December 29, 2009
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18 reflections after 18 months away from PR

by Bob Pickard

Last year, when I elected to leave Edelman (where I served for six fiscal years, most recently as its North Asia President), it was time to come home to my native Canada and reconnect with friends and family after 13 years overseas.

I wasn’t sure whether I would ever return to the public relations business. Even with the exciting advent of social media and a plethora of stimulating industry sectors and consulting services from which to choose, PR can sometimes be a simple and repetitive occupation. I was feeling the need to hit the career ‘pause button’ and take stock of whether there’s enough meaning and fulfillment in the business where I’ve built a two decade career.

Early in 2010, I will be starting my next international PR adventure. I’ve been fortunate to build businesses living in four countries during the past two decades, but before we ship out for the fifth and hopefully foremost experience, I want to share some reflections after this, the third year-plus sabbatical of my career:

  1. First impressions matter (‘how to start’) but so do the last impressions (‘how to leave’). There is a troubling tendency in the PR business for the quality of people to be judged by how much damage their departure inflicts on an organization, but I think the better measure of true executive timber is how well the organization succeeds afterwards owing to sound fundamentals built over time plus effective succession planning.
  2. It is really important to take time for mid-career breaks to do some serious reflection, because like most modern information workers, PR people don’t have enough time to think — reflexive ‘doing’ often eclipses reflective thinking, and so critical skills either atrophy or remain underdeveloped.
  3. At the same time, clients are underwriting advanced PR thinking with larger budgets than ever for ‘big brain’ consulting…whereas the economic basis for the basic commoditized PR of tactical order-taking is shrinking.
  4. It’s more fun to have the money chase you than to spend a career chasing the money, so there’s a strong incentive for all professional communicators to increase the value of their time by growing the size of their PR brain through a relentless commitment to continuous improvement and lifelong education. That means reading books, fostering relationships with opinion-leaders, and learning new ideas from other disciplines.
  5. With the flight to premium quality consulting gathering momentum, there has never been more commercial potential for insight-driven communications; recommendations rooted in research, assertions backed by evidence, strategy informed by analysis. Especially compelling is the PR firm that understands the psychology of persuasion, the power of digital storytelling, and client expectations for intelligent issues management.
  6. PR really is becoming more of a measurable science than an intangible art…digital technology makes all forms of PR more accountable, and clients will rightly demand that agencies take responsibility for results.
  7. At the same time, there have never been more ‘PR maven’ poseurs and ‘communications guru’ wannabees; too many ciphers who ape the rhetoric of the business, devaluing the PR industry currency but also increasing the stubborn determination of clients to tune out the ‘noise’ and find the ‘signal.’
  8. A lot of the self-styled social media ‘PR 2.0’ punditocracy who occupy a center stage that owes much to their just having been online using the new technology first — to be much admired from a pioneering perspective — weren’t in a lot of cases really on the PR industry stage before then. They weren’t ‘PR 1.0′ people or even practitioners during earlier analogue days in the early/mid-90s. There are some exceptions, but much of this crowd is so into the technology, they can’t map the latest cool new app to the real consulting world.
  9. Then, on the other hand, a lot of the more experienced true-blue PR pros just don’t have the innate grasp of the technology, which changes in a more nimble way than the manner to which they have become accustomed. Most of these folks know that social networks are important, and may even be skilled at making exciting speeches about the brave new social media world, but they aren’t personally comfortable with the pace or the processes demanded by digital communications.
  10. Because many of the people within these two solitudes often don’t talk to each other or understand what the others are really saying at the ‘unconscious’ level, there is an urgent need to bridge the generational divide in the agency business.
  11. The most important thing in PR life is to work with bright, interesting and fun people who share a passion for being the best they can be, accomplishing new things that have never been done before, aiming at setting the highest PR standard. I know that sounds like management rhetoric, but I agree with the philosophy that the journey is just as important as the destination.
  12. It’s essential to believe in what you are doing and to sincerely articulate your company’s point of view, but equally imperative to maintain a balanced perspective and not get too caught up in the synthetic artifice of hyped organizational myths.
  13. The global PR industry is a small town (the biggest firms are only approaching half a billion dollars in revenue), so while we need to be unafraid of advocating our unique mission in marketing, individual egos and sales claims should be scaled accordingly.
  14. Especially in light of the disintermediation effect caused by the rise of social networks online, it is vital for PR people to know how to ‘meet and greet the public’ offline, in-person, face-to-face. PR remains a highly tactile social undertaking, a people business. Particularly valued is the idea of contacting people when you do not need them for something, because when you do, they will remember your interest in the broader mutual relationship, not just in a narrow selfish transaction.
  15. Because they are so rare and retro, old style analogue communications techniques like hand-written thank you notes, phone calls instead of e-mails and personal visits have tremendous impact.
  16. Arguably more than in other fields, there are too many ‘politicians’ in PR, folks who will say they are your friend to get what they need for their careers, or be two-faced and say different things to different people in a vain attempt to be liked by everyone, but in the end this approach always fails to earn respect because it’s true that ‘what goes around comes around.’
  17. Principles matter, and so is practicing what you preach. PR people are getting more powerful (because we now program media content in addition to brokering journalist relationships), and so the ethical dimension of our work demands honest reflection, not merely glib lip service.
  18. Money is the vital energy of the PR industry; numbers keep score, but aiming at the quality first drives the revenue, whereas aiming at the revenue excessively can result in mediocrity.

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