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
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
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
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.