How to Build Great PR Teams With Non-PR Pros—and Why You Should Try It

The secret to building an effective PR team could be to steer clear of PR.

In today’s corporate climate, communications leaders are seeking to balance teams with traditional and non-traditional backgrounds. The idea is these more diverse teams will be better prepared for the challenges they will face, and reflect changing dynamics in their company.

Diverse PR teams are more relevant because they tap into various skill sets to match the entire enterprise’s needs – from customer service and media relations to supplier communications and regulation. Finding the right mix takes a communications leader who looks at the larger picture, understands risks and knows how to assemble a powerful team. This is art, not science.

Having been part of such teams at The Home Depot, Kraft Foods, Walmart and now Honeywell, there are two sides to hiring non-PR people into communications roles:

Pro: Brings specialized knowledge and can build deeper, more effective networks throughout the company and industry – and can persuasively educate a reporter.

Pro: Hiring from finance, law, marketing and operations builds credibility for communications within those functions. Diverse backgrounds make communications more useful because it can adopt an enterprise-wide mentality.

Pro: Gives communications a stronger sense of core brand principles and a sharper understanding of customer engagement.

Pro: Teaches the rest of the department and makes them better communicators.

Con: If they aren’t strong communicators, you’ll spend too much time training them.

Con: Can generate and report facts, but unable to interpret them to form a compelling narrative.

Con: Are ineffective with reporters due to lack of experience with news cycles, building relationships and journalistic writing.

Con: They can become defensive or petrified when a reporter turns negative.

Con: Lack the perspective to understand when a story is good or bad, complete or incomplete, and on or off-message.

At The Home Depot, we brought store managers into the PR team because their training was centered on core brand characteristics. They knew better than anyone how to convey our values and kept us focused on what mattered to customers. They taught us how to diffuse a conflict and turn an embarrassing dispute into a brilliant advertisement for the brand.

This team also included people with operations and real estate expertise, financial acumen, and background in brand management, legal complaints and outreach to ethnic communities. All had non-traditional PR backgrounds, but could write. It worked. We also brought in people with newsroom experience, which helped us deal more effectively with journalists, particularly wire reporters.

I have a non-traditional background. As an economist earlier in my career, part of my job was to articulate convincing arguments in favor of product introductions and pricing in a regulated environment. Writing messaging documents led to crafting news releases, speaking with reporters and being a public hearing witness. Learning the trade in reverse is not for everyone – I had to overcome all the “cons” listed above and develop competitive communications skills.

Advice when Taking This Route

  1. Start by finding great mentors who are instructive editors and whose work provides examples of great writing.
  2. Have a goal of being the best writer in the building – or, at least being the best strategist.
  3. Develop a clear specialization within the team. If you have a product development background, become the expert on it. Become good in two business areas and let them make you indispensable to the group. Stay close to your client groups and, if appropriate, ask to join their staff meetings.

For Those Developing Non-traditional PR talent

  1. Have a plan, provide resources and challenging assignments -- and be patient.

CONTACT: John Simley, director of corporate communications, Honeywell UOP.

This article originally appeared in the August 31, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.