Communications Veteran Brings PR Skills to New Management Role


One of the eternal struggles of PR is getting senior management to listen and to buy in to PR. Wouldn't it be so much easier if PR were running the show? So we asked some PR professionals what it's like to be on the other side of the table and how their PR skills have shepherded their careers in directions they never thought possible. In this article we focus on a communications veteran who's now running operations but continues to apply the best practices of PR in her daily work. Bobbie Christensen has conducted PR for trade shows and hospitals and has managed community relations for the San Diego Housing Commission. From her community relations job, she went on to direct human resources for the housing authority, and eventually moved up to her present role as chief of communications and operations development. Wearing her operations hat, this skilled PR exec has helped lead the total overhaul of the urban housing authority. Today San Diego boasts one of most effective housing authorities in the nation, and helping to get it there required all of Christensen's PR talent. We recently spoke with Christensen about how PR tactics were put to use to meet a HUD-mandated 25 percent increase in rental assistance vouchers - not to mention various other managerial issues. PRN: When you were brought in on this problem, there were 1 percent vacancy rates in San Diego, and landlords didn't want much to do with government-assisted renters. How did your PR skills come to bear? B.C.: I would say, "Why is it that landlords don't want to participate in the Section 8 [rental assistance] program? Let's find out what they say, so we are not just guessing." That is straight PR work - it is marketing research. We found that the landlords did not like the bureaucracy associated with the voucher program. They didn't like having to wait for an inspector to come out and look at the apartment. They didn't like having to make repairs if the inspector needed repairs made. I also did this with the clients, the voucher-holders themselves: "What is it you find difficult about using these vouchers? How are you trying to use them?" And we found that we had to teach them PR skills in turn. We had to teach them how to sell themselves, how to present themselves to a landlord. We had to teach them not to do apartment searches on the phone, not to even mention Section 8 until the landlord had met them and understood that they are good, law-abiding citizens. PRN: You obviously brought communications to the table in researching the problems. How did you leverage your PR skills in solving the internal operations issues facing you? B.C.: We used PR tools as a way of breaking down internal barriers, by challenging each other on everything we did. So instead of coming up with questions that the media might ask a CEO, I was coming up with questions that a landlord or a tenant might ask us. If landlords were saying, "Why does it take four weeks to get the first check," we would ask ourselves that same question. This is fundamentally a PR approach. It is the proactive anticipation of questions, whether they are coming from the media or from anywhere else. PRN: Based on all that input, both external and internal, you recommended significant changes that needed to be made in how the housing authority ran its programs. Then what? B.C.: Then I met with print and broadcast folks and even called for a press conference about the issue. Result: The media stopped attacking us. The political pressure died down. We could spend more time doing our work and less defending ourselves. PRN: What has this experience shown you about the power of PR techniques, and about the role that a skilled PR practitioner can play in jobs outside the strictly-PR realm? B.C.: We PR practitioners look at things from a particular angle. We ask things like: "How are we positioned?" and "What could hurt us?" and "What could help us?" We look at the big picture a little differently from some non-PR executives, like preparing for possible challenging questions a reporter might ask before the CEO is interviewed. We think of what we could be accused of [instead of waiting until we are accused to handle the situation]. That means we're good executives ourselves. We can bring a fresh perspective to any problem or opportunity. That includes not only how to position the issue, program, or policy but also how to help develop the program or policy so that it will work best, get the approval it needs, get key stakeholders to support it, etc. PRN: How can other PR execs position themselves for work outside the PR realm? B.C.: Part of transitioning from PR to operations comes from not thinking you have any limits. It is almost an internal process. Why should you limit yourself in any field? Why should you pigeonhole yourself? PRN: How do you convince the CEO? B.C.: It is just a matter of not limiting yourself. If you go to a CEO and say, "I think I see a solution for this problem," what are they going to say, "Go back and do your brochures"? No. They will want to see what you can do, and so you establish yourself in that way, by coming up with those solutions. Eventually, you can become recognized as valuable beyond just getting good news stories in the media or producing brochures, etc. You can become part of the group that plans key projects, instead of someone who just publicizes them. I've also learned it's easier to grow as a professional if your CEO is open-minded, as mine has been. (Christensen, 619/231-9400) Beyond PR More than a valuable management asset, a background in PR often proves vital for other - often more dramatic - career changes. We canvassed ex-PR execs to find out how their PR skills helped them in their next professional roles. Here's some of what we heard: "After five years at an agency and nearly 10 years in PR total, I left to be deputy director of protocol for the City of Houston. PR agency skills - client service, account management, juggling multiple priorities - were really the most useful skills that I brought to the position." "I worked for a hotel company's PR department for three years before joining a cinema company and handling PR for their UK cinemas. When I left the PR industry, I had 12 years of experience under my belt. I left the industry to manufacture and distribute a baby product that I patented. My PR background was valuable to the growth of the company for several reasons. I was able to effectively promote my product and achieve national exposure in several parenting publications, without paying a PR agency for the service. When my company has news to report, I handle the publicity. I've written so many press releases and created so many promotional mailers/packages in my PR career that handling this aspect of my company is really the fun and exciting end of it all."

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