What does it take to be a great public relations professional? I’m sometimes asked this question by those entering the PR business. As with anything else, there’s a degree of innate ability involved in PR excellence, in addition to core skills like written and verbal communications.
But there’s more to it than that. It was Aristotle who said the following:
Long before Stephen Covey of “7 Habits” fame, he understood that work and repetition is a key to accomplishment.
This mantra also applies to public relations. I’ve been in the industry at large agencies as well as two that I founded, and along the way I’ve been privileged to work with some truly excellent professionals. Here are eight habits I’ve observed among the most interesting, accomplished, and successful PR people I’ve known and read.
It’s not just about having a voracious appetite for all types of content, although that’s solid advice for anyone starting out in PR. It’s also about examining how major stories are crafted in top media outlets, deconstructing key examples of storytelling, and analyzing the communications strategy behind media coverage and the professionals who respond to it. Lou Hoffman is someone who does this well in his blog, Ishmael’s Corner. It comes down to bringing a degree of critical thinking to our media consumption.
For me, this is one of the most important and unsung qualities to look for when hiring. People who have intellectual curiosity are far more likely to have that gut-burning desire to know and do more for clients, and they’re the ones who “connect the dots” of seemingly random pieces of information to achieve truly valuable insights. Intellectual curiosity may an innate character trait than a typical habit, but like a muscle, it can be developed.
My former colleague and friend Bob Pickard of Signal Leadership Communications is my role model here. He’s a trained debater and former political operative who always brings a degree of rigor to his analysis of a given situation and his counsel to clients and peers.
A frustrating professional stereotype about PR people is the “yes” person who reacts to client whims or caters to every media request without forethought. A quality PR professional is one who is neither order-taker nor bully. It’s a cooperative and respectful individual who makes thoughtful recommendations and is committed to telling clients the truth even when it’s difficult or unprofitable.
The best advice here is to begin with the end in mind. It’s easy to be mired in tactics on the agency side, because the right activities, well packaged, can make a big difference in earning media coverage. But great PR professionals know that what we sometimes call “results” must serve business goals in order to be valuable. Gini Dietrich, another prolific industry blogger, has an excellent post about strategic thinking in PR.
This is a shortcoming of even talented PR professionals, and it shouldn’t be. A top communications person understands a client’s business from top to bottom. They have useful generalized business knowledge also — like how products get to market, how startups and other companies acquire funding, how public companies report earnings and how to read a balance sheet. It’s really not about learning accounting or math, it’s just another essential habit acquired over time.
Listening is highly underrated in PR, as it is in almost any business. At the other end of the “order-taker” spectrum is the shoot-from-the-hip PR counselor who likes to hear himself talk. I used to work for someone like that, and it’s not a good look.
This speaks to curiosity, but it also comprises the pace of digital change, SEO, content marketing and other areas that bleed into PR. Skills matter, and our need to be updated and sharpened regularly, and occasionally even reinvented. That’s what makes our business so exhilarating, so maddening, and so much fun.