My Dad drove a truck. He was not a professional communicator. Yet, thinking of him as Father’s Day approaches, I am struck by how astute he was about communication, surely without ever realizing it. Here are four lessons he taught me that still resonate today more than 30 years after his passing. I honestly believe I apply these lessons every day in my professional life and my counsel to clients.
1) Think before you act
What father has never said this to his child? Of course, the lesson for a young person was to never be impulsive or take foolish risks. In the world of public relations, however, it remains singularly accurate. Strategy is the process of thinking before implementing. It is a careful consideration of all of the dimensions of the challenge (research), soliciting insights and perspectives from those most directly involved (stakeholders), and framing an approach (planning) to achieve a specific and measurable goal. Thought before action is as important today as it was at 12 years old.
2) Don’t follow the crowd
Dad’s direction was meant to keep me apart from those who might lead me down the wrong road. But it also has much to do with standing out and striving for uniqueness. In our programs for clients, we never recommend they mimic what everyone else is doing, but rather that they be distinctive. One can never make an impact by following. Leadership, on the other hand, means identifying the alternative approach that will produce a powerful result.
3) Speak when you have something worth hearing
This one always stopped me as a child. Didn’t he mean that we should speak only when we have something worth “saying?” Even a nun in elementary school corrected me when I parroted Dad’s axiom. Once again, however, Dad was on to something. We want our messages to resonate with specific target audiences. If we want them to accept our message, we need them to hear it first. That means understanding what interests and motivates them. It means being aware of their concerns and sensitivities. It’s why, today, we test messages before transmitting them. Audiences pay attention to us when we have paid attention to what they are interested in hearing.
4) You are more than yourself
In hindsight, I think this was Dad’s way of telling me to never embarrass the family, but the relevance today is still strong. Each of us represents our organizations, industries, professions, and companies. As professionals or spokespersons, we rarely speak or act solely on our own behalf. We are the personal embodiment of a much larger group of people who depend upon us to make a favorable impression and benefit them in the process. It’s a vitally important consideration as we assume leadership roles in our industries or on issues of importance. We talk a great deal about “thought leadership.” Dad’s point is really at the heart of that concept.
My father had only the slightest understanding of public relations. It was actually a bit of an alien concept to him. He came from a generation for which physical work was the central obligation and “career.” More than a few times, he would ask me, “What is it again that you do?” I wish I had answered, “I do what you told me to do.”
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I miss you.