Dr. PR Column – Spring 2023

The few snowflakes that fell this winter are fueling Mother Nature’s impending growing season, providing the perfect springboard for talking about nurturing our own garden of professional development. I was inspired by the engaging “New Year, New PR Pro” event that Liam Oakes moderated, which can be viewed here.

The session focused on the controllables that a PR pro can leverage during interviewing. There are other personal investments we can make in our development from within an organization, wherever we are on our career journey. These investments have the ability to open previously closed doors. 

There is a limit to what any single person can achieve. That ceiling rises by adding the right skill sets to the mix: mentors can be senior or junior. Putting the wrong mix of people together can be toxic.  

There is no replacing experience. Onboarding a new team member often entails “programming” them on how that client team and/or agency works; no two accounts are the same. Optimal outcomes for the client, team and agency require this understanding.

We will explore three scenarios in which colleagues, clients and media can positively and/or negatively impact a PR professional’s personal development plan. 

Dr. PR is In!

Colleagues Can be a Catalyst For Career Development

Teamwork makes dreams work; that sword is sharp at both edges. Succeeding as part of a team involves is pushing beyond what is expected. There are precious few career achievements as instantly validating. Conversely, working in silos, while the “team” is struggling to succeed, is one of the most draining experiences to endure.  

It was my first day working with my new agency, and a junior employee immediately branded herself to me, authentically delivering that she was happy to learn from and work with me. It turned out that she had been there for more than a year before my hire and had matured up from an internship; but that’s where the career momentum stalled. 

I began deploying her as my “right hand,” despite her level being far more junior.  She earned that respect by doing the work and leading with her actions. She always got her work done and then returned to ask for more, or to volunteer helping others. It didn’t happen overnight, nor did it happen without speed bumps, but she became the most vital team member – all by creating the opportunity. 

While I don’t relish recalling negative memories, one instance from a staffer comes to mind. Working with the most junior-level employee on the team, we repeatedly found ourselves going through similar scenarios, resulting in negative outcomes. 

All the tactics used successfully in the past resulted in zero progress.  I remained vigilant; the process had worked with countless people before; it had to be something else. The employee heard what I was saying, but was closed off to executing. 

My other employee went above and beyond; talk about apples and oranges! Then it clicked; they are opposite edges of the same blade. No matter what anyone attempts, only the individual chooses whether they are open or closed off to learning; nobody can be forced. 

PR Takeaway: The best job a mentor can do is to illuminate the crossroads that their mentee is currently facing. It is on that employee to choose their path, and their speed of travel. 

Media can be Mentors – In what they say and don’t say

I deduced early on that the success of a media relations pro is mostly determined by two external variables: client satisfaction and media satisfaction. If clients get consistent media coverage they are satisfied with, then the agency is happy and the PR pro is at their most valuable. 

Securing national earned-media TV segments is becoming increasingly difficult.  Every idea requires a producer to get excited before it has any chance of making “air.” I knew that the primary challenge was to show how we could create engaging TV that is authentic to their show and audience. Accomplishing this requires constructing an entirely exclusive experience that is authentic only to their show; becoming an extension of their production team. 

Being able to see things from the “producer POV” requires ample research, including watching the show and similar segments. The parallels that connect to client priorities emerge organically out of this research. Calling this out in pitches and sharing links instantly builds credibility, by using the show’s previous segments to set up future ones. 

All actions/inactions communicate value. It is up to us to determine whether we are open to receiving, processing and applying that learning. I learn a lot more from silence and failure than from engagement. 

A reporter at USA Today was the premier subject matter expert for my client activation. The reporter’s Cision profile stated in all caps, “DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES EVER CALL THIS REPORTER.” 

Of course, I called him, because I knew what I had was valuable to his audience. Those profiles can be edited by any PR pro, or even by the reporter directly. I also knew the profile likely scared off 99.9% of PR pros from ever picking up the phone. 

While he didn’t say yes initially, the eventual result was a cover story on the Money Section using only my client and provided experts; no outside sources. 

PR Takeaway: There is no replacement for one’s knowledge of a media outlet. If only PR pros excelled in this area like they do in client knowledge. Put the time in, do the work and then have the courage to execute on that path.  Precious few media relations pros have national Emmy Award-Winning producers and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists publicly endorsing the value they deliver to their audiences. That is the realistic goal that can be achieved.

Clients can be Mentors and/or can be Distractions

Learning what to eliminate is just as valuable as learning what to focus on. The client is always the expert in their industry, and the PR Pro should be the media relations expert. This foundational point is where being a consultant and counselor begins; delivering more than “yes” or nodding in agreement is required. 

We have all had a client who is an expert on everything, but a master of very little. They know the outlet and headline they desire, but they have no clue about the path leading there. I worked with a client on a situation in which there was a clear path to their desired outcome; it required positioning the pitch in a tongue-in-cheek way that the client would never approve. We listened intently to how they wanted it positioned; we were aligned on their preference; but we were at a crossroads. We could likely get the dream placement, but the approach had risk. In weighing the options, we knew the pressure to convert this outlet would never cease. We also knew the likelihood of another opportunity ever presenting itself again. This was our moment to act as counselors and secure the segment, by taking a calculated risk and moving forward with the pitch.

The result was successful, and we secured the segment that delivered everything the client wanted; albeit traveling a path that included risk. 

PR teams regularly struggle to generate media coverage, instead traveling the same failed paths and neglecting the opportunity to reevaluate their approach.  I have seen this consume great PR people, who are done in by inaction. PR pros are accountable for any and all media outcomes that result under their watch; proactive and reactive. The only way to be prepared is by getting clarity on important questions. Media relations is often judged solely on the outcomes generated. If the results are good, team members progress. If outcomes aren’t good, team members may be put on “Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs)” and/or are replaced. This is why it is important for senior leaders to participate and be accountable, ensuring that everyone succeeds.

PR Takeaway– Speaking up expedites career development; the time to impact change is before an outcome has been locked in. The credit for successes tends to benefit senior team members more than junior staff. Conversely, when a client struggles, blame disproportionately falls on the junior team, as the senior staff are not commonly active in media relations efforts. This is why it’s important for junior team members to be proactive and speak up frequently, ensuring that concerns are escalated before they become problems. It is equally important for senior leaders to provide guidance and ensure accountability across the team, so that everyone either fails or succeeds together.

Dr. PR is in! Submit questions, comments or topic ideas by emailing DrPR@riverbedmp.com  

Ryan Smith, Founder and CEO of Riverbed Media Partners, is an international award-winning communications executive with a track record of measurably improving results for brands in diverse industries and challenging situations. For more than 24 years, he has been succeeding for brand partners including Tyson, Kentucky Derby, Red Lobster, Deloitte, McDonald’s, Morgan Stanley, TIDAL, etc.

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