Transforming ugly duckling business tasks into career-advancing swans

We’ve all been called into an ugly duckling project where our advice is being sought. We look at it, tilt our heads, give the thing a good squint and just go: what the hell am I doing here!? But a seemingly obscure, arcane or only tangentially relevant business task provides an opportunity for learning, career advancement and reputation enhancement: a beautiful swan indeed.

The professional communication disciplines (communication management, public relations, stakeholder relations, marketing communication et al and ad nauseum) are no different than any other discipline (e.g. accounting, law) in this respect. In fact, due to there being such a general lack of understanding of professional communication disciplines such as PR, it wouldn’t surprise me if we are called into projects where we can add little value more often than other professions.

And as much as it is tempting to ‘participate’ in these projects with little enthusiasm and minimal effort, especially where it is clear the value we can offer is either negligible or will not manifest itself until a long way down the path of the project’s evolution, that is not an approach I espouse taking.

Opportunity for learning

One of the great delights in participating in projects which seem alien or irrelevant to our day-to-day activities is they provide an opportunity to learn. I would expect all communication professionals to be naturally curious and have a desire to learn. Without these characteristics, I don’t see how we can reach our potential as professionals.

Reputation enhancement

Participating in projects based on topics or fields we are unfamiliar with almost certainly means we are interacting and building relationships with people we have not met and/or undertaken business with. By visibly adding value to the project and by being an enthusiastic, conscientious participant our reputation will be enhanced.

The value we add will help build up our capability to influence approaches and outcomes not just in the project at hand but, also, through other projects. Our influence will definitely not be contained to the single project team as its participants have connections to other parts of the business, as will the project itself. The power of word of mouth…..

Career advancement

The information we learn can have benefits in opening up new areas of expertise for our careers. If participating in an accounting or IT-specific project, for instance, knowledge gained through this project could provide the foundation for a career change into practicing comms within those industries.

Participating in projects could also lead to sufficient knowledge in a particular field being generated to allow the comms professional to leap up into a higher management level (and not necessarily comms-specific). This can occur based on the relationships built, the project management experience gained and the expertise in certain fields accrued.

You really do never know where next steps can lead.

Relationships are a critical conduit in career advancement, as is proving you can add value to a process and help achieve an excellent outcome. If you are not an active and enthusiastic participant in the ‘ugly duckling’ projects, then this may well be an opportunity lost – and that potential career advancement in the form of a beautiful swan could be sailing blithely by you as you impotently wonder why you are stuck in the muddy rut.

Pulling the pin on the ‘ugly duckling’

In some ways, this post could be read as another example of PR spin. The question, you may ask, is still unanswered: what if it really is impossible for the communication professional to add value to this project? It’s all well and good, you may say, to try to achieve the three outcomes noted above, but you are not adding any value to the process.

There are three responses to this I can think of.

Firstly, if the project team continues to want you to participate in the project as it evolves, there is likely to be a reason for this. Perhaps, without even realising it, you are in fact adding value to the process. This will only occur if you are engaged to an acceptable degree in it, however. Being purely a spectator in what is occurring will contribute nothing.

By asking questions (no matter how ‘stupid’ you may think they are – the only stupid question is the one not being asked, I recall hearing…) is providing a very valuable and typically PR contribution:

  • you are challenging assumptions
  • you are challenging accepted orthodoxies
  • you are, in fact, challenging the potential of groupthink occurring which, as has been proven time and time again, is a good thing. Call it the emperor’s new clothes approach, if you like.

Sometimes, what seems obvious to you can be lost to those deeply immersed in the topic. One of the best ways of adding rigour to the process and quality to the end result is to continually question assumptions.

Conversely, and this is the second of my answers, the communication professional is typically a great source of enthusiasm for excellent and innovative approaches and what will be likely outcomes. As a default, we tend to be half-glass full professionals. And that in itself is a highly valued commodity in what can sometimes be a jaded business environment.

Who can blame non-communication business disciplines for wanting to have some of this magic mojo!

Thirdly, and here I end the post on a downer, you may well be right, there is no point in being in this room with these people or being part of this project. If that is the case, you are going to need an acceptable rationale for suggesting you are not included in the team. You have been asked to join the team, presumably, for a good reason. Look hard at that reason and identify whether it really does hold up under scrutiny.

Before you jump, however, seek counsel from someone you respect, someone who will keep your conversation confidential.

Often, it all comes down to ROI. All of us only have so much time. The business is paying for this time. Is this time you are contributing offering the best return on investment for the business based on all your other responsibilities? We all need to prioritise. And often we need to be ruthless about it, too.

So what’s your approach going to be to this ugly duckling? Is it a swan in gestation – or not?

Have you been involved in projects where you have been unable to offer any value? Did you tolerate it or resign from the project? How have you managed to offer value to these projects and what has been your mindset in the involvement – with tolerance and enthusiasm being just two options?

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Kids football coaching achieves excellence in PR

Basic principles of talent in public relations are that it is not innate, it takes years of deep practice to become excellent and inherent, sustained motivation is vital.  Leadership must praise effort not talent, emphasise that abilities can be transformed through application and challenges are learning opportunities, not threats.

Coaching kids at football

PR guy in action as kids football coach!

Perhaps most importantly, “failure is a great opportunity for improvement”. To which I would add: the only fail is failing to give it a go.

If you’re wondering which PR textbook this came from, then you’ll be wondering for a while. These assertions come from a Football Federation Australia kids coaching resource.  Practicing public relations is not that much different to coaching kids at football, it seems! Mind you, I’ve written previously on the analogousness between mentoring and teaching children at sport and the business environment of PR.

There is not much point in recognising the truth in some of the points above, however, unless they are put in practice. And this is where leadership must manifest itself. It is about doing, not preaching; about being the change, not handing out instruction books on it.

The principles of excellence in PR

Scientific research has identified the following:

  • While geniuses (Messi being the one who comes to mind most immediately) do very rarely come along, most outstanding performers don’t inherit special genes from birth
  • All world class performers have a history of deep practice
  • No excellent performer has reached their pinnacle without possessing intrinsic and sustained motivation.

It has been asserted by one scientist it takes 10,000 hours – or ten years – of practice to reach a level of excellence in any field. Yes, the quality of that practice is imperative, but informal or ‘non-professional’ forms of practice (e.g. kicking the ball around with your dad/son in the backyard, writing important emails) can be just as important as formal practice.

I think writing posts for this blog is an example of informal practice:

  • It prompts me to think more deeply about aspects of my professional than I might otherwise have done
  • It is clearly writing – the single most important skill in public relations – practice
  • I would like to think it helps me in becoming a better leader as I have to weigh up arguments supporting or dissenting against different perspectives.

Without excellent leadership, public relations is ineffective

Leadership is a vitally important aspect of many of the points raised above:

  • If the quality of practice is important, then we need excellent leaders to make sure we are undertaking work which is effective, imaginative and delivers outcomes in line with business strategies and organisational positioning
  • The only way practitioners get a chance to really develop and to understand their capabilities, is to be given opportunities to stretch themselves. If they fail – partially or wholly – in the process then they have had the best learning opportunity they could ever have had. This is dependant, of course, on being given the support to help them improve and being provided with a safety net (through the leader)
  • Praising effort should always come before praising talent. Talent is meaningless unless it is put to good use. It cannot be put to good use without effort. Talent will last only so long, then it will wither without effort and application. It’s a bit like the tortoise and hare – we know who one that duel.

Another reason for praising effort over talent is that if effort is perceived as being second best then the majority of people are at risk of feeling marginalised and disrespected. This is because most of us rely on effort to achieve. And if the majority are left to languish in the shadows of praise prioritised towards the talented, then the majority will not be incentivised to achieve.

Motivation is vital to help achieve excellence. And I’m not talking performance reviews or objectives. Motivation must be intrinsic, not imposed. Methods to help stimulate this motivation include:

  • excellent role modelling from the leader
  • recognition of effort
  • encouraging a mindset which embraces mistakes, rather than avoiding their implications and shying away from them, using the opportunity to get better.

Commercial benefits of applying football excellence in PR

The efforts and outcomes achieved by the majority will be of greater commercial benefit to an organisation than that of the – very rare – person who relies primarily on talent, rather than hard graft.

This should not be taken as meaning the practitioner relying on practice rather than natural talent cannot be creative or imaginative. Far from it.

Creativity is often stimulated from insights which come through a deep familiarisation with content and the task at hand.

Intuition itself becomes even more honed after years of practice. This can help deliver insights more quickly than those without practice. Those who more quickly develop intuitive and insight-identification skills are – or should be – those who are considered for leadership roles. It saves time (= money) and provides a foundation for empathy.

Not only is empathy a characteristic of the excellent public relations practitioner, it is a characteristic of an excellent leader.

What is your view of the analogies I have drawn here, essentially looking for similarities between practicing PR and coaching kids football? What ‘non-professional’ factors do you draw upon when considering business activity? Should professionals be given opportunities to make mistakes or should we never put a business in that position?

Reference: many of the notions referred to in this post are captured in Football Federation Australia’s Game Training Certificate participant manual.



Five tips for running a successful PR business

Running a successful PR business means you need to be flexible, possess excellent people skills, find positives in all work and people, have a strong desire to learn, be able to collaborate effectively and have humility.

PR clients are like family

PR clients are like family

In a previous post I discussed the importance of flexibility and my ‘bird in the hand’ approach to opportunities, whilst in this post I explore the other characteristics I think are needed to achieve success in running a PR business or consultancy. This can apply equally to sole operators or agencies of any size, but it also applies to carving out a career in the PR discipline.

People skills in public relations

One of my mantras is that whilst being a good writer is the number one attribute needed for success (and effectiveness) in public relations, being a good person is the second most important attribute.

It may seem odd a ‘simple’, or at least straightforward (hmmm, perhaps I’m getting myself in deeper water here…), skill such as writing can be so important. But the fact of the matter is that writing is at the core of everything public relations undertakes:

  • Media releases, white papers
  • Emails, tweets, reports etc to journalists and other stakeholders
  • Strategies, campaign content
  • Storytelling in all its guises for any platforms, which includes video scripts and outlines, briefs to directors, photographers, designers and more.

Even in this virality-driven video and photo-centric social media world, writing is fundamental to all of what we do.

Having said that, being able to work with different sorts of people – with their varied personalities, viewpoints and operating styles – is incredibly important if you are running your own business.

You often don’t get to choose who you work with; you just need to crack on and achieve the best result you possibly can. Clients are a bit like family – you don’t get the luxury of choice a lot of time, at least if you apply my strategic approach of ‘bird in the hand’.

Being a good person, one who has a lot of empathy and can understand the drivers and challenges of a client, is of infinite help when working with people. It enables you to work effectively with people. It also helps you anticipate their needs so you can either be ready and armed with a solution, or be able to understand the challenge and speedily deliver the requisite result.

Finding positives in all work and people

A chief characteristic of an effective public relations professional is having a half glass full approach to work which means, really, this is the same attitude you bring to your life as a whole.

Part of this is finding positives in the vast majority of work and people who you work with. As a consultant and a person who runs their own business, this is a vitally important asset.

When running your own business you can be assured it won’t all be smooth sailing. Whether it’s because of a difficult client, a mistake you have made or work you delivered which could have been better, a lack of work or a difficulty you have in creating a solution to a challenge, there are two characteristics you need to survive:

  • An ability to persevere and work until you find a solution
  • Recover from setbacks, mistakes and missed opportunities and ‘carry on’.

Even those of us with an unremitting sunny smile for life will encounter dark times. Accepting this as a reality can help deal with the situation. The challenge for all of us is to get through these painful situations and periods and not come out too scarred. Because the loss of hope, the loss of the half glass full mojo, would be crippling.

Hunger to learn in public relations

Public relations is an inherently iterative profession. Look at how social media, viral marketing, mobile marketing, responsive design, video, photography, infographics, email marketing, content marketing and SEO have all impacted profoundly on the PR discipline over the past ten years.

Without a desire to learn about new ‘things’, about tactical elements and their driving strategic rationales, then your career won’t necessarily be dead. But for sure you will be limited in your options and you won’t progress to the more senior echelons of the discipline.

For me personally, a lack of desire to learn intimates an inability to find joy in working in public relations, perhaps the greatest professional crime of all. But that is purely subjective and I can understand there are those who have no interest in learning or developing; it just seems a very strange mindset to possess.

Part of learning is not just about new skills, either, it is improving current ones. And surely one of the best ways to improve is to learn from alternative approaches to what you currently undertake (e.g. writing). For instance, the reading of literature is vital to help in improving writing capability, but I know not all of us do it!

Ability to collaborate effectively

When running your own PR business you will need to collaborate with clients all the time. You may need to collaborate with other relevant services providers, too, such as designers, photographers, event managers, videographers and more.

Many of us in PR provide ourselves on our creative ability. Often we need to refine that creativity with the pragmatic realities of budget and technical constraints. Collaboration will often crystallise these limitations for us and we need to be able to adapt to the situation.

It is rare in collaboration not to learn new information, which as I have said will provide pleasure in undertaking the work. So it’s not all bad!

Humility in running a successful PR business

We are never so adept at what we do and excellent in the outcomes we deliver that we cannot have done better.

Certainly, there may be some brilliant work we undertaken and results we achieve but, for me at least, there is always room for improvement.

I have been fortunate in that about 90% of clients I’ve worked with during the last five years have asked me to do additional work for them. I am happy with this as I believe it to be a pretty good success rate and, really, for me it is the ultimate measure of success. It’s analogous to the only question you ever need to ask a previous employer when doing a reference check on someone: ‘If there was an opportunity would you hire this person again?’

Getting work or clients is never, in my experience, easy. So I am extremely grateful when it occurs, an attitude forged in the fact I only started my own business as a result of being made redundant in the fire of the GFC.

Just like Michael Caine who evidently said he never liked to knock back an acting gig as he was afraid if he did opportunities would dry up, for me the bird in the hand strategy is the only one I feel comfortable in applying

If you have been running your own business, what do you think are the necessary factors to be successful? What do you believe to be the greatest challenges in running a business or consultancy? Do you have any advice you can share with me?

PS. A big thank you to the many people who have supported me the past five years, whether you are a client, someone who has referred me some business or who has shared some content I have produced through social media – it all helps!

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