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Beyond the obvious

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Why you should care

Because the career path no one took seriously could be the next greased pathway to the corner office.

There’s plenty of legend lining the pathway to the top of a given field. From “getting your start in the mailroom” (when does that happen?) to cutting your teeth as an intern, we hold tight to a set of watercooler just-so stories. But here’s a new one, not often heard of: Is it possible that the new career mega-launchpad isn’t, in fact, banking, consulting or even the startup world, but publicity and communications?

Publicists have rarely been celebrated. More often, they’re called hacks, flacks or worse. For years, PR and communications were the (often irrelevant) corner of the company where the charismatic but not-so-smart were sent. Or, it’s where the women went. But not so anymore, thanks in part to the new professional mantra of transferable skills.

Proof? British Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, is a former TV communications exec. Or the fictional Olivia Pope on Scandal — who is based on real-life Judy Smith, a corporate “fixer.” Want more?

Communications is becoming about much more than fast talking, pitching or managing muddy corporate reputations.

It’s not hard to compile the list of movers-and-shakers who come from a communications background: Hot new film director and Sundance winner Ava DuVernay. John Fallon, CEO of Pearson, the world’s largest education company. Margit Wennmachers, the powerful Andreessen Horowitz venture capital partner.

Hollywood? Check. Politics? Check. Tech? Check. Consider the boom in full effect.

Publicity, remember, is less than a century old. Founded at the start of the 20th century by the son of a minister with a knack for newspapers and an affinity for the Democratic Party, it’s always been about a confluence of power, prose and politics. But sometime between the turn of the century and the social media generation, publicity took off.

Money Is Talking

Not only are publicists getting top gigs, but top PR firms like Slate, 42 West, OKC, Burston Marsteller, Edelman, Omnicom and Sunshine Sachs are increasingly making hundreds of millions. A partner at a firm like Burston Marsteller (which grossed $450 million in 2012 — thanks in large part to emerging markets) can haul in $5 million a year. Which is good news, considering there are 320,000 PR jobs in the American market alone, and it’s poised to grow nearly a quarter this decade.

Tinseltown Power Brokers

In an age where long lunches at the club and chummy drinks between reporters and PR reps are increasingly obsolete, how’s this happening?

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 12: Howard J. Rubenstein, American lawyer and public relations expert attends Loews Regency Hotel Power Breakfast Event at the Loews Regency Hotel on December 12, 2012 in New York City

Howard J. Rubenstein, lawyer and PR expert, in 2012.

To start, take the obvious: What has more cameras than star-studded Hollywood Boulevard? That’s where the publicity game has some of its deepest roots, to be sure — and its biggest pockets. Publicists first came around as conduits to stars like Marilyn Monroe, Eddie Murphy, George Clooney and more. (Early stars of the field: Howard Rubenstein, Lee Solters, Pat Kingsley.) But while some publicists gained greater acclaim, in general the field was seen as being filled with cagey salespeople and cover-up masters rather than truly talented professionals.

Image Is Everything

Today, though, the communications game is becoming about much more than fast talking, pitching or managing muddy corporate reputations. Why? Publicists have been fixing sticky situations for years, and as the CEO suite opened up in general (to engineers, lawyers, etc.), it was natural that publicists would fight their way onstage, too. Especially as more and more of the “mission critical tasks” companies deal with these days are, inherently, media tasks, says Jake Siewert, who runs PR for Goldman Sachs and was briefly White House Press Secretary under President Clinton. Siewert, like many of the publicists interviewed for this story (many of whom, true to form, spoke only on background), has had a varied career, mixing politics, finance and the media.

There’s a media-sponge effect: Once you’ve been under the microscope, you know how to work it.

“It’s very hard these days to be an old fashioned 1960s CEO who hides behind a spokesperson,” he said. “Most people these days — particularly when you’re talking about a company in trouble — expect that person to be an ambassador.”

Meaning that dealing with BP’s oil spill or a Hollywood sex tape scandal isn’t fluff: It’s what Siewert and plenty more call a skill-set, that thing that could make your resumé go from the bottom of the pile to somewhere near the top.

Politician for Hire

But in the end, it’s all about politics, which, more than corporations or entertainment, could be the cause of the rise of communications. Rather than making a pit stop at a lobbying firm or a law firm, politicos who are between gigs — or between friendly administrations — can find open arms in communications roles, thanks to the media-sponge effect: Once you’ve been under the microscope, you know how to work it. Or, you can cash in on it, à la Dee Dee Myers (who, after the press secretary years, became a consultant for The West Wing).

Plot Your Path

Still, don’t forget about strategy. Majoring in communications or PR, or being pigeonholed as ”only a communicator” later in life, is still a danger, most in the PR world will say. Get some substance in there, Siewert advises young people: whether it’s a sense of business strategy or a knack for data science. (After all, he points to Sheryl Sandberg as a perfect example — you have to get media and strategy alike, even in roles that seem far off from PR — like COO of Facebook or Chief of Staff at the Treasury.)

You heard it here first: PR is no one’s backwater any more. Can it rival consulting firms or banks for the title of best route to the CEO suite? Unclear.

But it’s clearly in the running.

This OZY encore was originally published Feb. 12, 2014.

Top Image Source: Gabe Palmer/Corbis

Carlos Watson

Carlos Watson

Ozy Author CEO, CO-FOUNDER