PR Tip: Don’t Simply ‘Trust Your Gut’

hands wresting the sheet of paper and making paper ball after mistake during writing

Always trust your not the PR advice I would recommend. Why? Because it paints too broad a brush, and based on my experience, I can confirm: there are times when your gut can lead you astray.

In "Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking," Malcolm Gladwell presents the case that intuitive judgment can be deceiving — but that it can also be developed, which occurs through experience, training and knowledge. Another key point Gladwell makes is that, ultimately, successful decision-making relies on a balance between instinctive and deliberate thinking.

How that can be applied to PR professionals: if a high-stakes, time-sensitive situation is one you’re also highly unfamiliar and inexperienced with, then that’s a sign that your decision-making process to navigate the situation should go well beyond simply “trusting your gut.”

Potential examples of such situations:

  • Providing counsel to a client in the midst of an emerging crisis.
  • Corresponding with a high-profile reporter on a tight deadline.
  • Finalizing details and talking points for a short-notice live TV segment.
  • Preparing and distributing a timely, high-priority statement within your short window of opportunity.
  • Taking reporters’ hostile questions from the White House podium. (Yikes! Good luck with that.)

A Tale of Two Crises

I was early in my career, and it was the first time I found myself put on the spot in the midst of an emerging crisis. “Jacob, what should we do?” the client asked over the phone. “I don’t know,” I said (in my head). My gut was pulling me one way, while my brain was pulling me another. My response: “Give us 10 minutes, and we’ll get back to you.”

I had a senior teammate by my side, fortunately. So we talked things through. And by “talked things through” I mean she took all of 10 seconds to confidently come up with a comprehensive, highly specific recommended plan, I nodded my head and we went with it.

While we were able to bring that crisis to a close (phew!), another apparent crisis, though this one more personal in scope, had emerged: How on earth do I get my “PR gut” to be as sharp and attuned as hers?

How To Build Your “PR Gut”

Thankfully, there exists a powerful-yet-overlooked path that undoubtedly, unequivocally will help you strengthen your “PR gut.” How do you make progress along that path? By making mistakes.

Frankly, if you’re never making mistakes, that means you’re not taking any risks, challenging yourself or expanding your skillset. Of course, there’s the cliche “mistakes are OK as long as you learn from them”—and that’s true, but I would go further than that. Make mistakes—but also do your part to manage the way in which you make them.

Here’s one method that gives you room to make mistakes, all while minimizing the downside (i.e. any negative impact to your client) and maximizing the upside (i.e. your opportunity for learning and growth): if you find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure what to do, instead of simply “going with your gut” or asking someone else, do your best to come up with a suggested course of action. If the roadblock you’ve hit is that you don’t know how to word an email, prepare a draft message. Then run your suggested plan or email draft by a more experienced coworker for review.

A simple-yet-effective exercise for your problem-solving skills, the “I recommend X. Do you agree?” approach—regardless of whether you end up being “right” or “wrong”—will help you grow exponentially quicker than the “What should I do?” approach. Not to mention, it will also make you stand out to your managers as someone who can be counted on to take ownership and initiative. This is how you broaden the sphere of situations that you’re equipped to handle promptly and independently.

PR Mistake-Making 101

Beyond the above, make your best effort to keep your mistakes to:

  • The kinds you haven’t made before.
  • Those due to lack of knowledge rather than due to carelessness.
  • Low-stakes rather than high-stakes situations.

In general, the higher the stakes, the more it pays off to do extra due diligence. That might mean doing an extra proofreading, spending a bit more time thinking through a problem and/or sharing your plan with a coworker for review. And with time, practice and experience, you’ll find that the threshold for what requires that extra due diligence increases, so eventually it’s only the relatively rare occasions that warrant it.

Let me be a case study: my decade’s worth of mistakes—which include judgment errors, misworded emails, missed opportunities, mishandled media requests, misidentifying the news hook, underthinking problems, overthinking problems, being overly assertive with media, not being assertive enough—have been invaluable in strengthening my own “PR gut,” which today I consider a generally reliable, though not infallible, inner-voice I can listen to and consider as I weigh my options from situation to situation.

What this all boils down to: the stronger your gut, the more it can be trusted. Now get going and start making your mistakes.

Jacob Streiter is Vice President at Rosen Group.