In this episode, we discuss:
- How to add to the tools in your communications toolkit
- The importance of a strategic mindset
- The real power of public relations
- How you can avoid becoming a PR short order cook
- How you can benefit from the ‘Better PR Now’ podcast series
“I want to help PR professionals have the tools to help organizations make informed, smart decisions and bring their public relations expertise into that decision-making process.”
“Public relations, when practiced strategically and ethically, has huge potential to make a very positive impact on every type of organization and its publics.”
“If you have a strategically minded PR professional at the table when decisions are being made, they can help an organization avoid creating a crisis or … friction with their publics.”
“Public relations, when practiced appropriately, is a strategic function of the organization.”
“PR has the power to be a sensory system, to help the organization detect when its environment is changing, and how it can best adapt to those changes so it can thrive.”
“An organization should rely on its PR function to provide strategic intelligence about how it’s existing in its environment, how decisions on the part of the organization are going to affect its key stakeholders, and how they’re likely to react.”
“PR is not about just broadcasting; it’s about identifying, creating, and nurturing really important relationships that are absolutely critical for the organization to be able to survive and thrive.”
“Public relations can help once you are in a crisis, but the real value is it can help avoid creating a crisis.”
“Take care of your people, because they’re the ones who get the job done and you cannot do it without them.”
“Focus on your craft at a tactical level, but also … develop the mind of a strategist, so you think about issues strategically and are able to provide long-term visionary counsel.”
“Keep an eye out for new opportunities, but also be able to focus your energy on the things that are most important to your practice and your organization.”
Hello, and welcome to the ‘Better PR Now’ podcast, Episode Zero. You might be wondering what is an episode zero; well, in a nutshell it’s a short introduction. And it is one in which we explore what this podcast is about, why I’m doing it, and most importantly what you can gain from coming on this journey with me.
In most episodes I’ll interview leading experts as they share their knowledge and insights that can help each of us become a more effective communicator. This episode is different however, as Dr. Gwen Schiada (founder of CareerPuppy.com) interviews me about creating this podcast. So why should you listen? Well, in the next 27 minutes we’ll discuss how to put more tools in your toolkit, the importance of having a strategic mindset, the awesome power of public relations, how to avoid becoming a PR short-order cook (I’ll explain what I mean by that), and how you can benefit from this podcast series. There’s a lot of great information here and I really look forward to going on this journey with you, so let’s jump in!
Gwen: Mark, as you are launching Better PR Now, I want to get a sense of your motivations behind this and learn a little bit more about you. How would you describe your podcast? I know this is tough, but in six words or less, how would you describe Better PR Now?
Mark: Wow that’s really tough, but here goes: Better PR Now is about “Helping communicators by sharing professional knowledge.”
Gwen: Did you practice that in advance?
Mark: No, but I did have to think about it, because you want to do so much with a new project like this and when you start describing it, there are so many different pieces to it and you want to include all of that. But I thought at its essence, it really is about trying to help people who are in this community, whether they are practitioners or they’re scholars who are studying the practice and developing theory.
It’s helping them, and part of it is sharing information across those boundaries so that practitioners benefit from what scholars are learning, and scholars also benefit from being engaged with practitioners.
Gwen: So sort of bridging that gap between research and practice in a real applicable way, it sounds like.
Mark: Absolutely, that’s it in a nutshell.
Gwen: So why did you decide to do this? Did you see that nobody else was doing it? It’s sort of ironic, when you think about PR, that there aren’t more podcasts out there on PR. What made you decide that there was a need for this?
Mark: There are several reasons. At the most superficial level, I wanted to benefit from it. I listen to a ton of podcasts and there really is a wide range of podcasts available from marketing, business, and the startup community on a variety of subjects. But I could not find much of what I was looking for, specifically about public relations. And I spend so much time either in the car or out with the headset on consuming podcasts that it was something I really wanted to hear. And I finally came up with the idea that, if somebody else isn’t doing it, then I’ll just do it and I’ll produce what I would want to hear. So that’s how it got started.
But then there are some more fundamental reasons that I really wanted to do this. I really did want to do this as a service to the community. So I mentioned briefly that there’s sort of this disconnect and it’s not total, but there is a disconnect between the academic side and the practitioner side. They don’t necessarily use the same language or communicate in the same circles. So I wanted to try and help bridge that gap.
There are other things going on that I thought that a podcast like this would provide some value to the community. For example, if you look at the practice of public relations, it’s largely women across-the-board, and it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at for-profit companies, at nonprofits, or in government. The profession is largely populated with women, until you get to the upper levels, to the executive level, where it’s mostly men. So there’s clearly a disconnect, and I wanted to help practitioners, men and women have the tools that they need to be able to climb that ladder and to work their way to the boardroom, where they can help organizations make informed, smart decisions and bring their public relations expertise into that decision-making process.
So that was another reason, and that’s based on the idea that I really do believe that public relations, when it’s practiced strategically and ethically, has a huge potential to make a very positive impact on every type of organization, and an organization’s publics or its stakeholders. But you only are able to benefit from that if the senior practitioner is in the room at the table when decisions – really important decisions – are being made.
Gwen: I love the way that you said that, there was something that you just indicated there almost like PR has a bad rap, or it’s sort of seen in a negative light. And maybe we can come back to that, because I want to talk about why communications and PR is so important. But I’m wondering if sometimes people misunderstand even what it is.
Mark: Absolutely they do. Usually when people talk about public relations, and it’s almost a dirty word, they’re talking about public relation tactics, things you would do, such as media stunts, or press releases, or pitching reporters, and things like that. All of those have gotten a bad reputation, for sometimes very good reasons, as they’re often misused.
But the real tragedy, I think, is that in addition to misusing tactics, frequently there’s no strategy driving those tactics. And I think that’s in part because so many practitioners don’t come to the profession with a background in communications research, and theory. So they don’t have that basic foundation that would help them think about how to approach the topics in a more strategic way. And they don’t necessarily come to the profession with the ability to speak the same language that the Chief Operating Officer (COO), or the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), or the CEOs and the boards are speaking.
That puts practitioners at a disadvantage, and it almost relegates them to being reactive to external demands, where somebody will come in and say, “Hey, we had this new initiative. We need PR to publicize it. We’ve already made this decision and we need you to go communicate it.” Then you’re expected to reach into your bag of tactics and pull out whatever’s relevant, and in many cases what’s being asked for isn’t even relevant. I think in many cases, the public relations practitioners are treated as short order cooks
Gwen: Where you might be solving the short-term crisis, and wanting to get the pat on the back, but overall that may not be in the best interest, if you were able to step back and understand the context and understand your bigger strategy.
Mark: Absolutely. In fact, if you have a strategically minded public relations professional at the table when decisions are being made, you can often help an organization avoid creating a crisis or creating some kind of serious friction with their publics. And frequently that voice is absent when those decisions are being made.
Gwen: It’s more of a preventative approach …
Mark: Absolutely. Public relations, when practiced appropriately, is a strategic function of the organization. And you know in many cases, public relations is relegated to being a tactical thing that supports, say, a marketing initiative, or supports a fundraising initiative, or supports some other part of the organization. And it can do all of that, but that is only part of its potential. Many organizations are not benefiting from a fundamental positive potential that public relations can bring to the organization.
And I think by sharing information from the practitioner community, from senior folks across the practitioner community, as well as from cutting edge research on the academic side in a way that’s conversational and easily accessible, practitioners will have many of the tools or access to a lot of the knowledge that they can use then to elevate their own practice.
Gwen: So many lightbulbs just went off. The way you described that was wonderful. You know, a lot of people don’t have that full background. So through the podcast, if you can provide them with some of that, it is going to help them have more tools in their tool bag, to be able to help provide sound, big picture guidance towards the organizations that they’re working in. And maybe be able to educate their organizations about how they can best use them. Like you said, so they are not relegated to being a PR short order cook.
Let me ask you this, when you think about that person driving in their car, and you know you mentioned that there will be many women, I’m sure, who will listen who want to rise in the ranks, describe that person, that ideal listener.
Mark: I think the ideal listener is probably a woman who is a practicing public relations professional, who has been in the field for maybe 5-10 years. I think many other people can benefit from participating in this. But I think ideally, she’s early in her career and has a drive to make a big impact for her organization. There’s a huge amount of passion in the public relations community. People who practice generally gravitate to the practice because it’s a great fit for their personalities and their personal interests. They liked communicating, they like engaging with people.
So I think this ideal listener understands that there is something more, and that she has the potential to make a big impact for her organization, and needs the tools to be able to do it, but isn’t necessarily in a position to go back and get another degree specifically for this. If you can do that, then that’s a wonderful thing, because there is so much useful knowledge available. But if you’re not in a position to drop everything and go back and get an advanced degree in public relations, then this is a way to benefit from some of the knowledge that’s available, and apply it directly in your work that day.
Gwen: I love it. So what should a listener expect, in terms of format? Are you going to have different interviewees, is it going to be you, or a combination? What can viewers expect from your podcast?
Mark: Well, this is not an ego exercise, and it’s not going to be the world according to Mark. I’ve got my own views and they’re strong at times, but I don’t have all the answers, nobody does.
And so it really is designed around an interview format, where I am engaging in conversations with leading practitioners, as well as leading scholars and picking their brains about the lessons they’ve learned, and how those lessons might best be used by practitioners in a very real tangible way.
Gwen: So listeners get exposure to lots of different kinds of expertise and professionals. It may not be a degree, but it sounds like a rich opportunity to gain professional development and further your career. I love it and I know you said it’s not the Mark show and it’s not all about you, but I’m sure listeners will be curious a little bit about you, and why you are so passionate about this industry. What did bring you to the PR profession?
Mark: I wish I could say I planned it, that I had this master plan and that’s the career path I followed. But that’s not the case at all. I did a career as an Air Force officer, and I actually stumbled into this. A very good friend was a public affairs officer on active duty. We’d been stationed together a couple of times, and he asked if I had ever thought about changing careers and doing this instead. And I said, “Well, I don’t even know what you do.” He said, “Why don’t you follow me around for a few days, shadow me, see the ins and outs of what I do, and see if you might like it.”
So I did and I thought, wow, that’s really interesting. I had never even considered public relations or organizational communication before. In the end, I said, “Yeah, I would like to try that.” And so I changed jobs and it was the best thing ever; I really, really love it. I love doing the tactical level stuff, I love doing the strategic level stuff. And frankly, one of the things I like best about it is that it’s different every day. Every single day, you might have your day planned out, you might have your week planned out, but you don’t know what challenges are going to come up. You don’t know what opportunities are going to arise.
And so, if you like engaging people, if you like being creative and solving problems and working with people – even through some difficult times – it’s a wonderful, wonderful profession.
Gwen: I can hear the passion in your voice, and it’s a good fit, obviously, with your personality. But on a bigger level, why is PR so important to you?
Mark: I personally found it really satisfying and fulfilling because, when you’re in an organization that understands the potential, and empowers the public relations team to really do their thing, it really has a powerful impact, a very positive impact on the organization’s bottom line and on the different publics that the organization depends on, and who depend on the organization.
If you think of an organization, a company for example, as a living organism that lives in its environment. The environment changes, and environments are always changing. If the organism is not able to adapt to that environment and the way it’s changing, it’s going to suffer. In fact, it might die.
Organizations, companies, are the same way. And so public relations has the power to be a sensory system, to help the organization detect when its environment is changing, and how it can best adapt to those changes in the environment so that it can thrive and it can do that in a mutually beneficial way with all the other parts, all the other animals in that ecosystem.
So, for a company, it has employees and it has customers, and it might have a board of directors, and maybe investors if it’s a publicly traded company. And it probably has some sort of government oversight, and it has to be able to exist in a compatible way with all of those different entities, all of those different stakeholders or public groups. And sometimes those interests are competing; many times they are competing. So the organization has to be able to negotiate that. Because it’s engaged with these various publics, public relations is a really wonderful way to feed that information back into the organization’s leadership and into the decision-making process, as business intelligence.
So, organizations can depend on public relations to do their typical PR tactical type things, like doing press conferences, building webpages, and sending out press releases. But it can and should also rely on its public relations function to provide that strategic intelligence about how it’s existing in its environment. And how any anticipated changes or decisions on the part of the organization are going to affect its key stakeholders, and how they’re likely to react.
Gwen: I love it. And I love the term, business intelligence. What popped into my mind is PR can almost be like the compass. You know there are these competing demands and competing agendas, but you’re sort of the calm stabilizer, keeping the boat on course, even though there may be these storms going on around it. Being that grounded, objective compass if you will.
Mark: Absolutely. You know, so if you’re in a company and the CEO or the leadership is making a decision, they’re getting counsel from different places. So for example, the General Counsel is probably providing a legal view about what is legally permissible. The Chief Financial Officer or the Chief Operating Officer are probably providing views that are based on either what is going to make the most profit or what is affordable to do, given the organization’s resources.
The public relations counsel should come at it from an ethical perspective, in terms of a couple of things. One is, what is the right thing to do based on being responsible to our publics or to our stakeholders? And what is the smart thing to do to preserve those strategically important relationships? So, at its essence, public relations is not about just broadcasting; it’s about identifying, creating, and nurturing really important relationships; the relationships that are absolutely critical for the organisation to be able to survive and thrive.
Gwen: It is almost like being that person on the shoulder, asking the right questions, “Is this the right thing to do?” So being that for these people that are trying to make decisions.
Curious question for you Mark: In recent times, PR debacles that you see on the news, have you thought, “Oh my gosh, that would be such a juicy situation to get into, and I can fix that” when you see things going just completely wrong. I’m curious, because I’m sure you’ve watched many things on the news and thought, “What are they doing?” from a PR perspective.
Mark: Pick a day and look at the headlines and you’ll probably see an example where there is a need for good public relations. Let’s use the Volkswagen diesel cheating scandal that’s going on right now as an example. Do they need to do a better job of communicating with their publics and stakeholders? Probably so; there are tons of lawsuits going on and they’re getting just really beaten up in the press.
So yeah, they need to have an effective public relations strategy to handle this. But the power of public relations is that had they had good public relations counsel on the front end, and they were really focused on maintaining those relationships that are so important to the company (in this case the relationships with their customers, with their dealers, and with the different regulatory agencies, so for example in the U.S. with the EPA), they might not have made the decision to try to pull a fast one on their emissions. They might not have found themselves in the same boat had they had good PR counsel as they were making that decision. Public relations can help once you are in a crisis, but the real value is it can help avoid creating a crisis.
Gwen: And look at how much more expensive this is in the long term. So PR is about “Is this the right thing to do,” but also it does come down to dollars and expenses.
Mark: You bet, and I’m not speaking specifically for Volkswagen, because I don’t know how their governance works. But a public relations counsellor can only advise on those kinds of decisions if they’re in the room and at the table when those decisions are being made, and if they have the background, experience, and education to bring that kind of insight, wisdom, and knowledge to the table.
Gwen: That’s beautiful – thank you so much for sharing that. That’s a great example. Let me ask you this Mark, what is some of the best career advice that you’ve ever received?
Mark: I think the best career advice I received is not specific to public relations. When I was first starting my career as an Air Force officer, my dad who had also spent his career as an Air Force officer gave me one piece of advice and it was, “Take care of your people.” He said you’re going to get busy. There will be competing interests and all that. And he said whatever you do, take care of your people, because they’re the ones who get the job done and you cannot do it without them. Give them the right vision, give them the right support, make sure they have the right resources and back them up. Take care of your people.
Gwen: That applies regardless of the field you’re in, as well as in personal life; I love that.
Gwen: If you can give one piece of advice to people starting their careers in the PR field now, what would it be?
Mark: I would say be a perpetual learner, focus on your craft at a tactical level, but also do what you need to do, whether it’s taking courses, reading books, listening to podcasts, and going to conferences, to develop the mind of a strategist so that you think about issues strategically, and so that you’re able to provide that long-term visionary counsel.
The other thing I would really, really strongly advise is to also develop a fundamental understanding of research. So that, at the very least, you are an informed consumer of research, but at best you’re able to do the research on the front-end of a problem, so that you can formulate your public relations strategy and help inform the larger organizational strategy. So, understanding how to do or how to benefit from formative research, and then at the same time understanding how to do evaluative research once you’ve executed your plan, so that you can determine whether or not it was effective. And if you need to modify it, what needs to change. That is only possible if you have a basic understanding of research. Those would be my two pieces of advice.
Gwen: I love it. So, be a perpetual learner and have a fundamental understanding of research. I can imagine that with those two things, those tools in your pocket, your career will definitely advance. Excellent advice Mark, is there anything else you want to add before we wrap for today?
Mark: The other thing I would say is that it’s really important, particularly at this time, and this has the potential to be a golden age for public relations, there are huge opportunities out there with changes in communication technology, and new platforms coming online every day. It’s to keep an eye open for new opportunities, and at the same time be very wary of the shiny object syndrome. What’s hot today online might be a flash in the pan. It might actually turn into something, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good fit for your organization.
So, do this balancing act: Keep an eye out for new opportunities, but also be able to focus, because you have only got so much time and energy every day, to focus your energy on the things that are most important to your practice and your organization.
Gwen: I love it. These takeaways, I’m just going to recap them, because they are so critical and they apply not just to PR, but to life. Being a perpetual learner, having the fundamental understanding of research, seeing the opportunities. And I think that’s part of being a perpetual learner is having your eyes open and having that passion for your field. But at the same time, we can all easily get distracted by the shiny objects.
So with that Mark, this has been fabulous. I’ve learned so much and I appreciate you sharing all of these insights. I feel like this is just kind of brushing the surface of the kinds of things that people will discover in your podcast, Better PR Now. So, thank you so much for sharing all of your insights today.
Mark: Gwen, it’s really been a delight chatting with you today and I really appreciate the opportunity.
Thanks for spending a little time with us today. I hope you found it entertaining, but more than that, I hope you found something you can use in your career. I’d love to know what you think about the podcast. Who would you like to hear on the show? What questions would you like answered? What challenges are you facing? Let me know.
See you soon!