Guest Posts – The Trials of Being a PA

I wrote a guest blog post for Staff Me Up! Check it out.

And since I wrote for them, here’s a guest post from one of my more experienced readers:

1. Let’s assume you, the PA, are asked to take orders and deliver lunch for five people. Boring, demeaning, pointless work, right? WRONG! This is a test of critical skills. Can you politely interrupt five people of various ranks to ask them an urgent question (what they want for lunch)? Do you have the judgment from subtle cues to realize you’d better NOT interrupt someone after all? Can you interact gracefully with everyone from the executive producer to the unpaid intern, treating every single one with respect and as though they matter over a lunch order? Do you approach every meeting (yes, a lunch order is a meeting) with pen and paper so you can write down your instructions?

2. And, here is the real test: Given five people’s different orders (and yes, I know every order is slightly different, hold the mayo, get extra ranch on the side, etc), how quickly and efficiently (read: with zero drama) can you give each person exactly what they ordered?

Write down every stupid detail of every order (“bacon extra-crispy,” anyone?) and make the cashier at the restaurant show you that you are getting exactly what you asked for. Double check with your notes. Triple check.

You think you are delivering lunch, but really, you are delivering proof that you are not a fuck up. That you can be trusted not to fuck up. That you are detail oriented. But, wait, you say, “it’s just a missing side of ranch dressing, right?” — yes, technically that is true. It is a stupid condiment. But if you can’t be counted on not to screw up the trivial stuff, why should anyone trust you with anything that might actually count??

This is a more subtle point, but you need to understand that the people you are getting lunch for would PREFER to go out in the middle of the day, stretch their legs, see natural light, order their own lunch, etc.—but they don’t have time. And, if they had time to order their own lunch and go get it, they’d be just as detailed with the instructions (extra ranch, hold the cilantro, etc). So, by screwing up a lunch order, you’ve both reminded them that they are too busy to see sunlight and that they can’t even get what they’d’ve been able to get had they had the time to see the sun.

3. Speed on lunch runs matters too, because it is also really a test. Can you get things done almost before someone asks, or do you take forever? Sometimes you really can’t help it that lunch is late — there was a traffic accident; the restaurant kitchen caught on fire; etc.

Then, use this opportunity to show your good judgment: call back to the office, explain why the current lunch order cannot work, and suggest an alternative. But there is never any excuse for bringing lunch late “because the restaurant was hard to find” or “parking was tough.”

This is a test as well: Can you plan in advance? Can you solve problems? Don’t know where the place is? Google it before you go. Call the place and ask. Print out the directions. Put Waze on your iPhone. Trace the route in your head until you can visualize it. And, if parking’s going to be a problem, how well can you solve that problem? Take a second PA to double park? See if the place will bring the food out to the curb? Google parking lots near by? Bring quarters for the meters? Before you leave, what is your plan?

4. Sorry, but don’t count on any other PA not to screw something up that will come back on you. Your buddy PA says he’ll grab the lunch order and bring it back to the office for you? Do you trust him to check for the side of ranch? Do you have a good reason to trust that? Maybe you do — but if you do, it’ll be because he’s proven himself competent. And, if you do take him up on his offer and he screws up the side of ranch? It’s all on you, man, it’s all on you. When push came to shove, you couldn’t get it done.

5. Never trust another PA’s work when it might make you look bad. True story: my husband (a former PA) was sitting around with another PA (hereinafter “Dummy”) waiting for the call sheets to copy, so the two of them could distribute them. Dummy took the final call sheet to the copier to make 200 copies, and came back to the office to wait. Producer stuck his head out his door, asking why the call sheets still hadn’t been distributed. Dummy said, “oh, they are still copying,” and sat there. My husband perked up, went to check the copier, and realized Dummy had made 1 — count it — 1 copy, not 200. He quickly made the other 199 copies and got them distributed. But if he’d relied on Dummy, well, he’d have looked like a dummy too.

5. Bringing pen and paper to meetings is a sign of respect, pure and simple, even if you think/know there will be nothing to write down. Never be without them. Never. Seriously.

6. Entertainment offices and locations are casual. People make jokes, and tease each other. Things that would never be heard in a legal office are unremarkable in the entertainment industry. Get comfortable with it, so people will feel comfortable having you hang around while they talk about editorial cuts, future plans, etc — the inside dirt on the biz. Don’t be the quiet, dour guy that no one really likes or remembers and no one felt relaxed around. That said, don’t push too many edges yourself. Don’t be the PA everyone remembers for his raunchy sexual jokes, or for the CFM boots and sheer dresses she wore everyday. The rules that apply to everyone else don’t really apply to PAs. Sorry.

7. If you are in charge of craft service for the office — take a survey and ask everyone what THEY would like to have to snack on and drink. No one cares that the PA is a vegan organic seed obsessed health nut — do you really want to be the PA “who fucking never bought anything good to eat”? It’s okay to get a range of stuff, but unless you get specific requests for healthy stuff, assume people mostly want junk food. If something sells fast, buy more next time you go shopping. And go to store as soon as the office is out of key things like plastic forks, coffee cups, and junk food. Don’t wait until someone — in hungry desperation — eats that last box of chia seed bars. As soon as the good stuff is gone, you need to go to the store again, even if the rest of what you got is still gathering dust. You, the PA, are not the office’s mother — trying to free the office to be healthy will just annoy everyone. And always have extra Diet Coke on hand. That stuff goes FAST.


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One Response

  1. This was one of the best practical advice articles about being a PA. I learned a lot of those lessons the hard way. I love this part about lunch orders: “So, by screwing up a lunch order, you’ve both reminded them that they are too busy to see sunlight and that they can’t even get what they’d’ve been able to get had they had the time to see the sun.” I had never thought of it that way, but it’s really accurate. Their only option for the food they want is to trust you to bring it to them. Might as well do it right.

    I also learned on my first job to not completely trust other PAs. Not that they’re bad people necessarily. But if one messes something up, they make the whole department look bad. I took it upon myself on that show to help all the PAs stay accountable to each other, and when our Key Set PA left mid-production to a better gig, I was promoted to his position even though it was my first set job. We had a great production and the ADs were very thankful to me for my initiative.

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