Are you too nice for your own good? We ask whether PROs need to be ruthless

Can stabbing people in the back help your career? Or are the most successful PROs the nicest PROs?

Most of us like to think of ourselves as nice people, but few are considered lovely by everyone. Your clients may think you are great to work with, but you might be surprised about what your colleagues say behind your back. Even if everyone you deal with at work likes you (or at least, you think they like you), this might not mean you are particularly effective. There are two questions that need to be answered when evaluating whether nice people get on in PR – first, what does ‘nice’ mean, and second, does it really help to be nice in an industry which, when it comes to winning and holding on to business, can be incredibly competitive?

So what is ‘nice‘? Well, it doesn‘t mean being a pushover. What use is a manager who gives in to everyone? One definition according to Dictionary.com, sums up the types of behaviours that are useful to have at work, describing nice as: “characterised by, showing, or requiring great accuracy, precision, skill, tact, care, or delicacy: nice workmanship; a nice shot; a nice handling of a crisis.”

So if nice means being effective, without being unpleasant, then it seems an ideal characteristic for PROs. Jon Lonsdale, managing director of PR agency Octopus Communications, certainly thinks so. He says: “PR people, just like the brands they represent, should be nice. We talk a lot about developing personalities for our clients, and being nice would always be on my list. If you're nice as a person (and a brand) then you won't go far wrong in my book. People will say nice things about you and you'll be more successful (but in a nice kind of way).”

Lonsdale points out that being nice is not the same as being weak, saying, “Remember, nice people can still ask tough questions, they can still be firm and expect a lot of others around them. They are not mutually exclusive.”

David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger PR, also believes that leaders need to be tough in some situations, but doesn’t necessarily agree that they should always be nice. He says the main thing is that people are efficient, professional and effective in their roles, and that they draw a line when needed – and others know clearly where that line is. He adds: “Some prefer to rule with an iron fist and others to embrace, cajole and lead others from the front. Whatever the case, leaders have to ensure their teams will respond favourably to the unexpected demands you may place upon them, delivering that extra mile. No respect and the response will be half-hearted and muted, measured not in miles but begrudging inches.”

Being nice might not be a prerequisite to being a good leader, but being liked is important when it comes to representing brands and clients. Independent PR consultant Teresa Horscroft explains why: “Our role as PR people is to act as the connector between the client and their key influencers (media, bloggers, analysts, influential organisations or bodies or experts, and sometimes even customers direct). In this role, we are acting as brand ambassadors for our clients. In other words, our behaviour can have a direct influence on how the client/brand is perceived.” Horscroft also says that in her experience, people prefer dealing with nice, polite, knowledgeable, helpful and efficient people. She says, “A connector needs to be someone that people like dealing with if they are to properly manage relationships on behalf of their client and make new ones. Being rude or unhelpful is not good for us and it's definitely not good for our clients.”

Just as it is essential for PROs to treat their clients and contacts well, it also vital that magazines don’t insult their readers. So you know we mean it sincerely when we say, “Have a nice day now!”

Outside view

Being pleasant might be an asset for PROs, but not all professionals need bother with niceties.

Vanessa Collu, senior sales executive at BBC Worldwide, says that although the people she works with are generally nice, she doesn’t think you always have to be good to get ahead: “In my organisation and the industry in general, the people who are successful, and more importantly stay successful, are actually pretty nice people – the horrible ones eventually get sidelined or pushed out. The nastiest person I ever worked for didn't really do well with us and is still remembered with horror, but went on to be amazingly rich and successful in another organisation.”

Pete Roythorne, editor in chief at web channel www.meetingsreview.com, says that PR people are angels compared to sales people: “Sales people and lawyers have to be ruthless to do their jobs. When was the last time you met a very successful and nice sales person? Never I'd wager. Although PR is a form of selling, it does seem to buck the trend in the arsehole stakes; the vast majority of PR people I've had the opportunity to work with have been helpful and pleasant, many have crossed over from my side of the fence and are acutely aware of what we journalists don't like about PROs and also appreciate that they need us as much as we need them. This is what sets them apart from your average sales person who is really just interested in making the sale at all costs”