Oct 2

Shoeshines and subpoenas: Comm advice from the professionals

 When two companies decided to partner on trade show booths at several annual conferences, a marketing friend of mine remembers being less than confident with the idea: setting up a shoeshine stand.

He shared that he was shocked at how much space the shoeshine stand gobbled up inside their booth at the first conference, which was for airport and stadium managers. My friend’s company sold water conservation technology while the partner’s product related to hygiene. Skeptical, my friend wondered, how did this connect with shoeshines?

But he was amazed when the exhibit floor opened and his partner company began inviting people to have their shoes shined. The process took 10-15 minutes, allowing the shiner and shinee to get to know one another. When the conversation eventually came around to “when can I come to your venue and meet your facilities manager?” it led to an invitation – every time.

My friend shared this anecdote as one of the ah-ha moments he had in his communications career in response to an email I sent out to a close circle of colleagues asking for advice. I had been asked to speak to a capstone communications class at Grand Valley State University about the realities of the PR world, my career path and job hunting. So why not crowdsource my comments?

I had hoped to come up with a Top 10 list to share with the students, so was overwhelmed when I received more nearly 100 pieces of advice, lightbulb moments and cautionary tales. Several colleagues created their own Top 10 lists and passed them along. Some moments were light-hearted, while others were stomach-dropping.

I narrowed it down to 25, which I shared with the seniors on Wednesday. They were an attentive group who actually took notes when I got around to talking about the hiring process. They asked some insightful questions, too. I pared my lists with a few anecdotes and, in those 40 minutes, fell in love with my profession all over again.

The advice continued to pour in even after I was back from class. I thought it would be worthwhile to share my list in this week’s blog:

  1. In communications, the classroom is just a catalyst to gain experience. You won’t be successful in communications or PR if you just show up for class and pass exams. You need to get out in the field and get involved. Whether through an internship, job shadow or starting something new.
  2. PR is more than Public Relations, it’s Personal Relationships (PR). Nothing builds relations quicker than understanding where a person is coming from than to ask questions and give them what they might want.
  3. Inverted Pyramid isn’t just a writing exercise. Learning how to think in those terms will help you prioritize. Quickly identifying who. what, when, where, why and how will come in handy. And knowing what’s not really that important is key when you need to cut copy.  And you will need to cut copy as attention spans shrink.  Copy editing is MUCH of what you will do to help others who just don’t have that skill.
  4. In school, you want to show off your impressive vocabulary, In the real world, no one really cares. Making a document easy-to-read is hard work.  But much of your audience has a low-literacy level and will need it.  And even the most educated person will appreciate something that written in simple terms. Yes, writing at a six-grade level is a good idea.  The Flesch–Kincaid readability tests can be your friends.
  5. In college, a lot of practices are done in B2C scenarios using big name brands such a Coke, Pepsi, P&G, etc. In my experience, many of our day-to-day tasks focus on B2B communication and even marketing. I think it’s something that’s widely overlooked in programs. B2B, as we all know, takes on a very different tone, not to mention tactics and channels.
  6. Failure is inevitable – learn to embrace it, own it and rock it
  7. There are no individual grades. PR/Marketing/Comm. is certainly a team effort – take the blame, share the credit.
  8. One of the biggest lessons I have learned post-college is to present a solution when notifying someone of a problem. In college, I relied a lot on my professors giving me the answer or talking me through an answer when I had a question. I didn’t have to do any heavy lifting. After college, I quickly learned that there is no manager who likes when you just deliver a problem to them. I’ve learned to think through the issue, come up with options or a recommendation and a plan of action before notifying my manager of the problem. Bonus: you’ll stick out (in a good way) among peers who don’t do this.
  9. For me it was realizing that work would no longer just be assigned to me but I had to seek out opportunities I wanted to be a part of and look for ways to add value. My boss once told me it’s not enough to ask your supervisor if there is anything you can help with; instead, identify how you can provide value and offer to contribute with a task. By doing this, you not only take the work of coming up with something off your supervisor, but you’re taking on work that will help you grow.
  10. Audience, audience, audience. Although there were some courses where the importance of audience was emphasized, often the audience was just academia. (Who else cares about Giambatista Vico’s response to the Cartesian method, for example.)  In the real world, audience is everything.
  11. Backbone, backbone, backbone. When I started at my current employer, I was pretty thin-skinned. I strove for perfection, and I was used to being considered a strong communicator. When I was in college (with the exception of one amazing professor), I rarely received edits or suggestions for improvement. Here, decisions are often made by committee, and every member has an opinion. Seeing all of those tracked changes and edits can be deflating. But try not to be defensive or take feedback personally.  Instead, believe in your skills and be open-minded. Take the recommendations that strengthen a piece and learn from them.
  12. Studying crisis communication in college classes does not prepare you for the adrenaline experienced when going through a crisis. In that moment, you realize how quickly 60 seconds disappear, and you understand the importance of getting out there first and controlling the message.
  13. Always be open to learning something new. The world is changing. The industry is changing. Pay attention to the trends, but don’t compromise the fundamentals. Fundamentals never change.
  14. One communication is never enough!
  15. Good PR or marketing is based on a depth of understanding of the market, competition, trends and perception – and it’s more difficult to really know that, than you might think.
  16. The world of marketing/advertising/PR/communications is shrinking. Where they once were siloed, the delineation between practices is shrinking. This is OK because it’s leading to greater integration between communication channels. However, it presents a challenge because it calls on practitioners to be a jack of all trades.  Unless you are working for a large organization, be prepared to wear many hats.
  17. At least in the business school, there was a lot of time spent on theory and strategy of marketing, which is extremely important. They teach you to be the CEO or CMO. However, this is not realistic for right out of college. Beyond theory, you need to understand tactics. Learn Adobe Creative Suite, familiarize yourself with Mailchimp and Constant Contact, build a WordPress website. Having the technical knowledge to execute a campaign is crucial.
  18. Don’t leave at 5 p.m. You have to put your time in when you begin your career and sometimes that means working late. Your supervisor is going to notice — and be impressed — if you are putting in extra time to make an impact on the company. That being said, don’t be a martyr and stay late just for the sake of being the one who works the most. (They say millennials are killing vacation time.) Overwork can lead to poor output.
  19. Networking is the most overused buzzword, but you really don’t realize how important it is until you graduate. Everything surrounds on the network of people you know. Join AMA, PRSA or other clubs and get off campus. Go to meetings and talk to people — and be genuine when you do.
  20. The client is always right…Except sometimes you have to tell a client no, or try to talk them out of a bad idea. It can be difficult, and very awkward. They might not listen. You might decide to stop working with them, especially if it’s ethically or legally slippery. Other times, you hold your nose and do the not-smart thing they want to do even though you don’t agree. You can’t learn the awkwardness and stress of that situation in a classroom until it happens when your livelihood is on the line.
  21. Be very, very careful with what you write in e-mails and texts — and on social. They can and will come back to haunt you, sometimes years after the fact. I once said something snarky to a person at Company X about Company Y. Yep, months later a person at Company Y repeated it back to me in a loathsome all-knowing way. It was embarrassing and I regretted the lack of professionalism.
  22. Fun fact: You can get subpoenaed! This may happen at some point in your career. Don’t panic, and don’t destroy notes or do a sudden purge of documents or e-mail. Stand still, and consult with legal counsel immediately.
  23. Learn the art of the pivot. Interviews/meetings get tense, you rub someone the wrong way, someone goes down a rabbit hole and gets off topic and wastes time. Can you gracefully yank that situation back onto the right track with a thoughtful question, a flawless topic switch or a clever joke that diffuses the tension?
  24. A promise is a promise. Keep it.  Whether it’s an employer or a journalist… keep it.  This builds trust and that is lasting.
  25. You know those classmates that you hate being partnered with on group projects because they do none of the work and still get the A? Don’t worry. The real world won’t be as kind to them.
  26. Worry more about impressing yourself than you are at impressing others. Make sure you are proud of your work, if you expect others to be.
  27. Once you have your first big media clip or communication, and you really see how it impacts your client or the community, it makes you realize that you’re doing it – it’s making a difference.
  28. Always tell the truth. And try to do a little more than what’s expected.

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