice because it is such a specialized position that they need that time to find a replacement. However, I know, from the woman who works in the front office with me and is about the only voice of sanity in the place, that my three-month stint puts me at just about the company average for how long an employee stays. At least it’s good to know it’s not just me. I give my two/three/however many weeks notice. The owner tells me it’s fine if I wrap up and leave on Friday. I’m 93 percent relieved and seven percent “Were you getting ready to fire me anyways?”

Fast forward four months. I worked a 12 hour day that still went by twice as fast as an eight hour day where I would cover the clock so I wouldn’t constantly stare at it. True, the office is near the ocean, but there is a several block walk past prostitutes, junkies, and a gentleman or two with teardrop tattoos before you can catch sight of anything even slightly dappling. The major pastime in the office is bitching, sniping and giving good-natured shit to each other. Three weeks ago I told one of my favorite co-workers to shut the fuck up and I’m not sure if he’s talking to me yet. There’s the constant possibility that any morning, day, or night could be thrown into chaos by a shooting, stabbing, wreck or fire on my beat.

But I’m here, I’m smiling, and this is what I do. A goddamn newspaperman until they shut down the last printing press.


Adam Swift has lived in Massachusetts his whole life, even if he did get uncomfortably close to New Hampshire that one time. He has mostly worked for newspapers and news organizations and has published poetry sporadically over the years in publications including the Muddy River Poetry Review, UFO Gigolo, and Lollipop.