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Are there rules about PR? And if there are, can we break a few?

So Edelman went out on a limb this week and posted 10 Rules for PR Pros.  Granted, you can’t sum up all their intellectual capital in an infographic. Still, it provoked me to think about the practice of public relations, and where I agreed, and where I dissented.  Here they are:

I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate and point out the ways these rules can and should be broken!

1. Be flexible OR Stick to your guns.  You know, when someone at work asks you to be “flexible,” it’s not the same thing as wanting you to be “versatile.”  Versatility is a good thing. It’s good to have a panopoly of skills and it’s good to have the judgement and know-how to switch gears when required.  That’s versatility.

However, when your boss says they want you to be “flexible,” they generally want you to give up something you want, or stop doing something you want to do, or believe is right to do, so that he or she can achieve an objective. Sometimes, that’s what needs to happen to get the job done. But it should be the exception — not the rule.  And there are some lines that should not be crossed in the name of “flexibility.”

For example, your boss might want you to be “flexible” about working overtime — a lot of overtime, without necessarily getting compensation for that.  Or they might want you to be “flexible” about something you believe in, or a PR ethical issue.

Moral issues are rarely flexible. I remember raising a serious PR ethics issue at work once and I was told to be “flexible” about it. In graduate business school, most of my male peers in ethics class thought that women and minorities in the workplace should be “flexible” about things like not being able to attend events at exclusive, male-only golf clubs, when that real-life scenario was presented as a case study.

So, let me tell you. Flexibility is overrated in PR.  A moral compass is underrated. Choose to be versatile, by all means be nimble, but be wary of the “flexibility” demand.

2. Get the big story OR Get the story that makes an impact.  Okay, so news is “new.”  But there is a lot of important information that needs to get out there that isn’t “news.”  I was struck by this while reading the book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley.  She made the very good point that what makes the major news isn’t always what is most important but what is most novel or unusual.

Consider the basics: life and death.  Remember bird flu?  We did not have hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere in public places before that scare.  Bird flu has killed 606 people WORLD WIDE since 2003.  None in the U.S.  Now heart disease?  That is the number one killer.  In one year, in the U.S. alone, heart disease kills more than half a million people.   We have ALL these shows about homicide, and homicides are big news.  But homicide doesn’t even make the top ten list.

So heart disease is not a news maker.  But it is important.  The information disseminated about heart disease by people who work in PR is more vital than many “big” stories in the news.  That is basically my point: big is not always better.  Lindsay Lohan is big news this week.  Lindsay Lohan is not IMPORTANT news.

3. Be profitable — OR Turn your talents to good Nothing wrong with making some money in PR, if you work for an agency.  Of course, if you work in government PR, turning a profit is not your motivation.  Neither is nonprofit PR work.  Soooo…this rule is not universally applicable.

But this is my feeling for the agencies.  Let me tell you something about Edelman.  World’s biggest PR agency.  4,000 employees. Probably would not kill them to be a bit more involved. When I was volunteering for the PRSA-NCC, I was struck that most of the board members, volunteers, and sponsors at the chapter did not come from the big agencies in town, and that disappointed me. Part of paying your dues when you make it big is giving back. When I wrapped up my work at the chapter, my parting advice to the President was: tap those large agencies.  Make them come to the table with their resources and expertise.  Get them involved.

Pro bono work is a vital part of being a public relations professional.  It’s good for the community and it’s good for your career.  It stretches your talents.

4.  Take notes — OR Give a presentation.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t all take notes, but I think it’s easy to undervalue the contribution potential of young professionals.  So let’s not relegate them to note-taking at every meeting.  Let’s hear what they have to say.  Public speaking and presentation skills are important to develop at every stage of one’s career.  So, don’t be afraid to speak up.  Sign up for those presentations and panels!  Get noticed.

5. Don’t argue OR Stand by your convictions, and be prepared to battle for them.  This was the one that probably rubbed me the wrong way the worst, given my tendencies.  To me, telling someone not to argue is like telling them not to think critically.  There are times when you should argue with your colleagues, your boss, and your clients, and hopefully everyone is professional enough to understand that that is part of the process.

You do have to fight for your ideas, and your creative direction, at times.  It would be foolish to give every client their way in everything.  It wouldn’t serve them well, in every instance. I’m not afraid to be wrong, and I’m delighted to be right, so I’m not afraid to disagree.

Arguments — or productive discussions as I would call them — can be tremendously useful.  And hey, PR is a charged industry.  Arguments are going to happen.  People can respect a supported argument.

You know people who have relationships but say they never argue?  Those people scare me.  People who never argue are giving up too much of themselves and that is never a good thing.

6. Worry OR Stop trying so hard and have some fun!  I remember getting in an elevator with a bunch of young PR folks and they ALL snapped out their Blackberrys.  Yikes, I thought. They could not turn it off.

When you go into a lot of advertising agencies, by contrast, you are struck by the sense of fun, and the creativity in the room.  You want some laughs, hang out with the advertising folks, because there are not a lot of laughs at PR parties.  Hello? There is a reason Mad Men is about advertising and not PR! And, all joking aside, advertising agencies make more money than public relations agencies.  So there must be something in this.

As a worry-wart, yes, I believe in being conscientious and paying attention to details. But I also know that truly great and creative ideas are not born under stressful conditions.  If you take care of business, and manage client expectations, you don’t need to worry so much.  PR folks could lighten up a bit.

7.  Do a survey OR Go with your gut.  You know, you can make a survey deliver all kinds of results, depending on how you engineer it.   I’m not saying surveys are not useful.  They are.  But not every creative decision should hinge on group-consensus.

Sometimes you can be fairly confident of what will work because you have experience and judgment.  Trust in your expertise.

Another thing I learned in business school: you will NEVER have enough information to make a decision, and yet you must make one, anyway.  Don’t be afraid to be decisive.  PR is important, but it’s not THAT important.  The world will not cave in because you were wrong.

8. Be a self-starter OR Know when to ask for help.   I value initiative in a public relations professional.  But the person who also checks in, communicates on the status of projects, and is humble enough to admit he or she doesn’t know something, or needs help getting through the next step — that person is invaluable, because that person values learning and wants to learn, more than he or she wants to protect his or her ego.

So is the person who gives credit where credit is due.  Kind of rare, actually, that kind of decency.

A person who is a self-starter needs little or no supervision to accomplish goals.  That just doesn’t describe the business of PR, ordinarily.  PR usually depends on the combined efforts of a group of motivated people, working as a team (and that team usually includes clients).  And there is usually plenty of supervision involved with that, particularly at the agency level.

Knowing when to ask for help, and how to ask for it.  Just as important as taking initiative.

9. Merchandise the clippings — OR Hoot about your interactions.  I’m going to be honest here and admit I have no idea what the phrase “merchandise the clippings” means.  I Googled it and I got nada.  So, something should not be a “PR rule” if nobody knows what it means!

But if I had to guess, it would mean demonstrate those results to your client.  Well, sure.  I’m all for showing them tangible results.  Clippings rate.  But today — so do social media followers, and interactions.  And sales!  And any other meaningful outcome we are trying to achieve for a client.

So maybe someone at Edelman can clarify number 9 for us.  Then I can argue with it.

10. Remember, this is a service business OR Keep a firm grip on your soul.  Yes, PR is a service business.  So is prostitution.  There are boundaries, right?  We don’t take on every slimey client who shoves money at us.  We don’t do slimey things for our clients.   We pay our interns, and we pay our employees a fair salary.   We do things the right way.   We are honest and ethical and we give back.

We have a responsibility to our clients, but our responsibilities do not end there.  We also have responsibilities to our employees, to the people who hear our messages, to our media contacts, to the PR industry as a whole, and yeah, to our kids we tuck in at night.  We should be able to look ourselves in the mirror and be okay with everything we did that day.

Not every agency can do that.  Every agency should.

Now it’s your turn!  Argue with me, agree with me, disagree with me — do anything but take notes!

Effective Communications: for initial contact, don’t use email

It happened again, today. Someone got lazy and tried to use email to do a letter’s job.

This person had important information to relay to a small group of parents — me, included — under 100 people.  It involved registration, attending a meeting and receiving specialized information, just for this group.  She had never communicated with this group before, other than a brief meeting.  She needed them to be in a specific place, at a specific time, and fill out forms.

She decided to go with an email communication.  She did no other follow-up or other communication with the parents.

Not all the group members received her email (she was completely shocked by this), and missed out on important information regarding their children.  Where did the communication break down?  Not on my end.  And now I’m steamed!

What you need to know about email deliverability

She and most people don’t know that up to 20% of email is never delivered to recipients.  Bump that percentage up much higher if you’re using a commercial email service, emailing to school or government addresses, including some HTML in your email, or if you make certain kinds of errors.

And when I say 20% of the email is never delivered, I’m not saying “just to the inbox.”  It doesn’t even make it to the spam folder.  For the recipient, it never existed.

Don’t send email for initial communications, ever

For initial communications to new group members — communications containing important details, to ask for business, or to schedule meetings, email is not the way to go.  You could send an email greeting to a group asking them to confirm that you have the correct address and to request them to add your email to your inbox.

For groups under 100, I would advise sending first class “snail” mail four weeks in advance of an event or needed action, and following up with phone calls a week or two later to make sure the information was received.

When To Use Email Communications

When you have established a contact list that you have confidence in, that is fully opt-in and accurate, and you have previously established communications in other ways, then you can move to email communications (however, you should supplement this with mail and phone calls).

The typical open rate of emails sent to a house list is nearly 20%, according to the Direct Marketing Association.  Of those, for a sale or other desired commercial call to action, the response rate averages about 2%.

The emails we send for ourselves and for our clients average more around 40% to 50% because we use highly targeted and carefully managed contact lists.

Email is NOT for prospecting

What if you’re reaching out to new and potential clients?  Should you use email communications?

Let me ask you something.  If you were going to ask someone for a date for the first time, would you send them an email???

When it’s really important that you get someone to take action and you two don’t have “history,” you have to get a bit more personal.

Besides, it’s illegal.  You can’t send commercial email to someone who has not specifically given you permission.  If you are a nonprofit or government entity, you shouldn’t do it either, not without explicit permission.

Sometimes, you have to just pick up the phone

Like it or not, telephone calls and well-designed, first class mail are still the ways to go when it’s absolutely essential that people receive, process, and act on information they are receiving for the first time (or the first few times).

Stay tuned this week for more blog posts about how to make your communications more effective.

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