Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Want To Be A Better PR Professional?

Then spend your time focusing on subjects other than PR.

I've been reading quite a bit lately about people preparing for their APR exam, as if that's going to magically transform them to become better PR professionals. Newsflash: It won't. It's the equivalent of Scarecrow receiving his diploma at the end of the Wizard of Oz. (Scarecrow's transformation had nothing to do with the piece of paper.)

That said, while I don't dismiss APR preparation as being a valuable professional development tool, the credential is meaningless. We've all met great APRs and incompetent ones. We've also worked with professionals without the initials who are brilliant at their craft. Great PR professionals, with APR training or not, are those who view their profession as larger than themselves. They are educated well beyond the limits of public relations.

As much as most PR pros don't want to admit this, PR in and of itself, is not complicated. I could teach the fundamentals of PR to anyone in a day. Knowing what to do is the easy part. Knowing what to do depending on your client, industry, and audiences is where the rubber meets the road. It's what separates the PR greats from the wannabees. So before you embark on APR preparation, or if you're already an APR, here's a few thoughts for you if you want to be excellent at your profession and offer real value to your clients in good times and in bad:
  1. Take time to truly understand your client's values and priorities. If you don't really crawl inside where your clients are coming from, then you'll never be able to help them connect with their audiences. Moreover, you'll be useless during a crisis. The great responses to crises have not been situational in nature. Great responses to crises come from core values - from who they (your clients) are, not simply how they contrive a response in the moment. Unlock this key, and you'll have a better relationship with your client and be a far more effective advocate on their behalf.
  2. Become an expert in your client's business beyond the topline. Those who are not experts in their clients' business typically resort to measuring PR on PR terms, not on business terms. This is the fundamental reason PR pros cry about being underappreciated. If you want a seat at the table; if you want to be respected as a business person, then take time to understand your client's business. Your client's trade pubs should be your Bibles. This will not only help you connect the dots regarding the value you bring, but also open up a new world of PR opportunities for you to explore.
  3. Be fanatical about staying attuned to your audiences' hot buttons. Consider tracking polls in political campaigns. Public opinion can shift like the wind. Client centric messaging that doesn't connect with the changing attitudes of customers, shareholders, employees, civic leaders, etc. can cause much more harm than good. Become THE authority about your client's target audiences.
  4. Become an expert in the legal matters that pertain to your client. How many of you have been in the room when an attorney takes command of the conversation because (s)he understands the relevant legal issues of the day. If you want to take the attitude that you're not an attorney, then you'll have to live with being run over in front of the CEO. Don't allow it. Understand the law. You don't have to go to law school to acquire this valuable knowledge.
  5. Take time to study the fundamental challenges of leadership. I don't believe you can offer real counsel to leaders without understanding the fundamentals of leadership. I'd recommend reading The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner to get you started.
For the PR profession to be regarded as truly valuable in the marketplace, we need to focus on adding value, not initials. During tough times, clients have to believe that they're better off with us by their sides than on the sidelines. To do so will require knowing much more than what APR can teach you.

17 comments:

  1. "Add value, not initials." Great way to sum it up! We blogged about the APR recently at http://tinyurl.com/pgnavj
    and heard a lot of pros and cons. No one targeted the essence quite like this, however - it's all about the clients, not the initials.

    Recent blog:=- 3 PR Jobs I might not want right now

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  2. Linda, I read your post, along with the many comments you received. I think it's important to distinguish between the professional development value and the credential. I'm all for good professional development, but the credential is worthless. You offer a strong illustration in your post because, pass or not, you're just as competent a PR pro. My point, as you well know, is to regard our profession as something above self promotion. It's about how we serve the client. It's the ultimate measure of what we do and it's amplified during tough economic times. Thanks for your comment and for sharing your post with us.

    Recent blog:=- Want To Be A Better PR Professional?

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  3. Good post, Leo. I try not to disapprove of the APR process, but it really isn't a fair process, nor judge of one's PR savvy. I just can't imagine the mentoring and support given in NYC is the same as provided in some lesser PR populated cities, for instance. I could go on about APR ... you'll be happy to hear that - I won't.

    Now, a true professional advocacy and development organization that provided training and support based upon your five suggestions ... that would be worthwhile.

    Recent blog:=- PROpenMic Reflections :: One Year Old, and Growing

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  4. Love #2 Leo. Spot on. Really, all five of your points relate to knowing the clients business, challenges, opportunities and audiences inside and out. Nothing is more important to build credibility with management than understanding their business. Nothing.

    I agree that the APR designation, on its own, does not resonate with clients and employers. However, I think the true value is in the journey--not the outcome. For full disclosure, I earned my APR four years ago. And I found far more value in the process than I have in the letters after my name. It's gave me a renewed sense of confidence. Helped me better understand certain areas of PR where I was a little weak. And has allowed me to connect with a number of individuals I never would have had the chance to meet otherwise. For me, it was well worth the effort.

    So, I think it's a balance. I think the APR process has merit--you just have to do it for the right reasons (not the recognition). But, understanding a client's business is critical. Without that, all the studying, PR know-how and designations in the world aren't gonna mean squat.

    @arikhanson
    www.arikhanson.com

    Recent undefined:=-

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  5. Arik, I really appreciate your perspective on this, as I want to be clear that I respect the benefits of the journey very much. I believe it is a positive professional development experience for those who seek it out. My message is to look outward also - to look beyond the limits of PR.

    Recent blog:=- Want To Be A Better PR Professional?

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  6. Katie Delahaye PaineJune 18, 2009 at 2:29 AM

    totally agree, especially with #2. We need to speak the language of THEIR business, otherwise it's just a fight about placements.

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  7. Thanks for making these points, Leo. As a young professional who is just starting her career, I've been very interested in people's opinions on accreditation. One of the best messages here is that a PR pro's excellence in his craft is really about how well he does his job - and that means "knowing the clients business, challenges, opportunities and audiences inside and out," as Arik said.

    @libbykrah

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  8. Thanks for your comment Libby. I think it's really about being a lifelong learner. I'm asked by many college seniors about graduate school and whether they should go right away or wait. The answer is different for everyone, but a consistent message I offer is to do it for the education, NOT the credential. Don't go to graduate school because you believe you'll be worth x dollars more to your employer as a starting salary. (Which you won't be by the way). Go because you'll use your education to propel you forward in this business.

    Recent blog:=- Links for 2009-06-17 [del.icio.us]

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  9. First, let me acknowledge Ragan's PR Daily for leading me to this post. Maybe I should pitch these guys on MY next entry!

    You are right on with you assessment of the APR's value. Not so sure you're right about teaching the fundamentals of PR "in a day." There's a lot to learn. But the basic "principles" of PR -- yes. I can cover that in about 20 minutes.

    As you say, PR is NOT that complicated. It's more or less common sense, organized in a strategic framework. The tactics, the communication skills, etc., can take years to master -- and some never do it. Of course, those are not things the APR exam can test or measure.

    For the record, I'm a 23-year APR and a member of PRSA's College of Fellows. While the PRSA network has been great for my career, accreditation hasn't done much at all.

    Recent blog:=- Teaching students how to write good*

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  10. I appreciate your perspective Bill. Also, thanks for the heads up regarding Ragan PR Daily, as I hadn't realized they included it today.

    Recent blog:=- Links for 2009-06-17 [del.icio.us]

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  11. Hi Leo - thanks for the good post.

    I'm not PRSA, but I am in IABC. Still, the ABC designation just never has seemed important to me, or to the organizations for which I've worked. I understand the appeal of creating some kind of august designation -- but it seems very "we sure are professionals!" As though we can only be professionals if we have some kind of initials following our names.

    I agree that the basics of PR are easy, and the skillful application of those principles is difficult. In part, that's owing to the lack of generally accepted principles in the profession -- which isn't surprising, given the relative youth of its fundamental theories. Too many of us still regard what we do as some kind of art, reserved from the business world and its requirements of facts, data and proofs.

    Recent blog:=- New Financial Regulations Will Challenge PR

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  12. This is a great, great piece. PR is not rocket science. Getting into the head of your client organization, understanding its culture and values and rhythm of getting things done, absolutely is. Thanks for articulating this in plain English.

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  13. Thanks for the kind words. I've been thinking about this post and although my five points were not intended to be all inclusive, I forgot a major one which I'll share in my next post. Stay tuned!

    Recent blog:=- Want To Be A Better PR Professional?

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  14. Leo,

    Great post and some really great arguments about being wonderful public relations professionals. I agree with what you're saying here but also believe the APR has a key role for many professionals in step with your arguments.

    Most people take the APR exam for personal reasons -- to demonstrate their professional acumen. I know that's why I took it. However having or not having one's APR will never substitute for understanding a client and their business. It's all part of the package that makes the public relations profession so dynamic and challenging. APR gives us to the foundation to understand our clients more completely.


    Recent undefined:=-

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  15. Sounds like a lot of work. And you haven't even included the two most important ones. Understand your audience and learn to think creatively. PR is simply a tool to accomplish change, enhance reputation, move markets, etc. Think Edward L. Bernays. Sure he knew all the basics. But first and foremost he understood what motivated an audience and came up with creative ideas to do so.

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  16. Edward, thanks for your thoughtful comment! It is a lot of work, but I think clients should expect that kind of effort. I covered the audiences issue in item number three, but your point about creativity speaks to an issue that I inadvertently did not include in this post and will cover on Monday for sure! Thanks!

    Recent blog:=- Want To Be A Better PR Professional?

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  17. Leo ~ Agree! You know how passionate I am about this. Everything I learned about PR did not come from a book, class or seminar. I enjoy reading relevant authors and attending seminars, but it's the practical work that makes the practitioner, I feel. We are at a crossroads and as professionals we need to stretch a bit. Social Media "gurus" are popping up all over the place and are going to have a negative impact on our already bruised image. Yes, PR has an image problem, as we have discussed. I see APR preparation in my future, but the points made above take priority.

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