The first time we decided to resign our largest client was back in the early 2000s. Obviously not something you take lightly, especially if you’re a small business in a niche market. Not only did we survive that major decision but we eventually thrived because of it. As a result, it was a lot easier to make a similar decision 10 years later. So what would drive us to resign our largest client for the second time in 10 years? It’s the health and happiness of our employees. I run a technology communications firm with offices in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and New York. Our people are our product, so if we want to be able to offer the best product, we need to be able to hire and retain the best staff. It’s why we have a philosophy for putting our staff first. That may sound altruistic and nice, but in reality it is the smartest business decision we could ever make.
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Hurricane Isaac was coming ashore. The Weather Channel and CNN dispatched their correspondent to the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans, tethered to a $65,000 HD Camera and a half-million dollar satellite truck. Meanwhile, the anchors back in the studio conducted a series of phone interviews with Emergency Managers and Public Information Officers (PIO) in the path of the hurricane.
So why is it, with the wealth of official knowledge available during storm coverage, the news networks suddenly cut away to interview a seemingly random resident, standing in rising flood waters at his home along Lake Pontchartrain in Mandeville, Louisiana?
Strategic planning is at the heart of all public relations. Launching a PR campaign without a strategic plan is like embarking on a trip without a map or GPS. In today’s business environment, with limited resources and ramped up accountability, it’s not enough to head off in a general, vague direction. A GPS-like a strategic plan requires you to input your destination. It keeps you on track.
The ability to think and act strategically is the key that enables professionals to advance from tactical PR practitioners to sought-after strategic planners. Today, effective communicators not only need to know what to do and why, they also need to know how to evaluate the effectiveness of the chosen approach.
It’s such an exciting time for public relations. The landscape of the profession is rapidly changing and new methods and tactics are emerging. It is shedding its past approach from disseminating information to a focus on promoting engagement, identifying influencers and developing brand advocates. But the basic principles for excellence in effective PR still apply: strategy, creativity, integrity and follow through.
The guy who hired me to do PR for AT&T was a former newspaper editor. Like his peers at most companies, he only hired ex-journalists. I had a degree in broadcasting and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was kind of an experiment foisted on him by people higher up the food chain. For the next couple of decades, nearly all the new hires had some broadcasting background. Not because I had been such a roaring success, but because everyone was convinced that most people were getting their news from television.
Then the Internet changed everything. The new hires might not know how to spell, much less how to write, but they knew HTML and Java. Eventually, I was doing whatever hiring we could afford and I came to the conclusion that writing skills were the cost of entry and a leading indicator of basic intelligence. Beyond that, what technical skills people had was less important than their character. That’s even truer today.
Higher immigration rates are changing the demography of developed countries and globalization is spurring the growth of new middle classes in emerging markets. While PR used to be all about publicity and advocacy, its highest role today is helping companies make business decisions in a sound context. In philosophical terms, PR today is less about rhetoric and politics than about ethics. Less about explaining and winning permission for proposed actions than helping choose and shape the actions themselves, based on a clear understanding of the people they affect.
Now, to many people, “ethical public relations” sounds like an oxymoron along the lines of “jumbo shrimp.” But if the experiences of some of our leading institutions — secular and religious — have taught us anything in the last few years, it’s that large organizations can easily lose any meaningful connection with the ethical principles they espouse. Companies are just as vulnerable.
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