The F Word: It’s Time to Make Your Move

wall of failuresFailure, my friends, is the F word I am referring to and the word that so many business leaders tout as the holy grail to get ahead. You’ve heard it so many times: fail fast, learn and grow. If only it were easy to fail successfully.

At the PR News Top Women in PR Luncheon on January 23 keynoter Melissa Bernstein of toy company Melissa & Doug shared all the misses among the hits of puzzles, toys and stuffed animals over the company’s 30 years. At their headquarters in Wilton, CT, there’s a whole room dedicated to the toys that seemed like such a good idea until they weren’t (see photo).

“I am only here speaking to you today because I have failed so many times I learned who I truly am and how to succeed,” said Bernstein.

Many of the Top Women who came to the stage for their award echoed Bernstein’s advice to always be failing, because that means you are taking risks. We all have experienced failure in our professional and person lives and there’s no doubt it strengthens us, hardens us and prepares us. Even better is to admit failure and share lessons learned with peers and colleagues.

The challenge with the F word is it’s not valued as highly as the S word, Success. It’s unlikely you’ll get promoted or bonused on a campaign that flopped or an idea that lost your company millions of dollars. It’s beholden on you, should you fail, to do what communicators do best – create the narrative in which F=S, in which your failure will lead to success because your gleanings from the failed venture will prevent larger problems down the road.

The other absolute about the F word is that if you are going to Fail, it’s not so much about failing fast but about failing at something big. For every toy that Melissa & Doug put in the marketplace there are dozens, if not hundreds, that fell flat. Thomas Edison tried 10,000 prototypes for the light bulb before getting right. Arianna Huffington’s second book was rejected by 36 publishers. Oprah Winfrey was fired from a Baltimore talk show because she was “too emotionally invested in her stories.” These are successful failures.

I propose that all communicators come up with three action items this year that put you at some risk. There’s a good chance you’ll succeed and have an incredible impact in our field, but there’s a real possibility of failing. Here are three suggestions:

  1. Become a champion of better PR metrics – develop smart KPIs and understand and practice every day the Barcelona Principles. This means the end of talk about Ad Value Equivalencies.
  2. Speak up to the C-suite. For too long in many organizations, PR and communications executives get the short end of the stick when it comes to budget and responsibility. It’s not that your CEO isn’t listening; it might be that you’re not talking.
  3. Demand diversity, within your department and at your organization as a whole. A diverse mix of ages, viewpoints, races, creed, orientation from the top down are going to be what stakeholders demand. Be the one to make this happen.

Are you ready to fail? Don't forget the formula: F=S.

 -- Diane Schwartz