Why making mistakes paves the way to PR success

“We should all accept that mistakes and PR initiatives that didn’t work are part of the experiences that should help build any career,” says Alex Aiken, head of the government communications service. The key is not to ignore mistakes, but mine them for useful lessons.

Aiken illustrates this: “Google talks about highlighting and celebrating ‘epic failures’. The Government Digital Service Design Principles includes the call to ‘iterate’ and ‘turn small failures into lessons‘. I look back on my time working for the then government over 1992 and 1997 and can think of so many things from consistency of message, unity, speed of response and segmenting audiences which seem basic now, but were part of my learning." 

The first step to take after making your own mistake is to confess. Simon Turton, owner of agency Opera PR says you must admit to the mistake as soon as you are aware of it and, ideally, before the client/colleague/boss has discovered your error. “No matter how uncomfortable it feels – and admitting to mistakes takes us right back to our childhood when a parental reprimand would have been looming – for the sake of your own integrity you need to admit to the cock-up and ’take it on the chin.’”

“When you say that you have messed up then you will get a much more favourable reception than if you pretend it didn’t happen, blame a third party or stay off work.”

Turton says that admitting to mistakes will pay dividends in your personal life as well: “How many arguments have you had with a partner, wife or husband, which essentially boiled down to you being wrong? I know I have had too many needless arguments, which all would have stopped if I had simply admitted to a mistake or to not doing something.”

Taking ownership of a mistake is just the start. The key to future success is to learn from it. Making mistakes is invaluable experience, especially when you are dealing with crisis management. As Kate Levine, partner at communications consultancy Pagefield, says: “Never waste a good crisis,” explaining, “this is the mantra of many a seasoned PR professional, and with good reason. You can always learn from mistakes “

Levine gives examples of how social media has been a minefield for brands, giving plenty of learning experiences: “Over the last five years in particular, social media has provided a completely new arena for businesses and brands to slip up – often at great cost. You could easily fill a book with case studies of social media gone-wrong.”

“The likes of JP Morgan and HMV have discovered that an even marginally misjudged tone, timing or hashtag can create an avalanche of interest which thrusts you into the limelight and up the trending ladder.”

“Disaster post-mortems are widely used and are helpful to analyse what went wrong so you don’t make the same mistakes again.” Ending on a positive note, Levine points out that you can also learn from success: “We hold post-mortem meetings after our successes too, so we can highlight good practice and spread the positive learnings.”

Case studies

PROs tell tales of mistakes to learn from:

Chris Owen, director at PR firm Grayling:

“A friend I worked with very early on in my career was working with her FMCG client looking to get into grassroots baseball in the UK – get kids involved, grow the sport, drive a healthier lifestyle, etc. It was all positive and fun stuff to raise awareness of a healthy, balanced diet (which – naturally, the FMCG brand’s food was part of!). One of the folk from Major League Baseball (MLB) from the States was in London for a few days and met her for coffee, chatting about what MLB does Stateside and how they get kids involved early on, and the education piece about sports – it was a good chat, quite friendly, but quite brief. The MLB guy then emailed my friend saying – in an entirely normal, friendly way – “sorry it was so brief, hopefully get to know you better next time I’m in”, an email she forwarded to her boss saying ‘bit creepy?’. Except she didn’t forward it. She replied. The MLB didn’t work with her client anymore.”

Juliet Cameron, director at agency Launch PR:

“Several years ago when working as an account manager I was given the task of running the PR launch for a luxury Japanese watch brand at Basel, the industry’s most prestigious trade show.”

The overall look and feel of the whole launch was hugely important and we spent a lot of time creating some exclusive looking press packs – all black gloss and premium gold to tie in with the brand. I arranged for the press packs to be delivered direct from the printers to the trade show and therefore I only saw them 30 minutes before the press conference kicked off. It was at that point that I realised that instead of premium black we were about to give out 100 press folders completely off brand in an unsightly shade of poo.”

“I spent an awkward meeting in a tiny room with five very angry Japanese men trying to explain. The lessons learnt were simple … always check the quality of a print job and never leave key elements of a launch beyond your control. The obsessive need for control has remained with me ever since!”

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