My Hopes and Advice for Future Public Relations Professionals
How Generation Z can lead in a time of uncertainty
Earlier this year, I was humbled to have the honor of being the keynote speaker at the PRSSA Icon conference. As a longtime public relations professional and multigenerational workplace expert, I feel it is my responsibility to educate and mentor those upcoming Millennials and those of Generation Z, to help foster their careers. I pay this work forward because others did it for me. For the PRSSA Icon 2020 Conference I shared my three hopes for the future careers of public relations professionals both currently working and in the future. I feel the knowledge and advice shared on that day should not be limited to those who were in attendance. I am sharing these hopes and advice with all of you to bridge the gap between generations of public relations professionals and to help the future professionals lead the way in their own careers.
I love the public relations profession.
I've often said that everything it takes to build a beneficial relationship between our organizations and our stakeholders begins and ends with public relations professionals. At a time when disinformation is being used as a political weapon, and millions of lives rely on sound medical advice, professional communicators are unique stewards of the public trust. Our management of that trust will help shape our shared history.
The open character of our profession is as distinct as its mandate: create a beneficial relationship. Until this moment in history, it was possible for communications professionals to serve their companies and clients without being as proactive on social issues.
Such complacency is no longer an option.
On issues of racial injustice, social equality, and public health, we can deliver messages that advance our client’s interests and meet the demands of the times. Public relations professionals are uniquely positioned to help if, and only if, we take it upon ourselves to lead in ways that may not have been required of us before or even asked of us. Our clients need the benefits of our diversity, expertise, and conscientious dedication to relevant, clear, and effective communication.
It matters because people are scared and deserve better information.
In one of my recent studies of approximately 1000 men and women in the US, Canada, and Europe, I asked the question – What are your top concerns right now?
The study respondents’ top concerns were health, the COVID-19 pandemic, our economy, family, jobs, safety and security, and mental health. These concerns are also shaping how young professionals are thinking about their careers.
My studies show that younger workers, such as Millennials and Generation Z are shifting their career focus because of COVID 19 and social injustice issues. We may not have envisioned this moment. Few if any of us planned for it. It is upon us, and we will need to meet it with poise, professionalism, and the resilience and strength born of diversity and PURPOSE.
However, nearly 40 percent of employees don't believe their companies are doing enough to create, maintain, and champion equitable and inclusive workplaces.
That’s just not right.
I'm asked all the time about what I think about what is happening now. Let me be clear.
Black lives matter.
Our planet matters.
That is why I am so proud of our profession. We are at the forefront of creating this change. Last year, the DIVERSITY ACTION ALLIANCE was created as a coalition of public relations and communications leaders who joined forces to accelerate progress in the achievement of meaningful and tangible results in diversity, equity, and inclusion across our PR profession.
I am personally involved on the steering committee with some amazing organizations to lead this change so that future generations of PR professionals can benefit from limitless careers.
Our career is a journey, and no matter what lies ahead, our personal values are our roadmap and compass.
During this time of historical reckoning, I challenge you to do these three things:
1. Make it personal.
2. Use the power of your perspective to make the world better.
3. Don't compromise your integrity.
Make It Personal
Have you heard the statement "it's not personal, it's just business." Reject that notion.
At the end of each business decision, there is a person, whether it is an employee, customer, or business partner. Every bit of information that we help our organizations communicate will be consumed by our fellow humans. Each of them will make decisions about themselves, their family, their organization, or their community based on the messages we help convey the events we hold or the opportunities we create to connect.
For example, we all know that every therapeutic treatment comes with a degree of risk. When faced with explaining what happened in a worst-case scenario, I always asked myself:
What would I want my mother to hear if she suffered from a medical procedure gone wrong?
What would I want the organizations involved to say to her?
What would I want her to read in the paper?
What is the dinner conversation going to be like with my family about this issue?
A reporter once told me about a medical therapy with side effects that included death. She was philosophical about her mother's treatment and even its unfortunate outcome: "You know," she told me, "When I think about all the benefits that treatment had on my mom's life, and the quality of life it gave her before she died, I believe that it was the best decision for her." If I had communicated my company's message with less care for the people it affected, she wouldn't have shared her story with me. She might not even have achieved the peace of mind she did about her mother's death, and it may have impacted how she chose to report about.
Everything you do is personal.
Use the power of your perspective to make the world better
I unapologetically use my skills, time, and resources to make the world a better place. As a student at the beginning of your career, you may feel powerless.
You are not.
You also have influence. The members of Generation Z are already having an impact in society. Whether it is bringing attention to key issues such as gun control, social injustice, or canceling their support of organizations that don’t share their values.
We all feel marginalized and powerless at times. Maybe because of our position or title. Maybe because we lack seniority. As members of Generation Z have already demonstrated, you can take your perspective and build awareness and change. When faced with frustration, pause.
Then, ask yourself,
What am I going to do about it?
Where can I bring leadership?
Then do something.
Don’t Compromise Your Integrity
It's tempting to dodge challenges or uncomfortable situations by saying nothing or stretching the boundaries of the truth. You will be asked to "spin" challenges or "PR" something.
There are no little lies and no one wants to be "spun.
People want the truth.
People want transparency.
Last year I was intrigued by a study from the consulting division of PwC, one of the nation's largest auditing firms that tracks executive turnover. It turns out that 39 percent of the 89 CEOs who departed their jobs in 2018 left for reasons related to unethical behavior. The behaviors stemmed from allegations of sexual misconduct or ethical lapses connected to things like fraud, bribery, and insider trading.
Where was the integrity?
We all can learn and grow from past mistakes so it is important to have empathy.
As a PR professional, sometimes you will gain access to information you never can share, even if you didn't seek it out. You will be expected to explain it. To message.
Some of it will be exciting. Some of it will be frightening. That can be a heavy burden, especially when people turn to you as a communicator. Still, you can't divulge what's in your black box of confidential information in those moments when you're being pressed, and you can't lie your way out of momentary discomfort without more severe consequences down the road.
Your personal and professional integrity needs to be its own unassailable black box. Of course, you need to say something in those situations. Just remember that it's always best to lead with the truth.
I avoid pat responses like "no comment" when speaking to reporters, and I certainly don't ghost them by not responding to their messages.
When you choose to make the truth gray, that act can chip away at your integrity. It becomes more comfortable each time you do it, and we all know how one lie can lead to another.
And then land on the front page of the paper.
When you're not upfront and honest with people, you diminish your credibility over time. Eventually, you'll erode your character and your soul and become a stranger to yourself.
Don't let that happen to you.
Draw your line.
Be sure to make room for growth and fortify yourself so you won't cross it. At the beginning of your career write your integrity promises to yourself. One of mine is: When the stakes are high, I won't choose to silence myself. The promise to share my opinions and not silence myself has earned me the reputation of being a straight shooter, a trusted advisor and the person people look to during difficult times.
What will you choose as your integrity promises?
I love our profession.
Everything it takes to build a beneficial relationship between our organizations and our stakeholders begins and ends with public relations professionals, like you.
Now more than ever, communicators have a lot of power and influence and they are a great responsibility. Use them - wisely.