Good PR is the Careful Balance of Confidence and Empathy
Mar 19, 2012 Beth Monaghan
A few months ago I wrote a post about the 33 Signs You Work in PR. Thinking more seriously about the traits that make PR people successful, and setting aside the requisite multitasking, to-do-list-junkie characteristics, two come to the forefront: confidence and empathy.
A venture capitalist I know once jokingly said that, “It’s more important to be convincing than right.” Unfortunately, this is true in many circumstances in life and at work. Think of it this way—if you see a woman in a dress so low-cut that it requires fashion tape, and so short that you’re nervous for her every time she leans forward, coupled with stiletto heels that have a 99 percent chance of causing an ankle break—you will think one of two things. If she’s moving about the room as if she wears that every day, you will perhaps think, “Good for her if she can pull that off.” On the other hand, if she is hunched over, crossing her arms to cover the low neckline and wobbling on her heels, you will probably think, “That woman has no business wearing that ridiculous outfit.” The difference is the woman’s confidence, whether the attire was the right choice or not. Or as Coco Channel put it, “Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.”
So what does confidence give you in PR? Mark Ragan did a video interview with The New York Times’ David Pogue about good and bad PR pitches. In it, Pogue recounted a pitch that stood out (and he responded to) because it lacked the desperation that can seep into pitches under high pressure. Pogue noted that the PR person was simply offering up his best pitch for consideration.
The pitch went like this, “My client has a laptop that you can drop from six feet to concrete, you can run it through the dishwasher, and you can bake it in the oven at 400 degrees and it comes out smiling. Would you be interested?”
Confidence breeds a slew of qualities that are critical to PR:
- Good first impressions. We have 30 seconds on the phone, or two sentences in a written pitch to get a reporter interested. Confidence oozes from verbal and written words alike, and works best when combined with creativity and research. Likewise, the PR business is made and broken by relationships with our clients.
- Thick skin. Knowing when to take something to heart and when to let it go is essential for sanity in the PR world. We sit in the middle of two constituents whose goals are not always aligned: the media and our clients. Finding the common ground that creates successful outcomes for both requires an ability to handle discord well.
- Authenticity. As I wrote in The Art of Pitching the Media, if you’re not yourself, you lose. Confidence provides the foundation for a comfort level with who you are, and makes it possible to use your own assets to fuel success.
- Courage. In a desire to be liked and maintain agreeable client relationships, it can be easier to say yes than to have the courage to say no when you know a proposed strategy won’t work, and to stand behind recommendations in the face of tough scrutiny. Courage provides the power to stand by our strategies when we know they will produce the best results.
- Honesty. Finally, a lack of confidence has a bad habit of leading to dishonesty. As all PR people know, the defining tenet of crisis communications is to tell it all, truthfully, and tell it now. Confidence enables PR people to practice this in smaller ways every day—by owning their mistakes so they can move on before they balloon into something much larger.
In his novel, By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham writes of his main character: “You are guilty not of the epic transgressions but the tiny crimes. You have failed in the most base and human of ways—you have not imagined the lives of others.”
Why do PR people need to imagine the lives of others? Our careers will be short-lived if we don’t. Success in media relations is contingent on a compelling story, delivered in the right way. The delivery must be informed by imagining what it would be like to be the reporters on the receiving end. What do they write about? Which angles have they covered in the past? How is mine different? What are their days like? Is it best to reach them in the morning or afternoon?
In the PR agency world, it’s the same with clients. Doing good work is table stakes. If we don’t do good work, we should be fired. However, when good work is not coupled with good people skills, agency-client relationships often fail. It is the agency team’s job to imagine what it is like to be each client. What pressures do they face internally, from the board, from competitors, others? What else do they have going on? Is PR central to their role or tangential? And how can we adjust our procedures to map them to each client?
However, I believe that confidence and empathy cannot exist in silos—they work best in combination. Without empathy, confidence often leaps toward cockiness. And without confidence, empathy wants to slide into meekness.