For PR Pros, Are Rules Made to be Broken?

“Rules are for other people.”

That’s what my father told me just before Christmas, when I questioned the legitimacy of his prime curbside parking spot in front of a shopping center packed with last-minute shoppers. He was joking (sort of), but the comment had a peculiar sense poignancy given the times we face in the earliest moments of 2009, as we look ahead at 360-odd days of almost-certain chaos. And I’m not implying that my dad operates under some anarchic, Blagojevichian philosophy (he acknowledges the difference between rules and laws).

But business–and the business of PR–might benefit from some maverick-style pushing of comfort zones. In many ways it already has, what with the increasingly accepted revisionist approach to communicating and engaging with stakeholders in untraditional (read: digital) ways. True, improvements have been made, but the status quo remains. What’s more, the main sticking point to leaders’ willingness to embrace change remains the same: fear of losing control.

Well, if 2008 taught us anything, it’s that control is long gone (and, for the most forward-thinking execs, already forgotten). The best thing leaders can do for themselves, their organizations and their stakeholders now is to cease clinging to the last wisps of corporate hegemony. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to step out from behind my editorial curtain for the length of one column to give my perspective on the proverbial state of the union, having spent many hours gathering intelligence from industry leaders. Most of my thoughts have some connection to my dad’s words of “wisdom,” if only in the sense that they suggest that many old-fashioned (and even new-fashioned) rules are hindering execs and organizations’ evolution. So, without further ado …

On Digital Communications

I could write an entire book on this topic (and I did), but it’s worth condensing the topic into a few key points. Many executives still fall back on traditional communications techniques–one-way delivery of force-fed messages–because there are rules attached to them. The conversational approach to engaging stakeholders via digital media seems lawless. “Bloggers don’t have the training to be considered legitimate news sources!” “Consumer-generated media has corrupted the high standards of journalism!” “People can say whatever they want about my client/company, even if it’s not true!”

The hardest part about this situation is that the solution is simple, but people are often too afraid to speak honestly and risk seeming mean. But I’ll take one for the team and state the solution in no uncertain terms: Get. Over. It.

If you are still dwelling on the fear that your brand will be demolished by the rules-don’t-apply style of modern communications, then you’ve missed the point entirely. You can’t change the inevitable effect of digital platforms on your business; you can, however, take comfort in the fact that online communications is self-correcting. If there is no truth in something, it usually fades. The best safeguard is a strong reputation, and that doesn’t always come from following the anachronistic rules of conduct.

On Talent Management

Generational conflicts are one of the biggest catalysts for the rapidly changing talent management landscape. Specifically, as Millennials move up the corporate ranks into management positions, their idiosyncrasies are permeating corporate cultures. Impatient, entitled, demanding, talented, creative and hard working, these employees are the illegitimate children of opportunity and angst. They want the world, but they also don’t seem to have a problem with going out and getting it. They also balk at rules they deem senseless. So, who’s right, the Millennial who wants complete laissez-faire management, or the manager who wants to set rules?

Neither. That’s the problem: We are in a state of limbo with regard to talent management and employee relations. A dismal economy, which decreases job security, tightens budgets and limits perks, puts senior managers in a difficult position. The natural reaction? To want to regain control. For junior staffers, this admittedly legitimate gesture seems staggeringly unfair. It raises so many questions: How do they plan to compensate me for my hard work? With widespread cost cutting, will I get a raise? If not, what else is in it for me?

PR News runs story after story urging communications executives to consider untraditional benefits that act as incentives for these complex creatures. This will be even more critical in 2009, when fewer perks will come in the form of monetary raises and bonuses. Strategies for assuaging the resulting internal strife:

  • Choose your battles. Managing employees of any age is a little bit like raising children: You nurture their strengths and help them improve their weaknesses in the hopes that they will grow into efficient, effective and valuable members of the company. That means giving them some rope to work with–and knowing when to pull them back. You make rules, and they break them. Sometimes you punish them, and sometimes you decide that no harm really came from their actions. Learn to tell the difference.
  • Delegate responsibility. Boredom and unchallenging work are among the biggest causes for low employee morale and turnover. If you recognize a sense of restlessness in an employee, pull him/her aside and ask what can be done to reinvigorate their enthusiasm. More often than not, you’ll find that the wish is easy (and probably free) to grant.
  • Never respond to “why?” with “because I said so.” It’s the fastest way to lose employees’ respect.

These are just two broad topics that fall under the umbrella of communications, but they are two that I repeatedly hear industry leaders discussing. They are also leading the massive changes taking place within organizations. But if there is anything that can be learned from the past year’s trials and tribulations, it’s that rules do have a place in business, but that place has changed. Saying that rules are for other people may be flippant advice, but tweak the concept only slightly, and you’ll arrive at an old Latin phrase that, when translated, offers a compelling message:

Fortune favors the bold.

By Courtney Barnes

  • Marjorie Simon

    Excellent commentary.

    The landscape has, indeed, changed. Now more than ever it’s time to think outside the box. THE CATCH, of course, IS THAT THE BOX HAS BLOWN AWAY–FAR, FAR AWAY, AND MAY NEVER RETURN.

    Creativity and flexibility–and the ability to convey that to all employees at all levels–will rule in 2009 and far beyond.

  • Lauren

    If you don’t want to give us raises and other monetary perks give us MORE TIME OFF or let us WORK FROM HOME or set our OWN HOURS. An important part of this rule-breaking management style is the realization that we millenials get the job done and DON’T need the type of rigid corporate structure which unfortunately is abundant in PR agencies. Even my IT techie friends get to work from home and have more lenient schedules. Plus, they make a LOT more.

    If it weren’t for the love of the job…..