Stumbling through situations is a great teacher. I have tried hard to extract lessons from my experiences, including missteps and small victories. Now, with a bit more than two decades of historical perspective, I can begin to put my arms around the bigger picture of this profession–and reflect on what I wish I’d known when I started.
It’s All About Relationships
There simply is no replacement for the human factor. It is key to establish and maintain positive professional relationships. To do this requires a willingness to listen, understand others’ views and adjust your efforts based on their needs.
The importance of relationships touches all phases of a communicator’s life–developing strategies that the team will embrace, getting a fair hearing from the media and persuading tough audiences. The better your relationship skills, the more results you get. I have seen many talented people struggle with this hard truth (including me, of course): being good at your job is just not enough.
A Seat at the Table
Relationship-building is especially critical to earning your place at the table. This is where decisions are made. A communicator who waits outside the door to receive instructions is a cipher, not a valuable, valued professional.
In Washington, generally this requires a long-term commitment to deliver value to the government affairs team. Do this and its members will ensure you are in the room. Also required is that the communicator earn a reputation as responsive, available and quiet–until the time is right to speak.
The specifics of each organization vary, but providing value consistently will get you in the room. Once there, you can do the most crucial job: Provide clear counsel to leaders about effective communications on brand-relevant issues.
This is especially important when crisis strikes. I experienced this on September 11, 2001. Despite the dark backdrop, it was an honor to join the senior staff gathered with the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Insist on Clarity
Fortunately, building relations and providing value at the decision-making table generate tremendous capital for the communicator. Spend this capital wisely. There is nothing more important for a communicator to do than fight for clarity in the organization's internal and external messages.
Strike the gobbledygook, cut the wonky terms, eliminate redundancy, replace long words with short ones–do all you can to keep messages clear. Clarity wins; vague, overwritten prose loses.
Looking back, I realize I could have contributed more to organizations and clients in this regard. I am certainly more vigilant on that front today
Story creation is another place where PR pros can spend capital. The admonition I use: “If you don’t have a headline, you don’t have a story.”
In sum, being a PR pro is not for the faint of heart. Understanding the broad environment, developing cogent strategies and messages, building internal support and executing with efficiency and effectiveness demand a host of skills.
But if you keep your eyes on the state of your relationships, do all you can to make sure you are part of the decision-making process and keep your messaging clear, you will be well on the way to serving your bosses–and yourself–with distinction in our field.