Sep 07, 2012

Dear Gracie: PR Pros on Their Most Important Career Lessons

Each week, Dear Gracie answers questions from ProfNet Connect readers with advice from our network of nearly 50,000 ProfNet experts. Has there been a question burning in your mind lately, something you’ve been wondering that none of your colleagues can answer? Please send it to grace.lavigne@prnewswire.com

Dear Gracie,

I’m a student working at my first PR internship this summer. What’s the best advice a long-time PR professional can give me? What’s the most important lesson they’ve learned throughout their career in this industry?

Advice for an Amateur

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Dear Advice for an Amateur:

1. Go the Extra Mile. Film producer Samuel Goldwyn once said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” That is, the harder you work, the more ideas and chances you make for yourself.

PR is strategic, but it is also about making that extra phone call, sending that extra email or following up that one extra time, says Doug Drotman of Drotman Communications. Expose yourself to opportunities.

2. Set Realistic Expectations. Thomas Lee, founding partner and head of public relations at 451 Marketing, was representing a local radio station that had arranged for the musician Uncle Kracker to perform live. He made a few calls and got every major outlet in the area to guarantee they would cover the event. He told his client “every media outlet will be there,” and of course the client was thrilled.

This is what most seasoned publicists would consider a cardinal sin, says Lee. Because despite guarantees, not a single media outlet showed up to cover the concert. The lesson learned was that, as a publicist, you ultimately can’t control the media. There are so many variables that can keep a media outlet from attending an event, publishing an article or running a broadcast piece — breaking news, traffic, adverse weather, advertisers, editors who need more space, etc. — that nothing is ever a certainty.

“Always under promise and over deliver,” agrees Shannon Blood, account manager at Off Madison Ave.

3. Stay Cool Under Pressure. “Grace under pressure can make all the difference,” says Karyn Martin, vice president of 451 Marketing. “When a situation isn’t going as planned, your reaction can make or break it with your client.” Put others at ease by rising above the situation — and you’ll be at a real advantage in the PR industry.

4. Remember the Details. “My most important PR lesson can be summed up in one word: ‘parking,'” says Zipporah Dvash, assistant vice president of public affairs and development for SUNY Downstate Medical Center and University Hospital of Brooklyn at Long Island College Hospital. In a dense urban area like New York City, reporters will not only evaluate the merits of your pitch, but also on whether they can get their crew to your location. “Every pitch of mine includes ‘we will arrange parking,'” she says.

5. Always Represent. Tradeshows are frequently in Las Vegas, but remember that you’re there on your client’s dime and always representing them, says Jeremy Pepper, a long-time PR consultant and blogger. “You can go out and drink, but you better be on time for the events and never hungover.

6. Be Proactive. As a journalist, you can only report — you can only be reactive — but as a PR professional, you can make things happen — you can be proactive, explains Dan Collins, senior director of media relations at Mercy Medical Center.

He learned this lesson on his first PR job, when a local musician was brutally mugged and her five-figure violin stolen. Collins set up an effort to offer a reward for the stolen violin, and also to get her medical expenses covered. This attracted press coverage, and in turn, it also attracted the criminals, who came forward to try and claim the reward, and ended up getting caught.

“PR and journalism are truly two sides of the same coin,” says Collins. But the ability to be proactive is the power of PR.

7. Be Sincere. “Be genuine and you will be believable,” says Chris Leogrande, director of media relations at Utica College. “This has served me so well in my relationships with reporters. If I can’t answer their questions, I tell them why I can’t.” For example:

  • Press at this point could endanger our funding.
  • We have a policy not to release personal information on employees.
  • I don’t know the answer to that but I will try to find out.

“Never, ever lie to a reporter. No matter what,” says Lewis Goldberg in his post “PR Lessons Learned.” “You will be found out and you will personally lose credibility and hurt your client deeply.”

8. Win Trust. “Far too many relationships become ones based on a vendor-supplier dynamic rather than a trusted partner relationship,” says Bill McLaughlin, PR and social media pro with Lois Paul and Partners, in his post “Client-PR Agency Relationships: It’s a Matter of Trust.” Here are some ways to build a relationship with a foundation of trust:

  • Give clients a reality check. It is crucial at the outset that clients understand their assets, strengths and weaknesses, desires and goals, etc.
  • Avoid investment expectations. “The agency needs to deliver results, but the client also needs to pay for the cost of those results.”
  • Provide financial transparency. Once a budget is agreed upon, make sure the client is aware of how activities are tracking to the budget.
  • Nip issues in the bud. Don’t hesitate to talk about expectations or problems. The sooner those conversations take place, the better.

A trusted relationship should also include respect and privacy, adds Brooks. “No matter the context of your work, and no matter what reporters ask or think they know, some conversations and information should be kept out of public view.” Keep your word.

9. Remain Tactful. “Know the right time to speak up and the time to be quiet,” says Rachel Hutman, communications pro with Clearpoint Agency. It’s a fine line, and something you learn as you go, she says.

Additionally, remember that in times of crisis it’s important to say something to the media, says John Brooks, director media relations and news at North Park University in Chicago. “Reporters will find someone who will comment, and you probably won’t like what these ‘spokespersons’ have to say.” Always return phone calls to reporters in a timely fashion and have a written statement to share, even if it contains little information.

10. Pick Your Battles. “The client is always right, even when they aren’t,” says Susan Tellem, partner of Tellem Grody PR. “It’s critical that public relations pros offer their best advice when clients ask and even when they don’t.”

Tell clients what you think and why, Tellem continues. “If the client doesn’t agree for whatever reason, tell them: ‘You’re the client. While I do not agree, I will help you achieve what you want to do to the best of my ability (as long as it is not illegal or immoral).”

11. Collaborate. Work as a true partner with your internal stakeholders or clients, says Rachel DiCaro Metscher, corporate communications director of Hobsons. A good collaborator will clearly identify needs, provide a solution that works, make sure the work gets done and follow up. “The ability to work well with each person is vital to the success of their project and mine,” she says.

“Set goals as a team,” adds McLaughlin. “Begin with realistic goals that include some quick return possibilities so that everyone can see immediate traction for the program.”

12. Beware of the Status Quo. “The status quo is the enemy,” says Lou Hoffman, CEO of The Hoffman Agency. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing something the same way because that’s how it’s always been done.” There’s always room for fresh thinking.

13. “Pitch Sensibly. “Send a pitch because it’s the right story for the right media person,” says John Goodman of John Goodman PR. “Dumb pitches to appease a client will come back to bite you with the media.”

14. Read a Lot. “You cannot be well-read enough in the PR business,” says Atlanta publicist Dan Beeson. “Sample as many literary genres as humanly possibly.”

15. Have fun. “While PR is a job, taking the joy of life into your job will make you way more effective,” says Goldberg. “If you just see what we do as a slog to get through, you will not be doing anyone any favors.” Enjoy your life and your job and your work will reflect this.

Gracie

Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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