In the Navy, I fixed combat aircraft. F/A-18’s and F-14’s primarily, with some EA-6B Prowlers and S3 Viking sub-hunters sprinkled in occasionally to keep it interesting. I spent 9 months at Naval Avionics school and finished 2nd in my class, so by the time the Navy was done training me I was pretty good at fixing electronics equipment. I was also once very good at creating tiny plant dish gardens and because I worked in sales for a fine wine shop, I know my way around a crushed grape. We’ll save those for future posts.
Flash forward twenty years and here I am at the helm of a very rapidly growing financial communications firm. Sometimes (often), you get pulled in directions you don’t expect over the course of your life. But the stops along your path tend to shape and influence you. And while one might assume that Naval Avionics and Financial PR have absolutely nothing in common, you might be surprised to find that there are some interesting similarities.Avionics is all about precision and schematics. But any avionics technician can attest to the fact that sometimes the best solution is to whack the piece of gear with a rubber mallet. Then, for no apparent reason, it suddenly passes inspection. PR, conversely, defies schematics. There is no exact formula. Every reporter is different; every publication, its own ecosystem. An interview with the same reporter on the same day on the same topic, mere hours apart (should it occur in a hypothetical PR test tube) would yield two completely different results. PR is exciting precisely because it is unpredictable – this is also why it scares the living daylights out of people.
Therefore it stands to reason that if Order is occasionally beset with Chaos, then so too can Chaos fall prey to Order – we must use this to our advantage.
The first step is accepting that no matter what you do, you will very rarely get the precise outcome you desire, period. You might do everything right, utter every syllable in perfect pitch and every word perfectly balanced with the next, follow every rule and avoid all the pitfalls…which still gives you only an 80% chance of getting a result you are satisfied with. I’ve never seen a press release covered by all the publications I’ve targeted, nor one without a missing (or extra) comma, even after twenty rounds of review. The perfect byline article might languish in the mailbox of an overworked editor for weeks until it is too rotten to post. An interview that runs for an hour may result in merely a sentence fragment. This is the nature of the beast.
The right mindset, however, will help you to keep going. The US military is exceptionally good at training soldiers and sailors how to do their jobs whether it’s to fight, or support, combat operations. They accept that they can only reasonably expect a certain probability of a good outcome, but that if they prepare as if their lives depend on it, perhaps they’ll live to see another day. Applying order to chaos is necessary in the military, to create desired outcomes – winning the fight and defeating the enemy. In PR, similar truths apply: those who fail are those who don’t prepare properly, or at all.
If you want to win at PR, approach it with a military mindset. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Preparation is the bane of embarrassment. If you are going into a live interview situation, know the journalist’s name, experience level, areas of interest, and read their previous work. You can rest assured they’ve done their homework on you. Create key messages (aka talking points you want to get across), and familiarize yourself with them. Do your homework, it pays off when it’s time to take the test.
- Process is your best friend. You cannot control PR outcomes entirely but you can control how you approach tactical PR activities – your attitude, your energy, your preparation, when and in what format to engage, and how you track progress and improve over time. If your PR firm is not providing you with valuable background on reporters and publications prior to engaging them, that removes an advantage. Have a process for everything, from putting out a press release to placing an article to embarking on a media tour. Commit to knowing these processes and help your PR team by respecting and adhering to them.
- Adjust your attitude. If you treat the experience of speaking to a reporter like a root canal, or see all reporters as out to get you, you should quit. You don’t need to do PR, you should go take out an advertisement. Stay positive, and think about the fact that you are a representative of your firm’s brand – if you believe in your message and mission to your very bones, you’ll be a naturally good spokesperson. But even if you can merely repeat it with feigned enthusiasm, you’ll be just fine. You get out what you put in.
Perhaps most importantly of all, don’t be discouraged – building a PR profile and the credibility that comes with it, takes time. It takes repetition and a dedication to constant, incremental improvements. It takes the building of trusted relationships and a determination to compete in an unpredictable and ever-shifting arena. It is not for the faint of heart. But if you put maximum effort into it, coupled with an intelligent approach, it can be among the most gratifying and valuable marketing endeavors you embark on.
Fair winds, and following seas.