Sinatra sang that when he was 21, it was a very good year. When I was 21, I was listening to Hyman Roth sternly lecture Michael Corleone to not push for answers that he may not wish to hear or question how things are done, but to remember instead that “this is the business we have chosen.”
Since Gerald Ford was president, public relations is the business I have chosen—and what a crazy business it is. One time I produced an annual report for my company and the day it came out, the CEO walked into my office and, holding the printed piece in his hand, said to me with a straight face, “this isn’t the color it’s going to be, is it?” I felt like saying “no, we printed one copy just for you.” That story is equaled by a colleague of mine who once landed a great article for his client in a major daily. The CEO called him into his office and, with printed newspaper in hand, said to him, “Good story, but l would like to change one of the quotes.”
Astonishing. What are these people thinking? And come to think of it, what was I thinking when choosing this career? More to the point, after four decades in its clutches, what do I really know and what can I pass on to others with more than minor authority?
I know that too many crisis communications plans fail
It could be because companies don’t control the narrative from the get-go, or fail to appreciate the influence of their internal audiences, or ignore the changing dynamics of the situation. They fail too because they don’t choose or train the right spokesperson, forgetting that who speaks is just as important as what is said.
I know that a relationship with an editor or a reporter may get them to take your call, but ultimately you have to have the goods
The problem is, nobody really knows what the goods are because there is no universally accepted definition of news. But I also know that a good place to start is with a story that is unique, timely and dramatic. I know to not waste my time and credibility with a story that has as much buzz as the lawn bowling finals.
I know a lot about clients as well
I know to treasure those who are both nice and appreciative and that eventually you get to a point in your career that those are the only ones with whom you want to work. I know to never charge by the hour because it penalizes efficiency and devalues experience. I know that too many clients have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. That’s why I also know that whether a client speaks well of you or ill of you, don’t take it personally.
I know, and have remembered, two very wise things that flowed from my college professors
The first is that when dealing with the media, the best you can get sometimes is a tie. The second is that when it comes to public perception, it is not enough to be right, you must alsoseemto be right.
There are a dozen other things I know to be true as well:
- Being creative has a lot more to do with being fearless than being intelligent.
- If you always tell the truth, you don’t need to remember what you said.
- If you are explaining you are losing. Put another way, never play defense.
- Time of crisis is too late to start building trust.
- Social media is a town without a sheriff.
- If you can accept your client’s money without always giving them your best advice, you’re stealing.
- There is no need to write mission statements for companies who always do the right thing.
- I would rather be a company’s last PR agency than their first.
- Many clients and CEOs would rather have their opinions validated than challenged, but it should be the other way around.
- The difference between a news article and a press release are the adjectives.
- The most important trait in PR, as in life, is being an accomplished listener.
- My advice is always right, except when its wrong.
While the smorgasbord of things I know are clearly dwarfed by the things I don’t, I do know with confidence that playwright David Mamet is brilliant. In his 1997 movie Wag the Dog, he offers these pearls of intelligence: “you take the fruits of forty years—hard lessons and mistakes—and you call that wisdom.”
After 44 years in the public relations profession—nearly perfectly divided between the corporate and agency worlds—there is one final piece of insight that I know to be true. And it is the most important thing of all. It is this: What one ultimately runs out of are not mistakes or victories, but the years to make them.