06 March 2013

This above all: to thine own self be true

A science communicator friend of mine teaches a class at NC State and asked me to talk with them next week.  His students are a mix of undergrads in different majors - journalism, PR, and so on. He asked me to talk about how the skills or principles we use in PR can translate into other careers.  Here's an outline of what I plan to say.  And yes, this may be on the final exam or something.

It's probably important to explain what Public Relations is - not that my definition of it is any more useful than anyone else's. The Public Relations Society of America says it's "a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics."   I tend to think of it in less fancy terms - PR is how we bridge the gaps between what we say, what we mean, and what we do. 

To me, the first rule in PR - or in any facet of communication, for that matter - is know your audience.  Learn their goals, their preferences, their taboos, their language.  Show them the respect of investing your time into knowing a little bit about them. Discover what you have in common. Persuasion is often about finding shared perspectives and building trust.  Further, a little up-front research can help you avoid the really stupid mistakes. Of course, I think today the word "audience" should probably be replaced with the word "community" - because an audience tends to be more passive and receives information, while today technology helps people talk back. (There's a reason I call this blog It's Not a Lecture.) 

Second, and again, this is nearly universal - tell a good story. Not everybody does this well, and I'm not convinced there's a set formula for success. However, to me the best stories engage quickly, surprise you a bit, and contain an unmistakable element of truth. The more you do it, the better you get at it.  I think the more you know your audience the better chance your story will be good, but there is a creative skill set that goes along with storytelling. Some people have it, some people don't. 

Finally, and this is a bit more important to my field than to others - understand that when your job doesn't let you communicate in the way you'd prefer, you have to stay true to yourself.  

Organizations generally don't hire PR firms because they just can't find enough time to talk about puppies and sunshine. They may hire PR firms because they often do things that are hard to understand - they involve a lot of accounting lingo or policy wonkery or scientific terminology. They may hire PR firms because they actually did the things their critics accuse them of doing. They may hire PR firms because something very, very bad happened. 

If you're in crisis PR, as I sometimes am, a lot of what you do is defense. Sometimes you can't say a lot because there's an ongoing lawsuit or an investigation. Sometimes your client is "in the bunker" and is so risk averse they are hesitant to do anything and hope everything will just blow over.  Sometimes you learn information that you want to share - something that would land on the front page of a newspaper or move a stock price or maybe get someone in trouble - but you realize that sharing it has consequences too.

You have to be able to live with that. You have to be willing to serve the interests of your client. You have to manage your internal conflicts, and figure out a way to make sure you're giving the best advice you can.  

The good news is this - most of the time, the right thing to do is also the best PR move.  These include things like telling the truth, or making a mistreated employee or customer whole, or announcing that the product you made isn't completely safe and should be recalled. And most of the time, the client sees that too. 

For those rare times when the right thing to do isn't the best PR move, only you can decide what you do next. 

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