When You’re Always On, You’re Off the Mark

Mike McDougall
Mike McDougall

Blame Lois. On summer days, usually around 5:30 p.m., she’d sweep through our office, telling staffers to get a move on. To power down, pack it up and skedaddle. And then she’d turn off the lights. This went on despite the agency being in a growth spurt, as the ’90s tech boom was taking off. But she wasn’t taking no for an answer, especially from an intern like me. That experience set a clear message: There’s life beyond your desk. A couple decades later, it’s a challenge for colleagues who are constantly connected, always on.

A 2013 study from app maker Locket showed that the average person accesses his or her smartphone 110 times per day. Three in four people ages 18 to 30 check their phone while still in bed, according to Cisco.

If our PR teams are always on, they’re going to be off. In creative capacity. In making smart decisions. In experiencing the world around them. In sharpening the focus.

So what’s the secret to having your team escape the grid and recharge the battery every now and again? Here are a few tips.

A little help from your friends. John O’Malley, PR manager for Verizon Wireless, says it’s all about finding people with whom you have complete trust, and giving them the authority to act in your absence. “Then unplug and stay unplugged,” he added.

Finding those people to trust has to extend beyond your immediate circle. Your top deputies must have the active support and participation of other functional leads and clients. Otherwise, they will circumvent that “out of office” message and send way too many emails that begin with, “When you’re back in the office…”

The “Bat” signal. A few years ago, I was ready to leave for a holiday when an assistant asked for my hotel details. She mentioned that should the company need me, I’d be asked to go to a nearby airstrip to have a plane whisk me back to headquarters.

I could just picture the look on my kids’ faces, clutching their Mickey Mouse ice creams as I was unceremoniously yanked from the Magic Kingdom.

Yet sometimes emergencies beckon, and when used with discretion, your team may appreciate being kept in the loop or consulted on crucial decisions.

PR executive Dave Arland locks his iPhone in the hotel room safe, giving it a vacation of its own. He turns it on to check a special email account that only two people know exist, and to which urgent messages can be forwarded.

Consider having team members set up free Google Voice accounts, which roll calls to another phone of their choice (e.g., a hotel landline). They can choose to answer from the few who have the number, or send them straight to voice mail.

Or take a page from Commissioner Gordon and agree to a secret signal with your team for must-read emails. The subject line can begin with a code word, indicating it should be opened ASAP.

Great expectations. What if someone really wants to disconnect? Bill Trumpfheller, who works at PR agency Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, did last summer when he rafted down the Colorado River and was out of cell and data coverage for 11 days. “It forced a level of relaxation I have not had in nearly 30 years in the PR business,” he said.

Set expectations about how long vacations—especially those with little contact—can reasonably last. Don’t dismiss the weeks-long odyssey, but look for alternatives. The extended weekend. The mid-week escape. Even a few hours in the midst of a normal day can make all the difference. At the very least, encourage a smartphone-free lunch at least once a week.

Don’t expect recent entrants into PR to understand these expectations on their own. It’s up to senior PR pros to lead by example. To show that it’s not just about gathering information, but having the space and time to process it. To allow curiosity to take shape.

So I write this following a late-summer escape with my son to catch his first Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

I have Lois to thank. Lois Paul, that is. Many of us know her as a technology PR visionary. But, for me, she’ll always be the boss whose lights-off approach showed me that being able to shut down was the way to better business and a better life.


Mike McDougall is president of McDougall Communications. He can be reached at mike@mcdougallpr.com. Follow him on Twitter, @McDougallPR.

This article originally appeared in the August 25, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.