Thinkpiece: Being proactive requires more than just saying the word - you need to learn what it means first

The other day I caught myself writing the words ’be proactive.’ I hated myself for it, but wrote them anyway, and I’ve been sick about it ever since. What does proactive really mean? And whatever it means, can’t it be said more vividly?

The other day I caught myself writing the words ’be proactive.’ I hated myself for it, but wrote them anyway, and I’ve been sick about it ever since. What does proactive really mean? And whatever it means, can’t it be said more vividly?

The other day I caught myself writing the words ’be proactive.’ I

hated myself for it, but wrote them anyway, and I’ve been sick about it

ever since. What does proactive really mean? And whatever it means,

can’t it be said more vividly?



William Safire claims the word emerged from the corridors of the

FBI.



Resulting crimes against good usage have gone unpunished, however, so

the rest of us must police ourselves. Whenever tempted to write

’proactive’ we should pause, figure out exactly what we want to say, and

find a less hackneyed way to say it.



Even if being proactive implies nothing more than anticipating

opportunities and seizing them, it leaves much unsaid. In his days at

Princeton and in the NBA, Bill Bradley was a dogged dynamo of

proactivity. He was the kind of player who could think two or three

plays ahead, intuiting where the ball would end up, and out-maneuver

faster opponents to receive it.



This ability is certainly possible in PR, and it can be learned if we

think differently about that challenge. Being proactive, properly

understood, is no more a matter of clairvoyance than was Bradley’s knack

for sinking shots with his back to the basket. The presidential hopeful

practiced his skills with a tenacity that puts to shame many other

athletes, not to mention communications professionals. That’s what made

him a great basketball player.



PR practitioners like to speak of the need to know their clients’

business better than the clients know it themselves. That, too, is

easier said than done, but it’s not an unattainable goal, if it, too, is

carefully defined.



Knowing the client’s business, in an important sense, merely requires

you to apply a degree of intellectual rigor for which the client,

enmeshed in day-to-day operations, has neither the time nor inclination.

These habits of mind that will enable you to view your clients and their

work differently can also be learned. When you do that, you find that

you can discern emerging patterns of corporate life, consumer behavior

and business journalism - ’trends,’ to fall back on another word used

too loosely in our business - that help you position your clients more

powerfully.



But that requires you to get out of your rut, casting off old ways of

thinking - and old ways of disguising the fact that you haven’t been

thinking at all. The use of tired phrases like ’be proactive’ is a

pretty good indicator that the brain has already shut down. And when

that happens, it isn’t possible to be proactive at all.



- Alan Pell Crawford, a former Adweek columnist, is senior counselor

with Martin Public Relations in Richmond, VA.



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