Working in PR as an Introvert
When a newfound mentality at work helps you get better at life
As a little kid, nothing frustrated me more than grown-ups’ consistent curiosity about my ‘private’ thought processes. Questions like “honey, what’s wrong?” or “hey, why are you so serious?” pulled up anytime I wasn’t smiling or talking were so commonplace, I would fearfully anticipate them from a mile off.
Why should I be beaming at that lady when I don’t know her? Or playing with that other kid when I’m thinking? Am I supposed to be talking all the time to look normal? It’s not like I wanted every stranger out there to “get me”. I only wished they’d understand enough to not bother asking me what’s wrong all the time. Because nothing was. I was completely happy in my own introvert world.
Of course, back then I hardly knew what “introvert” meant. And as I grew up, I made sure to hide the fact that word applied to me at all. As a young adult, I knew better than to allow prolonged “unsocial” pauses with colleagues or people who weren’t close enough. Only with close friends could I relax and be me — a passionate listener and thinker (inside and aloud) rather than talker.
An introvert’s path into PR
The day I got the job of PR specialist in a 600+employee global IT company was arguably one of the scariest in my life. By that time I was 26 and had enough communication skills to convince people of my outgoing personality. The trouble was, if I wanted to get past my probationary period, I’d have to somehow convince myself.
One might wonder how an introvert applies (and gets accepted) to a PR job in the first place. Well, as my manager explained it, Public Relations was just a summed up idea of the different responsibilities I was to take on. These included copywriting, translation (the team was bilingual and distributed among 6 countries) social network marketing, corporate journalism, and wait…doesn’t a journalist also interview people before writing stories about them? Yeah, corporate interviews.
The management was so happy to have found a person to juggle all of the above on a bilingual level after a 6+ month struggle of finding a candidate, they instantly allowed me to work remotely — the only such exception in the team — unless I was demanded in-office. On my part, like any introvert, I felt more apprehensive about the interviews than any other part of my work. Not only had I never performed them (everyone was sure I’d catch on in no time), but they caused direct conflict with my discreet nature.
Naturally, as soon as I got the job, it was the process of interviewing people in a live fashion that I was most careful to get comfortable at. It was also the process that taught me most about my weaknesses far beyond the office.
Challenge thyself before you challenge others
On the day I was to interview the company’s CEO who flew in for the occasion from our Philadelphia HQ, I already had over a year of corporate interviews under my belt. I knew there were several parts to receiving the answers which would make for an interesting story:
- Conduct thorough preliminary research on the topic
- Be familiar with the person you’re talking to
- Prepare a list of 10–20 main questions but be ready to sway into new territory
- Actively challenge to get insight
- Calmly but confidently press for answers until you get the definitive ones for your story
Unsurprisingly, implementing the last two points gave me the most trouble during interviews. As a natural introvert, I was good at reading people’s uncomfortableness and held sacred the adage “act with people the way you’d like them to act with you”. In relationships with colleagues, friends, and loved ones, I was careful to never press for answers if the person wasn’t comfortable or wasn’t ready to talk.
As you may imagine, that kind of mentality is the last thing a journalist needs. It is a journalist’s job to challenge, often pretending to know less than they do, in order to catch the respondent a bit off guard and thus, on more honest ground. It’s not like any person wants to share insights with a complete stranger by default. Getting those is an acquired skill.
In my case, asking uncomfortable questions and getting answers (even if those answers couldn’t always be published), was more than a skill I needed to learn — as an introvert, it was a mentality shift I needed to adopt. Whenever the tech expert or executive tried to politely evade an answer during an interview, I knew it was my duty to get a deeper insight into the matter. Being straightforward even when it became uncomfortable was a challenge I threw to myself first and only then, to the other person.
The interview with the CEO came and went smoothly and made for a great story. My personal mentality, though, needed a lot more work. One could argue that the shift was only necessary for me to do work responsibilities well and write interesting stories. It could be the poker face I put on for a few hours a week while returning to my ‘normal’ self at home. My gut feeling was telling otherwise — I needed to practice more straightforwardness beyond my PR job.
Understanding weakness and strength
Every strength we own also has a weaker side to it. Throughout my life, I considered ‘diplomacy’ a strength that helps me delicately and respectfully interact with people.
The trouble with any natural, not acquired strength, however, is precisely that it is second nature and has more to do with respecting our own mentality than that of the other person. The person who is hyper-sensitive about pressing for a definitive answer from a colleague, friend, or partner is expecting nothing less in return and may get upset or afraid when someone else tries to speak to them bluntly and directly.
In a work environment, both sides have the option to put on a poker face, dismiss a tough question and go on with their workday. But in life, that’s not always a healthy option. There are circumstances which demand nothing short of a surgically-concise question and answer procedure.
Whenever I had those kinds of situations in life, the way I confronted them was no different from the way I’d confront them before my PR job: respect and back off. It goes without saying, I expected the same in return. What I usually got was someone trying to coax me into doing things I didn’t want. While my natural stubbornness fought hard against giving in, “delicacy” prevented me from just ditching those people from my life in the first place. Instead of connecting to the right people, I was wasting time and resources on being delicate with those who weren’t worth it.
Strangely enough, it was my PR job — talking with dozens of people on a regular basis, asking “uncomfortable” questions, gaining precious insights through those tougher questions — that led me to understand something about the introvert mentality in my life. The real motive behind my uncomfortableness of posing questions to friends, partners, relatives, I discovered, wasn’t delicacy. It was fear. The fear of hearing answers I might not want to hear. The fear of facing those answers and getting those people out of my life. Discreetness wasn’t just my strength, it was my weakness, too. Especially around the wrong kinds of people.
Wisdom tells us that understanding is the first step towards change. Change doesn’t come easy when you’re a natural introvert who loves to be treated discreetly and answer likewise — it certainly comes slow to me. But unless as introverts we reserve our discreetness for the people who show equal respect in return, we run a great risk of attracting manipulative, emotionally abusive, even violent people into our life. It’s not like extroverts are free of that risk, but they, at least aren’t afraid of giving an “indiscreet” but absolutely necessary kick when the occasion demands it.
Wherever we acquire the skill of straightforward conversation and decisionmaking — from a job, a friend, a therapist, a life situation — let’s remember that for us introverts, it’s more than just a social or career skill, it’s a mentality that can save our sanity and sometimes, even our life.