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How to nail your career in 2013: words from the wise

Are you ready to nail it in 2013?

Nail what, you ask? Well, everything. Health and fitness, finances, career.

I’m sure you already have your gym membership sorted, and have paid off your Christmas credit card (yeah right!).

So, onto career. Well, luckily for you, I have consulted the experts on that front.

Since I’ve shared lots of my own career advice here on the blog, I asked some of the stars I work with at Buchan about how they’ve succeeded in their careers to date. These are my mates who have done the hard yards in PR agencies, and now lead awesome teams that do great work.  They also have some spot-on advice for climbing the ladder the right way.

Sara Blasing, Head of Technology (and a former Microsoft account lead for Waggener Edstrom over in Portland and Seattle).

  • Unite as a collaborative leadership group – this counts at all levels. Find your peer group (create one if it doesn’t exist) and work together to proactively manage and solve problems you see at your organisation.
  • Know how to achieve results through others – this is a common mistake of many middle managers in our profession – they become control freaks and don’t trust anyone under them to do the job as good as them. The best managers empower their direct reports to succeed and do the work they want them to, how they need it to be done.
  • Communicate – up/down/sideways. Make sure you always let people know what is going on. This helps build trust in your and your works and helps you avoid being on the defense to micro managers.
  • Tend to the weeds – Details are important. Dot your I’s and cross your T’s and always follow through with your superiors.
  • Don’t be a whiner – One of the most destructive people in an organization is the whiner. Whiners aren’t necessarily public with their complaints. They don’t stand up in meetings and articulate everything they think is wrong with the company. Instead, they move through the organization, speaking privately, sowing doubt, strangling passion. Constructive criticism is healthy, but relentless complaining is toxic. Don’t be one of these people rather be the one that identify these people and replaces them.
  • Work hard, play hard – remember that we aren’t saving lives here (as David Leahy says, it’s PR not ER). This job is stressful and you are always on call in client service. But know when to make the call and prioritise your personal life/play over work or you will burn out.
  • Be ambitious (or maybe better said as “proactive”) – you need to be a person/culture that supports big steps and powerful beliefs. Always participate, have a point of viewand raise your hand.  Proactively identify solutions and up-level appropriately
  • Take the long view – If your culture is dependent on this quarter’s earnings or this month’s sales targets, then it is handicapped by short-term thinking. We tend to overestimate what we can do in a year, but underestimate what we can do in five years. The culture needs to look ahead, not just in months but in years and even decades.

Kyahn Williamson, Account Director, Investor Communication

  • Your internal profile is just as important as your external profile – don’t always prioritise client work over internal initiatives.
  • Don’t wait to be given the responsibility or opportunity – step up and take on new tasks – no matter how small, without waiting to be asked to by your manager or client
  • Service is paramount – at the end of the day clients are buying people – your technical skills might be second to none, but if you can’t deliver that with excellent and consistent service and reliability, and get your client to understand the journey you’re taking them on, they won’t value the work you do – or the results you get as highly. Or as Tom Buchan would put it: you’ve got to have the theatre.
  • No one likes surprises,  so don’t sugar coat things – our job in PR is not only to ‘sell in a story’ or get great media coverage – we need to understand the risks associated with the work we do, and prepare our client adequately.

David Leahy, Account Director, Healthcare 

  • Never turn down a meeting: Whether it be with a recruiter, another agency or a client. You never know where these people will end up, where your career may take you or where your paths may cross again.
  • Be a decent human being: This may sound obvious. However, our industry encourages a lot of high-achieving, smart, career-driven people to join it. As a by-product they can often be driven to the point of being difficult. So by being approachable, relaxed and generally a decent egg to deal with, you’ll stand out.

PR not ER

Thanks Ky, Blaze and David for being generous with your wisdom!

 

Show, don’t tell: why PR is like a good pick-up line

Journalists reserve a special dislike for media releases that begin ‘Company X, the world’s leading developer of innovative business solutions, today announced … (a boring product launch)’.

I don’t know how it became accepted practice to stick self-serving jargon in the most important part of a release. I also don’t know how the Kardashians have become a touchstone for popular culture. Some things just remain a mystery.

The self-serving company summary is just one of many painful ways that we PR people annoy the media. What, they don’t love corporate crap designed to heap praise on the company producing it? No way!

Sure, I’ve had to be a party to this plenty of times; there is an enduring belief among corporate leaders that any award they win requires a media release to share that news.

But the kind of PR I like doing, and the shit that works? That’s based on demonstrating expertise, not crowing about the fact you have it.

For professional services companies – which is mainly who I work with – this is crucial. They don’t have a product that you can touch or feel, so they need to prove their smarts. But no matter what industry you work in, nobody likes a show-off.

A lawyer, for example, needs to be provide useful and practical insights into a legal issue affecting their client base. A financial adviser needs to explain tricky financial issues. A recruiter needs to provide advice on the best hiring practices. And so on.

Where good PR practitioners add value is in helping to tease out what those issues are. What are clients constantly asking them? What regulatory changes have just come into effect? What is a hot topic in the business media?

If this sounds obvious to you, then you’re probably doing it right. Unfortunately, there are plenty of companies who think the best way to tell you how awesome they are, is to tell you how awesome they are. These ‘leading’, ‘world-class’, ‘cutting-edge’ companies can make a PR person’s life kinda hard.

It’s weird, because they probably wouldn’t do it in real life and expect it to work. If I was at a bar, and a guy in a suit started telling me how he is the best in his industry, the best in his sports team or the best at anything else, I’d call him out on being a wanker and walk away. (Come to think about it, I have done that in my time).

Is it any wonder then that news journalists do the same to companies?

Quality content, not blustery self-aggrandisement, is the key to not only landing media coverage, but to having an audience really listen to your message.

Our challenge, on the PR frontline, is to convince corporate decision-makers of this fact – something we can really only do by developing and landing quality stories. In other words, showing not telling.

5 Ways to Pick Your PR Battles

“You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em”

I am that person: singing every word to The Gambler at the end of a party, at the top of my voice. That’s just how I roll. 

But hey, Kenny Rogers had some important advice in that song. Sometimes you need to hold your ground; other times it just isn’t worth the battle.

PR is no different. You’re going to write stuff that people change. You’re going to give advice that people ignore. You’re going to get input that is just downright stupid.

Knowing when to ‘fold ’em’ can be tricky. How do you decide when it’s time to concede the point or to stand your ground?

You have to make a judgement call each time, but here are some questions to consider:

  1. Is it strategic or tactical? Sometimes the issue at stake is about the broader strategy, which is tied back to your business objective. So,  will a change in strategy will affect the final outcome? For example, will pushing back the distribution of a media release by a week impact the final outcome? If it’s tied to an external time trigger, it will. But if it’s just your own timetable, then hell, a week won’t matter. Think about the end point, not the nitty gritty of execution.
  2. Whose reputation is on the line? When clients ask you to do something lame like stick an obvious sales pitch into the middle of a media release, sometimes you can sneak it in and hope nobody reads it. But if it happens all the time, and your name is on that release, it damages your brand as well. Same goes for other shit that journalists hate, like sending releases to someone when you know it’s not their beat, just because the client wants you too. Or spamming the entire media sector, just because your client wants ‘wide distribution’. You need to educate the client about professional standards in the industry you work in.
  3. Do you believe in the ‘essential rightness’ of your advice? A.T. Kearney, a founding father of management consulting, said “Our success as consultants will depend upon the essential rightness of the advice we give and our capacity for convincing those in authority that it is good”. If you can state your case clearly and show the thinking behind it, then you have a better chance of influencing decision-makers.
  4. Have you really explained the issue? I am often surprised about the complete lack of understanding that non-PR people have about what we do. Stuff that seems obvious to me is a revelation to the client – even savvy and experienced business people. Assume that people have no idea about what you do or how you do it, and take them right through your process of thinking and execution.
  5. What does your gut say? I’ll always wonder what went on in the James Hardie offices the day its leaders approved a media release which was, in effect, a big ol’ lie. It said the company had enough money to pay out asbestos victims, when it didn’t. And a lot of smart, experienced people approved the media release that got them dragged over the coals in court. Didn’t alarm bells go off for any of them? Did anyone think, ‘hmm, this doesn’t sound right’. If they did, they kept it to themselves. The result was a lot of successful people ended up with their reputation in tatters. It’s a cautionary tale: if someone asks you to do something that doesn’t feel right in your gut, don’t do it.

And if it all seems too hard, I can recommend a good dose of country music to help you clear your head.

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Five Tips for Managing a Crisis

The thing about a ‘crisis’ is that it can mean different things to different people. It’s a minor crisis when I run out of coffee at home.

However it comes, a corporate crisis generally becomes the PR person’s problem. It doesn’t matter who or what caused it, it’s your job to deal with it.

Fortunately, a lot of the smaller-scale crises I’ve dealt with in my time never make it into the public arena. The holding statement never comes out of the top right hand drawer – but the CEO sleeps a bit better at night knowing it’s there.

Late last year I worked on a nursing home fire that sadly killed 11 people; that was a crisis of a different order. From the moment I arrived on the ground to a maelstrom of ambulances and fire engines, it took all of my experience and presence of mind to provide advice to our team and our client.

There is no secret formula for crisis management, but the principles I invoked for the fire were the same that I apply to any other issue. Whether it’s a spokesperson going rogue or a major mail-house meltdown, it is important to:

  1. Keep calm. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s actually the most important thing. Whoever the crisis affects tends to get whipped up by emotion and panic. You need to distance yourself from their emotional register if you want to give good advice.
  2. Communicate early and often. This doesn’t always mean talking to media; it means communicating with the people who are affected by the crisis. Be upfront; try to anticipate their questions or concerns, then answer them. And do it as soon as you have the facts – don’t wait til it’s leaked.
  3. Prioritise your stakeholders. The media is generally not your most important stakeholder – it’s more likely customers, clients or employees. Focus on solving the problem for them before you start writing your media statement or worrying about journalists stalking you.
  4. Be clear on approval processes. Assume that every man and his dog wants to see your media statement, and work back from there. Ideally, you would have this process set out somewhere in a document, but in reality … probably not. Try and get agreement in writing: an email saying ‘X, Y and Z will need to approve all materials’.
  5. Choose your spokesperson carefully. A CEO may not always be the best spokesperson; consider who knows the detail, has media training and comes across well. It can actually backfire if you put up a spokesperson who is remote from the detail, as they can get tripped up in interview.

 

Most of all, keep some perspective. Take a step back, breathe deeply and think about that big glass of red wine you’re going to be having at the end of the day.

 

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Is your writing more like a sonnet or a striptease?

Information Architecture. That’s what I would have called a ‘beginning, a middle and an end’ when I was learning to write stories at primary school. Now, someone has given it a fancy name. (That’s what happens when corporate people get involved.)

But it’s a useful way to think about how we structure information if we are trying to sell a story or an idea.

The order of information – and the way it looks on a page – has a big impact on how well we take it in. But do you give it a lot of thought?

When it comes to writing, we have to start with the premise that people don’t like reading – well, maybe they like reading Booker prize-winning novels, or they like reading Fifty Shades of Grey. They are less excited to read media releases, research reports, discussion papers or any of the countless materials that PR people spend their lives writing.

I read an article recently that said radio listeners will give a song 8 seconds to decide if they like it before flicking the dial. Listeners, readers, viewers – they are much the same. If you don’t give them a reason to stay, they’ll leave you.

I was taught to structure a media release so that if you only read the first paragraph, you’d still know the whole story. Actually, you should know it from the headline.

Being taught to write media releases by an ex-journalist, our releases read like newspaper stories. If you think about how we consume newspapers, we skim the majority of information and deep dive into a couple of pieces.

Most people are taught to write the opposite way at school and university. They feel like the reader should have a little teaser upfront, then stick faithfully with them until they reveal something wonderful at the end of the piece.

Sadly, most corporate writing lacks the poetry of a Shakespearean sonnet, so the reader will not stick it out until the clever and whimsical turn in the last two lines.

They key is put it all out there at the beginning. It’s like the opposite of a strip tease: start with everything on show. Make your point quickly, then explain and elaborate. Break up long pieces of text into paragraphs. What the hell, throw in some bold words if you like! Crack out some text boxes, insert a little SmartArt – whatever you can do to jazz up the page and keep the reader with you. Maybe go easy on the old-school ClipArt though…

And of course, keep your language simple and clear. Good information architecture is wasted if your building blocks are long and tortured sentences filled with jargon.

Structure isn’t that difficult to get right, and yet it’s not always given a lot of thought. It helps to approach it from the point of view of the reader. What is the most important piece of information that reader needs to take away? Then work back from there.

5 Ways to Simplify Your Writing

When I was hanging out in the English department at university, big words were all the rage. The cynic in me says that academics use long and fancy words to keep some distance between them and the  the riff-raff. The less cynical side of me says that big words are fun, and if you have an audience who can appreciate and understand them, then why the hell not use them?

Some of the words I was fond of in my thesis-writing time were ‘conflate’, ‘inextricable’, and ‘valorise’. The latter one I remember arguing about with my dad, who was adamant that it wasn’t a real word. But he also didn’t know who Foucault was, so he was clearly an intellectual inferior – law degree or not.

The past decade I’ve spent in PR has wiped all such frippery from my writing. I remember one of the first media releases I read being rife with cliche – ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ for example – and it got a great run in the papers. In fact, I soon realised that the quotes a journalist lifts from a media release are indeed replete with cliche and colloquialisms.

So when I listened to a lecture by an philosophy academic the other day, it was like entering another world: a verbose world paved by lexical meanderings. He used words like ‘discourse’ – a sure sign of someone steeped in postmodern theory.

On one hand, I was tut-tutting at his obvious intellectual posturing, and on the other, I revelled in the fun of it all. ‘Ah, it’s nice to have a bit of a lark in the world of academic English’.

And then? I got bored.

I listen to a lot of pretty serious lectures on my iPod, from economic theory through to cosmology, and I enjoy the majority of them. But this guy was snoresville. I ditched him for some Shane Nicholson after about 10 minutes.

Which is all a really long introduction to my big question: when does simplifying language veer into dumbing it down? How do we draw a line between enjoying articulate and imaginative language, and sounding like a tosser?

I suspect it’s a very tricky thing. And just like in The Castle, it comes down to ‘the vibe’ of it all. If a piece of sophisticated writing makes you want to keep reading, then it has worn its learning lightly.

Good science writers exemplify this – yesterday I read a fantastic piece comparing our financial systems to biological systems, and I didn’t feel at all put off by the fact it was written by a theoretical physicist.

By contrast, poor writers can twist even simple words into confusing and painful sentences; unfortunately, a lot of these writers seem to draft the media releases of the world.

But I can always tell if someone hasn’t understood what they are writing about, because it comes through in their poor expression (which makes life a little hard for my team sometimes).

So, here are some tips for simplifying your writing (without dumbing it down):

  1. Be ruthless: you can always find more words to chop out, so make sure you edit your work at least once, ideally twice or three times.
  2. Read aloud: if your sentences are long and tortured, you’ll find out when you try and say them.
  3. Be honest: is this really your best draft, or just the one you’ve done to get it off your to-do list?
  4. Take the ‘mum’ test: if your mum read this, would she understand what it’s about? This is particularly relevant to technical topics – does it sound like a TED talk, or a textbook?
  5. Ask questions: if you don’t understand the content, you need to push your topic expert until you do. Bust their jargon and unpack their robot-speak until you know what every word means, and can translate and explain each one.

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And find me on Twitter – @bowhite 

Collateral damage in the decline of newspapers

The death of newspapers is, strangely, a favourite topic for newspapers. They seem to have a morbid fascination with predicting their own demise.

Last week, I read a story about how Fairfax is reshaping its editorial team in light of massive budget cuts, which mentioned in passing that a new KPI is being considered for its journalists: web traffic.

Makes sense right? As we increasingly go online for our news sources, journalists need to create compelling content. So why shouldn’t they be judged on how many readers click on their articles?

But the problem is, people are stupid and lazy. All of us, I mean. How many times have you sat down to do something useful (write a blog post, for example) and found yourself checking Facebook? This week, I sat down to read the business section of the newspaper, and someone had left a copy of OK! magazine on the table at work. Somehow I got sucked into a vortex of J Lo and her toy boy, instead of Labor and its economic forum. Oops!

Basically, we love shit that’s not really good for us. So when we go online, we’re attracted to silly stories the way we’re attracted to fries on a menu. No, I don’t want that lame salad with my steak! I want greasy, carby goodness.

And I don’t want to read about the complexities of offshore asylum seeker processing, I want to read about who will win The Voice; a giant snail found by hikers; and a new MasterChef restaurant. Because those are three of the most-read stories on the Sydney Morning Herald website right now.

I read a lot of nerdy stuff – I can’t go past a good economic analysis for instance – but I’m at the nerdy end of the statistical spectrum. I also read a fair chunk of crap (discussing the J Lo piece, I was able to cite three older female celebs with much younger boyfriends, it turns out). So it’s important that the news presents both types of information.

I really worry about an editorial policy shaped by what people want to know, not what they need to know. We want to know about giant snails (who wouldn’t?), but we really need to know which tax reforms are being discussed by various politicians, in case we have to vote for one of them.

We need to know about a bunch of serious stuff, like marginalised groups in the community, miscarriages of justice, sneaky government reforms or any number of topics that affect our lives and the lives of those around us. But it’s so easy to get distracted.

Nor should we underestimate how a ‘link-baited’ news world affects the PR industry. I was on the receiving end of it last week: what I thought was a total non-story morphed into a front page beat-up, replete with myths and misinformation (some of it about a client, unfortunately). But this is the effect of a news agenda driven by sensationalism, not substance. And from a broadsheet newspaper too – not even some tabloid crap.

To some extent we can make this work in our favour – giving our media releases the most strident, dramatic headlines possible; or taking the most negative and alarmist angle we can. But it’s not something I am going to do happily.

News is not always shiny and fun, but it gives meaning and context to our lives. The more we lower the bar on what ‘news’ is, the poorer our understanding of the world we inhabit and our place in it.

So it’s up to us to click on the dull, economic stories! And just like we only order the fries every now and then, let’s try to keep our Kardashian news consumption to an absolute minimum level.

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