To those discouraged by the (apparent) lack of respect for PR, over a 30-year career I've adopted a few simple guides to help maintain a healthy perspective and my self-respect.
The first is, "I'm here to help." Our job is to help other people market or promote (or oppose) their products, their ideas. We create great strategies, creative, and tactics deploying state-of-the-art channels, but not as ends unto themselves. Rarely do PR pros set the objective - and that's the point: When we send a message to clients and the corporate leadership that we're part of the team and not some independent third-party commentator or ombudsman, we build trust and cooperation.
Why is that important? Because too often we are seen as the in-house nag or worrywart. Let us "be for what's going to happen." This favorite expression of a former boss serves to remind me that PR works best when it is seen by the client as serving his or her interests and objectives.
That doesn't mean we should abide unethical or illegal behavior by clients or corporate execs. Rather, this guidepost reminds us that, as PR counselors, our obligation is to find credible solutions. When clients see us trying to help solve their problem instead of distancing ourselves from it by warning of the dire consequences of this or that action, we're on our way to earning a seat at the table.
And how to stay at the table? "Get back inside the box." I once worked for an agency whose mantra seemed to be, "You should hire us because we think outside the box." Yet the most effective PR programs actually reflect its antithesis. Furthermore, clients generally don't get it because, for the most part, they don't think outside the box - that is, not if they want to keep their jobs.
When we studiously build a program to advance our client's objectives - audiences, situation assessment, facts, messages, deadlines, and opposition factors - an effective strategy inevitably presents itself. Time and again, the tactics and creative that emerge from inside-the-box thinking can be as trendy and hip, and effective, as your audience will allow.
How do we maintain that respect? Just remember that "where you stand depends on where you sit." Clients appreciate strategic responsiveness. One of PR's most appealing traits is its practitioners' ability to be nimble and flexible. Product improvements could alter the strategy; a legislative reversal might force a new message. That's where we come in.
Another guide is, "Ask questions instead of rushing to give answers." I used to think clients pay us to provide answers. But the best PR advice comes from asking all the questions necessary to help design effective strategies and programs.
Finally, remember that "it's not about us." This axiom of PR positioning also applies to building and maintaining our industry's reputation. The fact that our business exists to help others doesn't mean we're just along for the ride. When we keep a healthy perspective, exude a team spirit, and exhibit discipline, flexibility, and constant curiosity, we can demonstrate the critical attributes of our profession in a way that prompts others to engage us as peers in the decision-making process.
Tom Goodwin is a veteran of Porter Novelli, Powell Tate, and The Hawthorn Group, all in Washington, DC. He now operates his own firm, Step One Communications.