Daney Parker, Editor, PRmoment.com
Learning from experience is ideal, but learning from the experience of others is much easier and saves you from making some awful mistakes. We ask senior PROs to share the pieces of advice that have helped them the most in their careers.
1. Ask the right questions
From Louise Vaughan, group managing director of PR agencies Acceleris and Limelight: “The best piece of PR advice I’ve received actually came from a journalist and was ‘if you can’t find an interesting story to tell, you aren’t asking the right questions’. There is always an angle or story in there somewhere – the trick is understanding the client objective, listening to the facts and then digging away until you find a gem that can catapult even the most technical or complex of issues onto the mainstream agenda. Some of our most successful, award-winning campaigns have started with this – whether it was Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson sitting in a wheelbarrow at the Houses of Parliament to demonstrate the failure of wheelchair services in the UK, bringing 100 of the North’s brightest digital minds together to open up opportunities around the new industrial revolution or creating the world’s first exhibition of photography underwater, which toured around UK shark tanks to promote the faces of the country’s maritime industry. We have two ears and one mouth – use them in that order and you’ll be sure get under the skin of your client and the real opportunity.”
2. Own your mistakes and then learn from them
From Gillian Foley, senior editor at agency Bottle PR: "My PR wisdom is very simple: It's okay to make a mistake, as long as you learn from it. For me, the key to learning from it is taking accountability for it – both admitting that it's happened and taking control of the consequences. It's natural to try to bury an issue, but in my experience, they rarely stay buried, be this a personal mistake or a mistake that a global business may make. Early on in my career, I made a mistake. I had a great team and consulted my seniors as soon as it happened, who coached me and ultimately lay the responsibility of dealing with it on my shoulders. When you are junior, this can be a difficult position to be in, but it means you have to take ownership, understand how the mistake occurred and put a process in place to ensure it doesn't happen again. It's one of the most valuable lessons I learnt and it's remained with me to this day. Not just how to deal with that situation, but also how to coach other team members who may experience that situation themselves."
3. Make sure your message connects
From Shaun Ezlati, director of integrated strategies at communications agency TVC Group: “I started my career working for a skincare brand based in science, and the head of PR at that time was a former journalist. Needless to say she taught me so much around building a story, but what has always stuck with me are her words of wisdom around messaging. I learnt the art of crafting and managing messages for a particular audience, outlet or publication so it connects and has maximum impact. Back then we were talking to a whole range of audiences, from beauty and health journalists, to key opinion leaders in the pharmaceutical and dermatology sector. We also had to be mindful of ABPI guidelines.
“More than a decade later, when I’m putting together a messaging structure for a client I’m still mindful of what I learnt all those years ago. And today it’s even more important because of the rise of social media and the work we do with opinion formers and influencers. How you make one story work for multiple audiences is all down to how you communicate and tailor the message which should help capture the attention of your target audience.”
4. Be a sleuth
From Helen Campbell business coach specialising in PR: “My PR wisdom came from journo-turned-PR John Paul Maytum. We worked at the Co-operative Insurance Society where we haunted the corridors like a post-Hogwarts Harry and Hermione, often getting told off for being on the wrong floor, or wearing the wrong outfit (you ate on the top floor by invitation only, wearing a jacket, and you couldn't leave your floor without a jacket on).
“There were reasons for us being in the wrong place. John Paul instilled in me an investigative journalist's approach to PR. It was he who would holler after scouring a turgid 100-page document, he who would phone the investment team to find out how the Co-op voted at an obscure AGM. By being interested, asking good questions, listening and reading stuff we found on the photocopier, we and our press office colleagues massively punched above our weight.
“To win at PR, be a sleuth. Ask questions, walk though doors, invite yourself to meetings. Be in the right place at the right time. Yes, you need to get the story signed off, but give yourself the best chance of coverage by finding the real story at source. There’s always a story, if you know how to hunt for it.”
5. Manage your own image
From Kelly McDaid, head of content partnerships at voucher website vouchercloud: “At the start of my career, my manager told me that a good PR person is like a swan – smooth and elegant on the surface, but furiously paddling beneath the water.
“In this industry we have to manage so many expectations from a range of people – with internal stakeholders and media representatives a daily event.
“There can be quite a few tricky tasks, so you have to PR yourself if you’re building a long-term career. Make yourself look good – calm – even if you’re panicking. People need to have faith that you can do the job. 99% of the time it’s a mountain that can be climbed with a little creative thinking.
“Doing well in PR is an art form, and managing your own brand is just as important as managing clients and journalists.”
6. Justify your existence
From Tom Leatherbarrow, B2B director at PR agency WPR: “The most valuable piece of advice I have ever been given is, ‘The problem with this job is that everybody thinks they can do it’. On the surface this doesn’t sound like advice, but what the individual was saying was, in effect, “You need to be constantly justifying your existence, proving the value you are adding because, on the surface,this job looks easy, but its actually much harder than they [the client] thinks.”
7. Treat your suppliers well
From Holly Pither, head of editorial at agency Bottle PR: "Make sure you treat your suppliers well from day one. You never know where they might end up. I’ve worked in PR for a number of years and over that time have worked with suppliers who have actually ended up becoming clients of mine. The PR world is smaller than you think so good relationships are key. Sure, we're all busy and we all agree that getting those annoying new biz calls can be frustrating, but always treat people with respect. You never know where you might meet them next."
8. Take strategy seriously
From Liam Fay-Fright, CEO of PR agency Common Industry: “The best piece of PR wisdom came in the form of an awful piece of analysis. A competitor, a very senior one, once took me aside and whispered 'PR is just tactics though isn't it?’ I've never been more sure of something being so totally, utterly idiotic. But if big-name agencies are making money with that kind of thinking, it made me realise the huge opportunity for consultancies that take strategy seriously.
“Some of the best strategic minds in business work in PR agencies. The nature of our work gives us a contextual awareness that is invaluable to our clients: we see the operational detail of a client’s business, and must be expert in it, and yet our work across multiple marketing disciplines and business verticals gifts us a macro view of a client’s position in the market.
“Nobody is better placed to spot the opportunities and threats on the horizon and suggest strategies that enable businesses to adapt to their evolving context, and grow as a result. Yet if all we’re known for is dishing out ‘tactics’, why would a client ever seek our strategic counsel? My advice: get your strategy out, your clients need you.”
9. Trust your instincts
From Robin Lander Brinkley, freelance PR and marketing practitioner at Maxwell Communications: “It’s obvious, but true that successful PR fundamentally depends on working closely with individuals and/or teams of people. It involves understanding, empathy, interpretation, objectivity, communication, negotiation and, crucially, trust. After 14 years of being referred, invited to prospective meetings and doing pitches as a freelance practitioner, I have learned that if the chemistry isn’t there with a potential client, move on. When sat in front of someone, you can feel whether they are open to you. If there is palpable reservation, excessive scepticism and, in a couple of unusual circumstances, near rudeness, smile and get out. You will never be able to achieve your best in such a situation, it will take a toll on your confidence and could impact on your own reputation. Unless you have a big agency with a variety of people to cater for all, give yourself a break and do the work where people want you, your success and all you can offer. For me, PR is all about people. The only caveat I would add to this ‘wisdom’ is ratio – if you are leaving a lot of meetings with no expectation of it going any further, is PR really for you?”
The last piece of advice may be rather negative, but it is key, and can be summed up by: if you don’t like your clients, leave them, but if none of your clients like you, then leave PR!
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