Larry Foster, former Corporate Vice President of Public Relations at Johnson & Johnson, generously shared his career thoughts with aspiring public relations professionals in my Public Relations Leadership course last April. The following advice seems appropriate to share on a day that we remember this legend of our profession:
In launching a public relations career I think it is very important to learn as much as you can about the business (or the association) of the organization. The more you know about the business and its problems and opportunities, the more you understand the problems facing the CEO and other decision makers in the organization. Too often public relations people want to focus on the communications aspects of their job. This is essential, of course, but the communications decisions should be based on the broader problems that the company faces in order to sustain its success.
The public relations professional has a unique opportunity to contribute to the company’s success because of his or her talents as a writer. Among an individual’s skills, I place writing with clarity and persuasion at the top of the list. Those who can write well, and with clarity and persuasion, soon stand out among other executives because of the constant flow of memos generated within the organization. The ability to write high-quality memos is a talent that soon becomes widely recognized within the organization. Obviously this extends to speech writing and important publications such as the annual report.
There is a lively and on-going debate about the importance of ethics in business. In the PR profession it is essential to make ethical conduct a vital part of your personal qualities. It has been said that ethics cannot be taught, but ethical conduct can. I believe that the great majority of public relations professionals are ethical people, it is the application of a broad range of skills and beliefs that separate one from the other.
I believe that the chief public relations officer belongs in the Board room when key decisions are being discussed related to the public interest and other topics that affect the welfare and the success of the organization. The public relations officer should not be hesitant to assume the role of the “loyal opposition.” Good judgment should dictate when to take this role because to do so in haste might cast the PR person in the wrong light.
You asked about staying in constant touch with the senior management of the company, and I believe this is essential when these matters relate to the organization’s image, as well as any issue that affects its reputation with the public. Those PR professionals who work for the chairman/CEO are in the best position to participate in these decisions.
The PR professional should strive to become a problem solver. This begins with identifying problems before they become serious and get out of hand. The more the PR professional can become a problem solver, or avert them before they threaten the success of the organization, the more valuable he or she becomes.
Experience is a great teacher. Constant communication with the senior management of the company, as well as an inquisitive mind, will serve you well. Having the right positive attitude will always be helpful in developing strong relationships with senior management.
In dealing with the press never lie, but remember that you are not obligated to tell everything you know about a given situation. Volunteering information that you are not asked about can be a hazardous area rife with pitfalls.
Your goal should be to raise the level of public communications by making truth, integrity and responsibility the standards that may not be compromised. When you assume these roles, your colleagues, the press and the public will place greater trust in you. Strive to achieve this and you will become a greater asset to the organization you are serving.
Public relations is a fascinating business and you are wise to have chosen to become a part of it. Adopting the attitude that you are a member of a team is also important. When the team concept prevails, the results are better.
The rapid increase and growth of social media is a challenging new addition to the role of the public relations professional. It makes your job more complex and more challenging. You will have to use good judgment in deciding what parts of social media you should concentrate on, and which ones would consume too much of your time. Once again, those with good judgment will fare much better.