PRDecoded: 6 ways to build a successful comms career

Senior communications execs from McDonald's, Chevron, and Bechtel shared their advice and personal experiences at the PRWeek Conference in Chicago.

L-R: PRWeek's Gideon Fidelzeid, McDonald's Jano Cabrera, Chevron's Dave Samson, Bechtel's Charlene Wheeless
L-R: PRWeek's Gideon Fidelzeid, McDonald's Jano Cabrera, Chevron's Dave Samson, Bechtel's Charlene Wheeless

CHICAGO: Senior communications executives from McDonald’s, Chevron, and Bechtel discussed personal experiences and crucial skills that communicators need to succeed at the PRWeek Conference in Chicago on Thursday.

Here are their six top tips for a successful comms career, including when to take business personally.

Be able to reinvent yourself
Dave Samson, GM of public affairs at Chevron, said communicators need to constantly pick up skills to stay at the forefront of the profession.

"If you don’t, you will quickly become obsolete," he said.

Business is personal
Charlene Wheeless, principal VP of corporate affairs at Bechtel, explained that she doesn’t believe in the old adage, "It’s not personal; it’s business."

"For the first half of my career as a leader, I used that [line], and then I decided it was a load of crap and just a thing leaders said so when they had to deliver bad news they could hide behind it," she said. "If there are people involved, it’s personal. Period."

She added that she regularly invites coworkers to family parties, and they have a better connection because of that.

"Business is about people," Wheeless said.

Collaborate and convene
Wheeless advised that the most successful people in the industry can bring together elements of a company to create better solutions.

"To be successful, it’s not just about doing our piece of the job," she said.

Love your work
Jano Cabrera, SVP of U.S. comms, global media, and PR at McDonald’s, had advice for attendees that could apply to any industry: love your work.

"We have all been in a situation where you’re doing something and the hours melt away," he said. "You’re so enraptured in what you’re doing, you just love it. Whatever that is for you is what you should pursue with all your vigor."

It’s less about the fumble and more about recovery
Cabrera explained that earlier in his career, when he started working at Burson-Marsteller, he was asked to write an internal memo to the leadership group about the firm’s failings and shortcomings. Only the CEO and CFO were supposed to see the final copy, but he accidentally sent it to a client, as well.

His takeaway: when it comes to mistakes, it is less about the fumble and more about recovery.

"I contacted the people that should have received it, called the client, explained what happened, and fessed up that I did this," said Cabrera. "Sometimes, having a plan and approach helps. I had an uncomfortable conversation with my CEO, but he said I handled this as well as I could have given the circumstances."

Take risks
Wheeless said she’s a risk-taker when it comes to communications, noting, "It’s easier to seek forgiveness than to ask permission."  

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