PR A Penny for your Thoughts

The pressure to do…

I was using the washroom of a top London PR agency recently – in between training sessions – when a chap wandered in, deeply engaged in conversation, his mobile phone clasped to the side of his face. As he stood at the urinal, he proceeded to splash and dash with one hand and the dexterity of a master card magician, while chatting away to his client, before washing and leaving – still talking. Whilst I admired his ability to multi-task, I was stunned that he felt the need to do both things simultaneously. I’ll leave you to ponder the dilemmas of 21st century office washroom etiquette, but it did make me wonder if his compulsion to save a few moments underlines a creeping concern that the agency world is being driven in a direction of “efficient doing” rather than effective thinking and execution.

After 12, mostly wonderful, years working in UK PR agencies, today with the Amber Group, I spend the majority of my time helping train and develop the new generation of PR practitioners. Visiting and working with consultants at a wide range of PR firms, from the very largest to the next big things, I can honestly say I have learnt more about the industry as a trainer looking in than I ever did as someone working within it. It is a brilliant industry; full of bright minds, enthusiasm and creativity. But one trend does seem to be accelerating at a pace; the pressure to spend time doing rather than thinking. I suffered similarly when working full time in agencies; too much to do and not enough time to do it. Busy being busy. Focused on the near-term result but neglecting the ultimate objective. In the spirit of encouraging our industry to continue to flourish, here are five things I wished I had reminded myself every day before stepping into that mad, chaotic but brilliant energy-bristling, creative maelstrom that is the agency world.

Everything we do should be geared towards helping clients sell more stuff or helping them change the way their target audience thinks and behaves. This is the magic. At its best PR makes people think and do things they hadn’t considered before. Wow, what a job! So let’s not get bogged down in ordering the ingredients, let’s makes some potions!

From account manager upwards, it’s about thinking – not doing. As an industry, we promote account executives for being efficient doers. They get through their to do list, shout early enough if they are about to drop a ball and are quickly rewarded with promotion. Unfortunately, we forget to tell them that from account manager onwards their success depends predominantly on their ability to think rather than do. We don’t sit them down and explain this and then we wonder, after a confused six months in their new role, why they are still behaving like glorified account executives. Let’s get our new talent thinking from day one.

There are no new PR ideas – only beautifully executed campaigns. Call me a cynic but once you have delivered the 12 or so PR tactics a few times for different clients, there really are no new ideas. (Care to take on the challenge of naming the 12?) It’s the same principle as there are only ever seven stories – or variations on the theme. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again and lives happily ever after. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again but then dies tragically. You can swap or mix the genders but you get the picture. So, the magic is not in the tactic but the execution; the crafting of the message and the delivery that makes the target audience take on the idea like osmosis. Let’s think harder about the planning and ensure every bright idea has the impact we desire.

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat – it turned it into a brilliant PR person. With the intensifying need for action, we are losing a natural curiosity for life and knowledge and discovery. The most creative, mind-bendingly brilliant campaigns I ever had the pleasure of having a tiny hand in, or been touched by, came from naturally curious agency people joining the dots and coming up with something brilliant. To join the dots in our mind we must feed the brain with information and cultural context to allow the unconscious to make the connections. Let’s build agencies that encourage and thrive on curiosity. Let your people wander physically and mentally.

Sometimes the client doesn’t know their objective from their strategy and tactics – help them understand. Some clients buy agencies for extra arms and legs, but most want insight, clarity and direction. Many mid-level marketing and PR managers in large organisations are lost in the detail of the day-to-day. We owe it to those clients to help make them great.

This is not a knock at the PR industry – agency or client. I love this industry. It has clothed, nourished and educated me and I will be forever grateful. Its people strike me with their enthusiasm and natural joy for communication each and every day. We have a world-leading industry and brilliant minds, but this is a plea for more thought before action – more time to think – and to pee!

Prompted any thoughts or reflections? I look forward to reading them.

Paul Smith is a trainer and coach with The Amber Group