Sharing Observations of My Mentors

A recent invitation to address senior public relations majors at Pepperdine University provided an interesting opportunity to review multiple nuggets of advice I had been told over the years from various mentors.  With more than four decades in the communications business – as a journalist, internal communications executive, external consultant, university instructor and in-house marketing professional — the review was pretty extensive.

And it brought back some fond memories of those who graciously shared their experiences with me.

In no particular order, these are the ones I discussed with the students.

Courage. Campaigns – presenting them, executing then, staying loyal to them – require courage.  Don’t hide from your advice.  Don’t devalue it.  Management consultants don’t … attorneys don’t … investment bankers don’t … but communications professionals sometimes do.  Too many offer their advice – written and verbal – wrapped in an apology.  Don’t do that.  Embrace it.  Defend it.

Honesty. Of course, being honest makes it that much easier.  Best piece of advice I ever heard given to a client:

At least once in your career, you will need to make a difficult decision because your prospective client — or your internal colleague – will not understand that he or she has a “problem” … and it isn’t a PR problem.  But he or she will want a PR solution.  You will need to tell this person or group of people the truth.

Another issue relating to honesty: Statement, truths, assertions, denials — all can have a short shelf life. So, consider carefully what you are saying today. Best practice? Stick with “real-time truths” that aren’t dependent upon gimmicks. Stay away from “snapshot true,” “de facto true,” or “aspirationally/ prospectively true.”

Elevate. Don’t dumb down your communications.  Instead, aim high.  Don’t confuse this advice with developing clear, easy-to-understand communications – I am not disputing that maxim.  But I am making the point that you need to give stakeholders – and your client or employer – the benefit of the doubt and provide them with you best effort.  And that means your best thinking.

And then you need to own it.  Every document you write, including early drafts, has your name on it. Your professional brand is being created or altered. An artist doesn’t sign a painting until it is as good as he or she believes it can be. You should apply the same standards to any piece of work that has your name on it.

Identify the Decision-Makers.  Who are you talking to?  Either in writing on in person?  Who are you pitching or presenting that campaign plan to: banker, CEO, marketing head, PR head, business-unit leader, another consultant?  Sometimes we know.  Often, we do not know.  And yet we need to hit the bull’s-eye.

With a written proposal: is your written voice the appropriate voice?  Are you hitting the right hot buttons for the decision-maker?  Are you hitting the right hot buttons for the implementer, who may in fact not be the decision-maker?  Do they even have the same hot buttons?  And, if this is an in-person presentation, how do you play the various persons in the various seats around the table?  How do you make eye contact?  When do you direct one section of your presentation to a particular person?

Understand Their Reality. Step inside their situation and circumstance to see the challenge or opportunity more clearly and accurately.  Don’t just apply “outside-in” thinking … take your thinking and apply it to their perspective. Walk in their shoes for a while so your campaign can become a blend of your expertise and their reality.

Make It Easy.  Look, you want to get hired, or you want your proposal to be selected.  Don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be.  You have the power to make their decision easier by drawing clear distinctions.  Remember: they don’t always review your proposals with an uncluttered mind … if they are going through your proposal in four unconnected readings, you better make sure that it isn’t War and Peace.

Alignment.  We are all communicators.  But we need to remember that our clients or employers have a commercial business they are trying to run.  Understand the business rationale.  Remember: the business can get ahead of communications from time to time, but communications can never get ahead of the business.  Understand the business/commercial objective … then develop a communication strategy that aligns with it.

Focus.  Communications planning can be complicated … but sometimes it can be simpleMany factors go into the funnel of the meat grinder.  Make sure far fewer come out the other end as recommendations.  Do a few things well, with impact and the ability to be measured.  And make sure they link together.

The Fork in the Road.  A communicators is not always a strategist.  And I underline the following: we don’t always want to be an implementer.  But, a lot of the time, we need to be both – to get hired, to get a campaign approved or to get the job doneThe balance is critical – there’s a push and pull.  And it’s never is the same from one client to another.  That’s why those who tell you this is a “template” business are all wrong.  Stay as far away from them as possible.

Visualize.  Your mind’s eye is a valuable tool in this business.  You can train it to be very helpful because you need to visualize just as much as you need your client to visualize.  Take the time to visualize execution and results.  You’ll be surprised how much you’ll be able to run a quality-assurance test on what you are recommending.  Oh, and if you are presenting, try to get your prospective client to visualize – or help the group along with a show-and-tell that demonstrates what results might look like.

What-Ifs.  In addition to visualizing strategy, approaches and outcomes, you should also scenario-plan how your recommendations will be received.  Prepare for the questions and inevitable push back.  Ask yourself how you would receive the recommendations you are making.  Biggest mistake: recommending something they already are doing or that has failed in the past.

Observations Without Implications.  You are going to write and present programs and campaigns filled with observations and conclusions.  If I am your boss or prospective client, I will not consider you for a moment if those observations don’t also include implications.  It doesn’t matter how you present them, as long as they are in there, are clear and are compelling.

Sequencing.  Linear thinking may help you analyze the situation and develop your program.  But linear thinking doesn’t always track when laying out a strategy to an executive with a short attention span or who is reading your proposal in fits and starts.  Readers, listeners and especially clients are impatient. A linear structure makes them wait. Don’t make them wait. Tell. Explain. And then tell again.  Remember that inverted pyramid you learned about years ago?  In addition to working in news stories and news releases, it’s helpful in your presentation structure as well.

Messaging.  Our business is built upon several cornerstones, including messages that connect, clarity of thought and connecting with audiences.  To me, messages are the most interesting aspect of what we do.  Messages.  Messages.  Messages. You won’t go wrong if that mantra repeatedly races through your head in your professional career.

And remember: Messages are not boilerplate phrases. They are not slogans. They are not bumper stickers. Instead, they are the key themes that enable you to touch your audiences in a way that resonates personally with them. Develop them carefully.  Employ them consistently.

Clarity.  Insist upon it—in your thinking, in your writing, in understanding your role.  Think in bullet points.  Talk in bullet points.  Write your bullet points first, even though they may belong in the middle of the document.  You can listen in bullet points, too. Teach yourself to translate the talk around the room into bullet points before your process it.

Windows, Not Mirrors. An effective PR program communicates “through a window” — that’s where the audiences and stakeholders are, right?  In contrast, “mirror communications,” which is practiced far too frequently, means you are speaking to yourself. You might enjoy it, but it doesn’t work.

Keep a Key Point in Your Pocket.  This is especially true in face-to-face presentations.  Save something you can use at the right time.

  • The A to the tough Q
  • The killer anecdote
  • The name drop that will seal the deal
  • The instant win you can achieve

The Hairy Arm.  This legend began with art directors in advertising agencies before making its way over to public relations.  It can be helpful, both with your boss and your client because, in either case, they want to find at least one thing wrong with your idea, your document or your train of thought.  And you, of course, don’t want to see any of your ideas get killed.  So put in a “hairy arm” that can be called out and removed (or, in the PR rendition, a redundant or over-the-top concept that is 100% certain to gain the notice of your boss or client).  Both sides will end up happy and you won’t lose anything from your proposal.

That’s it.  Use at your own discretion.  Those who came before me will thank you.


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