Like many other budding female PR students, I have always been intrigued by the prospect of working in the cosmetics industry. My curiosity has led me to wonder if the image of what it is to be a beauty PR practitioner reflects reality; will it be as ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ as it might appear?
During my first and second years studying BA Public Relations at Leeds Metropolitan University I was fascinated to discover the type of PR tactics used in promoting skincare. I also wondered how top-end beauty journalists operate and if the perks of being involved in beauty PR are really that glamorous.
Being Absolutely Fabulous
When I was offered a placement for a top international cosmetics brand in the heart of an exclusive area in London, I could not turn it down. Despite being reluctant to leave the comforts of Leeds, I was intrigued at the type of graduate opportunities that might open up to me after a year’s experience for such a renowned brand.
Older students had advised me that a placement really puts the theory learnt at university into practice. I hoped that having hands on experience would mean I would be in a better position to gain employment on graduating from university. After the many rumours of ‘fluffy PR’ in industries such as beauty, I was a little unsure, but hopeful that I would be able to achieve these goals from a placement in the cosmetics world.
After leaving Leeds and moving to the capital, I soon began to realise that the day-to-day duties in the press office were fairly similar in their nature to other in-house press offices I have come across before.
On previous short-term placements for Marks and Spencer I was able to see a link in certain PR tactics. They consisted of answering press calls, actioning emails from consumer, national and regional press, and sending out products. For such an upmarket cosmetics brand, a close relationship with top-end consumer magazines such as Vogue, Tatler and Harper’s Bazaar was absolutely vital. This was essential for product promotion to the desired market sector.
I saw that breakfast meetings and long lunches in top London restaurants are part and parcel of a beauty PR’s day to day activities – though I didn’t get to enjoy these myself.
Product information and samples are given out at these meetings. I found it fascinating to be involved first hand with these journalists; some were demanding but fortunately I did not come across any as fearsome as Anna Wintour (as portrayed in The Devil Wears Prada) during the year and many of the journalists I met were charming and a pleasure to work with. As far as perks went, there were certainly many to be had with plenty of free samples.
I realised however that it is important that all staff members use the products in order to be authentic when selling them on the counter in a department store, to a journalist over the phone or at a launch. After all you just don’t know until you try.
I mixed with various associated areas of the beauty industry such as make-up artists, therapists and manicurists. They would often be supplied with their favourite products in order to encourage them to continue to use and promote them to their clients.
How the beauty industry works
The importance of these relationships meant I developed a competent knowledge of the different segments that make up the beauty industry. I was surprised that these relationships were considered as important as those with top beauty journalists.VIPs were also significant to the reputation of the brand.
Assisting with events such as the launch of new products was always a very exciting part of the role. I was able to see in action how the PR practitioner and beauty journalist interact.
I learnt that as with any other industry, the PR must at all times be charming, helpful and friendly and certainly never argumentative with journalists.
My role was not limited to PR but also involved an equal amount of marketing. This was very important as I was able to understand that public relations plays an important role in the marketing mix. Visiting counter staff in both Harrods and Harvey Nichols on a weekly basis meant I was able to see elements of the marketing mix in action on the cosmetic counters.
Beauty takes hard work
Although being a beauty PR is, on the surface, a very glamorous job, like any other it requires dedication and hard work. All members of the press office worked extremely hard and were never afraid to get their hands dirty, involving themselves in simple ‘intern’ tasks in order to facilitate the smooth running of the business. There were also many late nights when all members of staff stayed in order to get things finished.
The experience I had was fantastic and really gave me an exciting insight into the cosmetics world. This was not restricted purely to a public relations perspective but opened my eyes to how a beauty business works at an international level, identifying for me the specific elements that contribute to a business. I was able to see how closely the different departments work together and it enabled me to, for the first time, not look at PR in isolation but as part of an essential mix. I was pleasantly surprised by many of my experiences during the year and I never stopped being fascinated as I discovered more about the industry I was becoming a part of.
In terms of relevant experience for my third year and for the future, I now feel confident to write a well rounded dissertation with the knowledge that I have had hands-on experience of how PR operates at an international level. I have developed invaluable interpersonal skills and feel I will be confident in whatever PR situation I find myself in the future.
Simply being in an office environment for a year has given me skills that will prove invaluable on graduating.
Perhaps the true value of my placement was not being discouraged by the reputation of the beauty industry but having the courage and opportunity to try it first hand. I was certainly very lucky in my placement as I was not restricted to a product cupboard for a year but actually given a real PR role. I dealt with real situations and with journalists on a one-to-one level.
Of course there were products to be unpacked, teas to be made and journalists to run around after. But you have to start somewhere.
Alice Harper was asked not to name her placement employer in this article