6 Lessons Learned from a Career in PR

Debbie at first job WBVP RadioAt the end of this month I am retiring after nearly 40 years in the biz. Retirement is not a word I like to use because it doesn’t really define how we baby boomers are viewing this next stage of life – continued learning, travel, grandkids, exercise, sports and FUN! But, as with any transition, retirement is a time of reflection. It’s a chance to look back and say, “Wow that was a great career!” And it really has been. And, it’s a time to take stock in what I have learned that might be useful to pass on to those who will sit in this chair after I leave.

PR is not just a life saver, it’s a life line. It’s unfortunate that many organizations think of public relations after “you know what” has hit the fan. When bad PR threatens reputations, we as PR professionals are expected to clean up the mess and right the course. Don’t get me wrong, this is an important function of public relations and thanks to crisis communications, I’ve put two girls through college. But honestly, if PR was more often embraced as an essential business strategy, there would be less fire extinguishing. Reputation is an asset that needs to be diligently nurtured and watched and that will only occur when PR professionals are at the table.

Norfolk team at Salvation Army eventIt’s not about us, it’s about them. All too often, executives have an agenda of what they want communicated. The problem is that people don’t care about what most companies have to say, they care about themselves. Becoming audience centric is one of the hardest steps for public relations people to take. Unfortunately, PR people are often order takers, not order givers. I’ve been there myself; trying to balance between relevancy and what the company wants. Fortunately, with the introduction of new approaches such as brand journalism and the realization that social media requires more transparency, the interests of the end user are being put in the forefront. When you talk to people about things they are interested in their ears perk up.

Have one step in the future and one in the present. A wise colleague once told me that the real skill to PR is to always know where you’ve been, know where you are going and know where you are right now. For agency professionals in particular, there’s an art to staying just enough ahead of your client to bring fresh thinking, but not too far to cause client meltdown. To do this, you really need to understand the culture of organizations and the tolerance people have for moving in any particular direction. If you master this, you will continually add value to any organization.

Don’t lie. Seriously, it’s a problem in our industry. Maybe not flat-out lying, but certainly a little fibbing and a lot of spinning. The moniker of Spin Doctor was one of the worse characterizations to fall upon public relations people. We should be good story tellers and know how to weave a great message. But, honesty is always the best policy. What we do must be founded on establishing trust – with the media, with the public and with our bosses and colleagues. No exceptions.

Grammar still matters. At the very core of public relations is the written and spoken word. As a society, we have become lax about grammar. Poor grammar usage has become more acceptable – evidence the nail screeching improper use of the first person pronouns me and I among many Millennials. Employers are insisting on more perfection and if you are working in public relations, you’d better nail grammar if you want to advance.

Debbie's retirement partyBe courageous. The Public Relations profession is not for sissies. It requires a tough skin that can handle rejection and a cool and calm demeanor in the face of disaster. Good PR people are comfortable putting other people’s needs ahead of theirs. They are willing to work long hours, including holidays and weekends, and do what it takes to get the job done. They are curious and nosey and ask a million questions. They are the first to arrive at an event and the last to leave. They are willing to take risks, break rules, and do things they never thought they were capable of. Most importantly, public relations people have big hearts because they love what they do.

PR is part of my DNA now. Even in retirement, I will continue to consult and mentor young professionals in our industry. I have had a wonderful career and I want to thank my colleagues at PadillaCRT for giving me this opportunity to offer up some insights and to say a fond farewell.

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