Lessons Earned: How ‘Languages’ Led to a Successful PR Career

[Editor's Note: "Failure is the mother of success.” Thomas Edison tried thousands of light bulbs before he discovered his life-altering solution. Howard Schultz approached 242 investors with an idea for a chain of coffee shops. Nearly 220 of them refused the concept for Starbucks. It took Marie Curie years before she was able to isolate radium.

In this PRNEWS series, a partnership with the Institute for Public Relations, industry leaders share a difficult lesson. See the previous article in the series

In this essay, former CCO Jim Simon discusses the benefits for PR pros of learning industry languages.]

As a history major, I had no grounding in business when I graduated.

I eventually leveraged a portfolio of freelance articles for Ohio newspapers about various topics–none business-related–into a temporary position with the state of Ohio Auditor’s press office. I had to learn the language of accounting and auditing so I could write news releases about municipalities' finances.

That language-learning skill carried over into nearly every PR position I held, including CCO at corporations in five industry groups.

Financial Terms

My first CCO position was with a natural resources company that was relocating its headquarters from Toronto to New York. My remit was to start PR and investor relations (IR). I focused on learning the language of Wall Street to be able to represent the company to buy and sell-side institutional investors, shareholders and the financial media.

While working at chemical and two healthcare companies as well as a leading R&D organization, I had to learn science-based languages. Working closely with marketing, HR and IT helped me learn their languages. CCO roles at an international bank and a US bank and insurance company required knowing banking and insurance terms.

Having been on the wrong side of mergers, CEO changes and restructuring, I found language literacy, particularly in finance, to be a great differentiator in landing new positions.

As data and analytics continue to grow in importance, it’s critical for communicators to be conversant in those languages.

A Wall Street Journal reporter interviewed me for a feature on the qualities of resilient people. In the article, “Learn Languages and You’ll Always Land On Your Feet,” the reporter recounted the importance of: 1) Learning as many 'languages' as possible, 2) Building bridges to other functions, and 3) Differentiating yourself by articulating your philosophy, using language customized for your would-be employer.

Developing language skills requires the communicator to be a student at heart and an active listener.

Both traits typify well-rounded communicators. These communicators combine intellectual curiosity with an ability to understand stakeholders' points of view so they can develop strategies and programs that make a difference.

Jim Simon was a CCO at five companies. Contact him: jimsimon.voices@gmail.com