Trio of traits will help new PR pros tell their story

In the 1956 movie The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, Gregory Peck returns a hero from World War II to a job that does not pay enough.

In the 1956 movie The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, Gregory Peck returns a hero from World War II to a job that does not pay enough. His friend suggests a job in PR, but Peck demurs, "I don't know anything about public relations." The friend replies, "What do you need to know? You got a clean shirt and you bathe every day. That's all there is to it."

Back then, there was a lot of truth in that scene. And although it might still be a career plus to look like a young Gregory Peck or Elizabeth Taylor, it's not what modern employers are looking for in people entering the PR profession or moving up in it. Today, the desired template comprises three parts: substance, strategic communications skills, and character. That was so in 2005, when we founded the graduate program in PR at New York University. It is still true today.

  • Substance. A great word meaning the real stuff. If an up-and-coming PR pro has it, he or she understands the particular field, be it entertainment, technology, or healthcare.

I gained most of my experience in healthcare PR and it is true that its best communications people have the deepest knowledge of the field. They know the difference between a gene and a protein, what scientists mean when they say "genetic code," and they know who broke it. They know personally the most influential journalists for the major traditional and online media. That is the only way they gain credibility with the scientists and physicians they rely on to do their jobs.

The best PR people in any specialty have a world view, as well as a broad understanding of current events and history. Similarly, top and rising PR stars understand business. In fact, it is business education that we in the university programs are focusing on more and more - and that is because employers are demanding business acumen.

  • Strategic communications skills. If I had to pick one word instead of those three it would be writing. That's because, as William Zinsser, the writing guru, says, "Clear writing reflects clear thinking," and one cannot exist without the other. Of course, we must be able to speak well, persuade, produce compelling white papers, institutional ads, tweets, blog postings, and so on. Accordingly, NYU has added a required social media course and we include social media in all courses. But at the core, good communication is good writing.

Within this second category of strategic communications it is becoming increasingly vital to be able to define what we do; otherwise, how can we sell it? How about this: PR is the management of communication and relationships between an organization and its public, usually through uncontrolled media and with the goal of gaining third-party support. Use another definition if you like, but believe in it.

  • Character. PR pros who have it possess a commitment to meet deadlines and carry out all tactics meticulously. They will have good teamwork and are gracious in victory and defeat. They know that ethics are normative - that a value that governs the law, for instance, does not govern PR. So although everyone has a right to legal counsel, we in PR can say no to the bad guys. Perhaps we should do so more often. Most important, PR pros with character know and follow our normative code. They know we cannot lie. As Moses might say: "It's even a commandment."

So, how did Moses enter into this? Well, as it turns out, he was a big part of PR history, a knowledge of which can help all of us improve in the areas of substance, strategic communications skills, and character. He freed the Hebrews from slavery, formed a great PR team with his more loquacious brother Aaron, and devised a communications plan and strategy so powerful that the Hebrews followed him through the desert for 40 years. And his legacy - The Ten Commandments, the world's first values statement - formed the bedrock for three of the world's great religions. There must be lessons in that for us all.

John Doorley is academic director and clinical assistant professor of PR and corporate communication at New York University. Prior to NYU, he headed corporate communications at Merck for 12 years. He also co-authored Reputation Management: The Key to Successful Public Relations and Corporate Communications (Taylor & Francis Group, 2007) with Helio Fred Garcia.

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