This marks my 40th year in the practice of public relations. Over the course of these four decades, much about the field and the way it is practiced has changed. Today, we almost cannot pass a day without a new article, email or blog post discussing the radical innovations altering the course of our industry.
To be sure, these innovations coupled with upheavals in the media monumentally alter the way we reach our audiences, deliver our messages and evaluate the impact of our communication. Entire conferences are devoted to these changes, perhaps in a continuing effort to bring old school professionals like me into the brave new world of digital and social media.
As we focus attention on the evolution of our craft, and who would ever wish to pursue a field that remains static, I believe it is necessary also to consider what has not changed. I think of these as The Essentials. Call them skills, proficiencies, principles or capabilities, what binds them together is that they are fundamental absolutes for those who excel in this work. This is true for new-age social media mavens and slowly emerging luddites like me. No matter what other expertise one brings to the work, without these all is hollow.
Writing is essential. We all do it. In fact, we are doing it considerably more since emails, texts, blog posts and Tweets are all forms of written communication. Our ability to use the language and present a grammatically correct and cogent idea remains central to the work of professional communicators. But the pressures on good writing are intense. Tweets and texts use invented words and single letter shorthand. No less a paragon of writing excellence than The New York Times has a regular magazine item entitled “That Should be a Word” featuring what might otherwise be considered misspellings and malapropisms.
Professional communicators are responsible for committing ideas, positions and even marketing messages to words in a manner that is accurate and convincing. Our CEOs expect us to provide them with speeches and by-lines that reflect coherent and considered thought. Our companies and organizations find themselves well represented by the language we use to present their programs, products and ideas. Our young professionals recognize a standard is set when the writing of senior leadership is crisp, compelling and correct.
This is not to suggest that our writing must be long. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall;” “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country;” “I have a dream.” Such writing resonates through history and falls well within Twitter’s parameters. The challenge is to not become complacent and accepting of pop jargon, but to write as if our words can be equally durable.
In my career, I have written for engineers, scientists, corporate chief executives and university presidents. Many knew what they wanted to say, but not how best to say it. Even now, my obligation is to help convert their ideas to language that strives to be both eloquent and interesting. It is the challenge I faced consistently for 40 years and expect to continue to face if I work for another 40.
I make a distinction between writing and expression. To be sure we express ourselves through the written word, but in my view, expression refers more to the delivery of our thoughts and ideas through verbal communication – speeches, presentations, media interviews and even small group meetings.
Too often we follow a routine pattern in presentations and a set delivery format. This is the result of over-reliance on PowerPoint, but also a long-held belief that a good speech follows the rubric: Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.
In my opinion that structure not only is boring and useless, it is condescending. Our audience makes time for us. They expect us to share insight, experience and perspective. They arrive hoping for something they can learn, share, and apply in their daily lives. They are entitled to have us break the standard mold and deliver our words with confidence, clarity and relevance to their interests.
Steve Jobs stood on a stage and told his audience that Apple had three devices it wished to introduce: A widescreen iPod, a phone and a breakthrough internet device. The audience cheered wildly at the mention of each one. Only then did he deliver the news that all three of these were contained in a single device that Apple was calling the iPhone. As the audience went even wilder, he paused and asked them “Are you getting this?” He certainly knew they were, but he also knew he had a unique opportunity to connect with them on a personal level. They became part of his team, and because they were moved by the power of his delivery and engagement with them, part of his army of evangelists.
We may not always have a truly revolutionary innovation to introduce. Instead, we may have only our quarterly sales results. And of course, they lend themselves in most instances to a straightforward recitation of the facts. But our audience deserves more. What do those sales results mean? How were they achieved using new approaches, offers or incentives? What do they portend for the future? How do they measure up to competitors?
There is meaning and insight, perspective and relevance to be articulated in the delivery of even the most basic information. Are we getting it? Do we see what this means? Is there a deeper message we all must discern? Our ability to express ourselves determines whether the audience can answer any of those questions. If we default to trite corporate lingo, subject our audience to slow death by PowerPoint where each slide contains more words per slide than exist per page in Moby Dick, they gain little. We waste their time…and ours.
Steve Jobs knew how to express himself. He abhorred the podium and used slides only to emphasize or illustrate his point. He knew it was probable that his audience could read, so he never felt the need to read the slides to them. Instead, he told them what was important, what he wanted them to understand, and helped them get the message and internalize it in a way they could share with others. We must always strive to do likewise.
At its most basic level, professional communication is about people. If we can continually improve our ability to connect with people and express meaning and resonance, our message arrives with impact and value. Nothing about the social media revolution changes that reality.
Professionals in the field of communications are innately creative people. We love ideas and the realization of programs that reflect innovative concepts. The problem too often is that creativity is the product of conference table brainstorming that substitutes “catchy” for “creative.”
Advertising icon David Ogilvy is credited with coining the phrase, “It isn’t creative unless it sells.” The only way to ensure we can sell our clients’ products, services, positions and ideas is if we are strategic. Strategy precedes creativity. True creativity is wholly dependent upon it. We can never allow it to be the other way around.
Through research our creativity can not only be stimulated, but fully informed. Today, few professionals in our field ignore research. When I judge Silver Anvils next week, it will, as always, be an essential component of any winning program. What so often is missed, however, is the most fundamental approach to research – talking to people. In depth interviews with subject matter experts have been an essential part of my work since the beginning of my career. Even when focus groups and polling were not possible, dialogue always was. Some of the most creative programs I have been part of emerged from what was learned through personal conversations.
Creativity is essential to our craft, but our craft gains immeasurable credibility and power when that creativity is the product of intelligence and insight. Understanding how to approach the creative process and ensuring that creative genius emerges from careful thought remains at the core of all we do.
We live in a world in which honesty and transparency have never been more important. Our profession continues to suffer from an undeserved stigma of being “too cute” with the facts. While incidents to support such perceptions have occurred, many thousands of programs are conducted in accordance with the highest principles of integrity. Those, sadly, go unreported.
Professional communicators bear a special responsibility to uphold the ethical tenets that underpin the validity of all we do, whether that means transparency in social media communications or truthfulness in the delivery of our clients’ messages through other channels. It is not overstating the situation to say this is perhaps the most essential of The Essentials.
Our professional is changing, but if we remind ourselves of those aspects that never change, we will continue to have a place in the C suite and a foundation for the continued evolution of this vitally important field.