Diplomacy: the critical skill for PR...and life

Being diplomatic goes beyond just listening and waiting patiently to make a point - both of which are very important when dealing with clients.

Shockingly, nobody asked me to give a commencement speech to graduates this year, but the combination of highlights of graduations around Boston and my constant wistful daydreams of my college days has me thinking about advice for graduates.

In fact, I have realized that while my advice is targeted for those looking for a career in communications, it is actually applicable to graduates of all ages, including those young students heading out of kindergarten into the mean streets of elementary school.

An informal poll of my colleagues and peers puts the ability to write at the top of the list of critical skills in our industry. Gone are the days of using and reusing template press releases and media advisories. Sometimes the thing that will take the most time to draft is an email to a client with recommendations on a strategy or a 140-character tweet on behalf of an organization you represent. Another one at the top of my list of critical skills is the ability to multi-task.

But whether male or female, young or old, if you are employed by any professional services agency, you are likely working with more than one client, and that means that at any moment you could receive a call, email, tweet, text, or even fax (yes, we have clients that still fax) from someone on a wholly unrelated but nevertheless pressing subject. So if you have trouble seamlessly switching between topics like food banks to disproportionate-share hospital payments (my life) then you may want to work on how to adapt to this kind of an environment – or perhaps choose another field of work.

This leads me to the one skill that I feel is entirely absent from the endless number of professional development articles and tips that I have read through the years; a skill I truly use every day: diplomacy. It also happens to be a skill that once developed has tremendous value in your personal life – i.e. the ability to give patient and thoughtful advice to a friend or partner or how to reason with your landlord about why it is his or her responsibility to actually fix that drafty window and not mask the problem with duct tape.

If the word diplomacy sounds fancy to you and invokes pictures of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her cool shades flying around the world, then that is a good thing because it makes it that much more of a rare and prized skill. Being diplomatic goes beyond just listening and waiting patiently to make a point – both of which are very important when dealing with clients. My view is that, simply put, diplomacy is about trying to understand why someone is saying or acting in a certain way and then being sensitive to that in how you respond. For example, when I first started working at our firm, we had one client who had some unrealistic expectations as to how her organization should be covered by the media. This is not uncommon in our world, and while it should have been obvious to her why they weren't a candidate for front page news every week, it wasn't. It required a lot of time and energy be spent educating her on the reality of what could and couldn't be accomplished. Through this exercise and countless others, I have put together a list of what I have found to be a few helpful tips in mastering diplomacy:

  • Patience is a virtue. Take a deep breath and let someone have his say and make his point. Despite not agreeing with our client on her expectations, it is our job to listen and then be responsive to her needs. Ultimately, she confided that she was getting pressure from board members to have more front-page stories and thus that pressure was pushed down to us.
  • Facts are your friend. Be prepared to show evidence to support your point of view. In the case mentioned above, we provided our client with a list of stories on the front-page of the Boston Globe and New York Times over the course of a month with a summary of why the news was news. Not only did this demonstrate how seriously we were taking her issue, it provided us with tangible evidence of what we were competing with to get on the front page and gave her a different perspective on the situation. She could also forward the research to interested board members.
  • Composure is key. You may be completely frustrated, stressed, or annoyed but it helps if you wear a smile even when you want to scream. There are studies that support this.
  • Manage your own expectations. Sometimes you will give your best advice and still be asked to do the complete opposite. My boss has a saying, “You pay us to give you our best, unfiltered advice, but in the end you are the client, and we will do what you tell us to.”
  • Memorize the following phrases. Said with a smile of course:

    o   “I understand why you are thinking or feeling that way, but it is worth playing devil's advocate for a moment.”

    o   “You raise a really good point, I had been thinking about it differently or from the perspective of...”

    o   “Have you thought about this approach?”

So whether you are a first grader with your sights set on the State Department or the White House, or a recent graduate looking to score that first job at a PR or advertising agency, a little diplomacy can go a long way in establishing and keeping strong relationships with your clients, not to mention negotiating a lower rent.

Melissa Monahan is SVP at Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications

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