Here we are, the first week of November, which means it’s that time again. The time of year when public relations professionals around the country face the dreaded question over holiday tables and at holiday parties and events of all kinds. Yes, from strangers and family members who’ve known you since childhood, all giddy with the joy of tremendous carb consumption, pose the same question:
“So, what do you do again?”
This is how yet another year finds you standing with champagne flute in hand, pretending it’s the first time you’ve heard the familiar refrain: “Public relations, eh? I don’t even know what that is …”
The winter of our discontent, indeed.
Look, we’ve all been there. That’s why without further ado, we present some easy ways to describe what you, communications professional, do for a living this holiday season. We won’t call it an elevator speech, because who wants to be that guy? We’ll just call these quick messaging points for your target audience. Because if there’s one thing we should be able to do as professional communicators, it is to simply explain complex ideas in a way that is meaningful and clear. And short. Oh, and know when to talk and how much to say.
Now is not the time to limit yourself! What do you do, really? Think big – why not? It’s the holiday season. The time of eggnog and dreams. And maybe just a little more eggnog. Do you make magic happen? Are you a national conversation starter? Is your finger on the pulse of America’s media landscape? Do you reunite lost ideas with reporters, lonely and looking for something to love? Get wild. Go with it. Remember the old adage – speak it and it will be. OK, that’s not an old adage, I just made it up. But it works. I think this year, I am going to be a published novelist (that is my goal in the next 12 months, so why not think positive) and a successful female entrepreneur (that’s true!). Yes, I do strategic communications, media management, integrated marketing, social media … blah, blah, blah. But, at the end of the day, aren’t those are just tactics? Shouldn’t we be talking the big picture?
Know your audience
I’m going to assume you already know this, but a refresher never hurt: Know your audience. My grandma who lives in a nursing home will not connect with a message pulled from a memorized boiler plate. Her knowledge of business process and procedures is limited, although – believe me – she is sharp as a whip. With grandma, I stick with something basic: “I help people share their stories with other people; like advertising, or working with the press. You know when a person is interviewed on TV and talks about a product, or an idea. They probably had someone like me that set that up for them.”
Then she will remind me that she had hoped I would be the next Connie Chung, and we will move on from there, but hopefully with her thinking of me behind the scenes the next time she watches the news.
Keep it clean
Yes, yes. I know. You do a lot of stuff. For a lot of different people. I once worked with a company that was never able to communicate anything because with every opportunity they had to explain everything. They could not be persuaded to consider the audience and what is cared about. They did not believe messages could be diluted. The “ask” was inevitably lost in the details. Leaders thought every press release, marketing piece, or sales deck had to tell in great detail every single thing that was going on with the company. It was like a quarterly earnings call in every communication, every day. You want to do a story about a new client signing on? Press release better mention the international business unit (even if it’s not an international client), various external thought leaders, the complexity of the health care system, some other business unit, quotes from four executives and a tie in to a white paper that was written five years ago. Reporters never had a chance to get excited about a news hook you carefully crafted because it was buried somewhere around paragraph seventeen, pages after anyone determined enough to actually read a six page press release would had already been bludgeoned into a fugue-like state.
Learn from this. When someone at a holiday party asks you on the way to the dessert table what you do, don’t regale them with a story that takes 30-mintues to tell. You don’t have to tell them everything you do … and since you’re picking and choosing why not tell them the coolest part? While it’s true I fact checked a database to ensure the geographic dispersion of Smoothie Kings along the I-95 corridor were in correct alignment with business objectives, all to confirm the veracity of three sentences in a marketing piece, it’s also true I organized a press conference and worked with super-cool ephemera-finder Mike Wolfe, of American Pickers fame, so we could save historic buildings in Nashville. I think I’ll mention the latter over the cookie table.
Have a crisis communication plan
I have some bad news for you. People often use the ephitet “damn” in front of PR people, much like “damn” lawyers or “damn” liberals, etc. I am not going to tell you how to deal with these people. That’s for you to decide. But, much like with any other communication initiative, have a plan for when that happens. Generally, these people are trying to be funny and the quest to be funny is emboldened with the influx of alcohol. Be forewarned. The tricky part here is that these people think they know what PR is, so maybe go back to the keep it clean part and try to offer up a better idea of what it is you actually do. However, honestly, I usually just ignore them, or change the subject and ask what their career is at this point. In general, I’ve found that people who make lame jokes enjoy talking about themselves … so that’s one way of diffusing the situation.
If you are at a holiday party, you are mostly there to have fun, or be with family (or a little of both?). People who ask you what you do … odds are they don’t really care that much. Keep the answer simple, to the point and something they may be interested in. This used to be called polite conversation, and it has not really gone out of style. Look for signs the listener is dozing off after a few minutes of speech and respond accordingly. If the listener has a glazed look about the eyes and a bit of drool rolling from their mouth, guess what? They are bored. Switch to talking about Alabama football, which is universally considered not boring. If you are at a holiday work function, or a networking event with a holiday theme, well, you know what to do. The key point is this, in life it is not so much about what you say you do, but who you are and what you actually do. Keep your personal brand in mind. Don’t forget that by simply being who you are — thoughtful, conscientious, smart, a good listener, et al — you are helping people believe in what “you do.” Whatever it is you do.