At PR News we often turn to experts for tactical advice on the different PR disciplines such as media relations, employee communications, crisis management, social media, etc. Their knowledge of the nuts and bolts of PR is impressive, for sure. However, sometimes the strategic side gets lost in the “let’s get things done” world of PR, which can be a dangerous thing both on agency and in-house sides, says Roger Friedensen, president and CEO of Forge Communications, based in Raleigh, N.C.
Friedensen says that while anyone can learn how to write, build a Facebook page and pitch reporters, it’s more difficult to grow into a true strategic consultant who can win a client’s confidence or solve problems that directly contribute to building a business.
“The way you grow an agency and gain the confidence of the C-suite is to be a good counselor first, and a good tactician second,” says Friedensen.
Developing PR counselors is a topic that Friedensen and Gail Rosenberg, assistant VP of public relations at the Carolinas HealthCare System, know quite a bit about. Both worked at Epley Associates, a now-defunct PR agency that for 37 years was helmed by Joe Epley, who strongly subscribed to the counselor versus tactician concept.
“As far as I’m concerned, there are many talented tacticians,” says Rosenberg. But, she says, there are relatively few deeply thoughtful strategic experts. “I want to be in the room with them,” says Rosenberg.
So does Mike Herman, head of Communication Sciences International (and a member of the PR News Advisory Board.) But Herman, another former Epley Associates PR counselor, says it’s not easy to have a counselor mind-set if you’re just starting out in your PR career. “You can counsel people about messaging and other tactical skills that you’ve been taught at a university, but there’s a certain amount of experience that comes with being a counselor,” says Herman.
Just what are the qualities and traits a good counselor should possess?
Here are a sampling, according to Friedensen:
• Introspective, cooperative and attentive;
• Has a strong desire to help others;
• Communicates in a personalized manner;
• Is positive and kind;
• Can often detect other’s emotions or intentions;
• Is abstract in speech, cooperative in pursuing goals;
• Integrates competing demands diplomatically;
• Functions best in mentoring or advocacy roles;
• Values meaningful relationships; and
• Searches for profound truths hidden beneath the surface.
But it isn’t easy to identify many of these traits during a job interview. That’s why at Epley Associates, the “Epley Test” came into play. Featuring questions and exercises that were more strategic in nature, the test intended to separate future tacticians from future counselors. “On paper, the people who took the test were top flight,” says Friedensen. “But once they started taking it, some got up to leave and said ‘I thought I could do this job, but I can’t,’” he says.
It was a test not just to determine whether people could write, says Herman, but whether they had an understanding of PR ethics and some counseling skills—as many questions centered around representing Epley and offering counsel to clients (see the sidebar for a sampling of test questions). “People would say if they passed the Epley test, they wouldn’t have a problem passing their PRSA APR test,” says Herman.
BABY STEPS FIRST
So just how do you turn young PR staffers into counselors? Herman says to bring them into high level, strategic discussions early on, first as observers “so they can see how the process works,” he says. Then, as they get more knowledgeable, you begin to involve them in the conversation, and they learn when to talk and when to listen. There’s an old saying to follow, says Herman: “Never lose an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.”
Rosenberg believes that the counselor mind-set can be taught, and has firsthand experience in this. As an adjunct instructor in marketing communications at Appalachian State University, Rosenberg has seen students develop from being purely tactically driven to really understanding the strategic approach.
In fact, Rosenberg has given full-time jobs to some of her students. “Those students that get it, it’s like a lightbulb going on,” she says. Rosenberg generally looks for the ability to listen; natural inquisitiveness; and an understanding of human behavior.
The difficult part is that every organization is different, and there is no cookie cutter approach, she says. At Carolinas HealthCare, because of a recent move to a performance-based staff development model, employees are exposed to the strategic business goals early on, says Rosenberg. “This means smart goal setting, where everyone participates in the process,” she says.
Overall organization goals cascade to departmental goals, then down to project goals and are linked to individual employee goals. “Each person must examine the strategic goals in terms of their own team, and his or her own individual goals,” she says.
Just how important is PR counseling rather than taking a more tactical approach? Rosenberg gives an example of crisis communications. She’s worked with Friedensen’s Forge team on crisis matters, and says there’s a big difference between the way Forge approaches crisis work and how others do it. “Forge is the only consultancy I’ve worked with that focuses from the get-go not only on how to solve the crisis, but on how the company will recover and rebuild after a crisis,” says Rosenberg. “Only a seamless, strategic communications approach will help you rebuild after a crisis.”
Friedensen—along with many of his Epley Associates colleagues—has championed the counselor approach for years, and is happy to note that interest in the concept remains high. “Organizations are looking for help in screening the right employee candidates,” says Friedensen, who’s ready and waiting to serve as their “guidance counselor.” PRN