Rules for Being a Chicago-style PR Person

Rich Jernstedt

Until last night, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that every city and region has its own “style” when it comes to the practice of public relations.

In accepting Chicago PRSA’s senior leaders award for significant contributions to the profession, veteran agency executive Rich Jernstedt brilliantly described the 10 “rules” that define the “style of Chicago public relations people.” I’m sure Rich won’t mind if other PR hubs borrow and practice his 10 rules.

Here’s how he sums them up:

We are always prepared so act with confidence.  Our character sets a standard. We are considered a “most valuable player” on every team. We work hard and take the actions that deliver results.  We are committed to innovation that creates surprises and impact.  It makes us indispensable. And, importantly, we give back to practice what we preach.

Rich describes each rule as follows:

1.  We are Prepared. We know our stuff.  Sophisticated intellectuality or just simple curiosity drive a desire to learn all we can about anything that can influence the communications situation.  We ask questions.  Importantly, we listen to the answers.

We use the “what if” approach to ensuring comprehensive preparation.  But I also hear:  Why not?  Yes, and… Then what?  So what?!    What about…? What’s next?  And, of course, there’s the Chicago what the…?

We leverage Big Data.  We identify the nuggets of truth to develop both strategy and creativity. We stay ahead of the trends—and even start trends! (By the way, check out the editor of Fast Company’s 20 key predictions in the current issue.)

2.  Confidence. Our talents help develop a sense of assuredness –even courage. Yeah, a little ego doesn’t hurt.    In his book on “leadership,” the coach of Manchester United says he wants players with egos because they not only like to win and want to win, they “must win.” Chicagoans do like to win.

3.  We have Character. Our work is informed by the desire to “do the right thing.” There are high levels of honesty, trustworthiness, empathy. I was hired at Golin in 1978 to manage the McDonald’s All American Basketball Program. Legendary Coach John Wooden was the “advisor”. He coached his players:  “Be more concerned about your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

Abraham Lincoln, my favorite president, advised: “Character is like a tree and reputation is like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

As we all know, someone will be tweeting about the “real thing” sooner or later.  It’s no wonder “corporate character” and “essential authenticity” are at the center of current work in corporate communications.

4.  We are Team Players. We know our role and have an appreciation for the roles of everyone else. We collaborate, convene, facilitate and aren’t afraid to lead any team we’re on.  We understand that sharing what we know helps the entire team do a better job.  Anthropologists call this “cultural ratcheting.”  Public relations people call it “coaching” and “mentoring.”

5.  Working Hard. We demonstrate the Midwest Work Ethic. Have you heard the expression “Rage to Master”? It describes the obsessive desire to work hard for a purpose.   We have a “rage to solve problems.”  Passion for the profession encourages hard, hands-on, smart work to get the right job done right. Of course, no one here questions that a work/life balance results in a more productive workforce. So our work ethic is influenced by a Play Ethic.

6.  Take Action.  We are impatient if there isn’t a plan of action.   We aren’t guilty of analysis paralysis.  We trust our instincts.  We know when we are right. We take risks.   Big Data is important, but so is Big Bias for Action.

7.  We want Results.  We are committed to deliver the desired outcomes.   There is an intense priority among Chicago practitioners to prove the “return on investment” of our work.

Delivering results at Porter Novelli, for example, is historically based on creating actual social change.  Very motivating.  Quantifiable results are factored in to every recommendation.

8.  Value Innovation. On the list of things I have learned from Al Golin, the importance of a Big Idea is at the top. Chicagoans deliver on the expectation that we are the source of new, disruptive thinking.  The City grew up on the concept of Daniel Burnham’s “Make big plans,” since “Little plans, have no magic….”!

Think of the current “magic” in our business:  “content mania;” social media; PR migrating to a variety of disciplines/services; the resulting shift in talent and organizational structures; mobile everything; as the editor of Fortune said recently, we all work for tech companies now; and the Oxford Dictionary announces the new “word” of the year is a smiley face with tears!

That’s innovation!

An article from “Scientific American Mind” on creativity reads “the more you rub shoulders with neighbors,” the better chance you have to be innovative.  And, I love this:  “It’s not how smart you are, it’s how well connected you are.”

No wonder so many “Big Ideas” come from the super-connected Chicago PR people!

9.  Become Indispensable. Talent and commitment to do “whatever it takes” ensure we are a critical asset to our colleagues, the management team, the client.

While at Fleishman, I experienced the respect and even reliance clients had for their account teams. It inspired a list of “Rich’s Rules” on 10 ways to increase your “Indispensability Quotient.”  Yes, another “IQ.”  There are 11 items on the list because one is “Do more than is expected.” (Let me know if you’d like a copy.)

10. Give Back. The mentoring that goes on in our public relations community is a great example. Betsy Plank, a Senior Leader hero, reminded us: “You are never too young—or too old–to mentor or to be mentored by others.”

We have all counseled corporations on ways to invest resources to support a variety of causes.  We excel at CSR…but also “PSR”:  personal social responsibility. We are role models in “giving back” to organizations and issues that are important to us personally.

A native Oregonian, Rich Jernstedt currently is an independent consultant as well as a senior counselor at Porter Novelli. He served as executive vice president and senior partner of Fleishman-Hillard from 2004 to 2011. He was CEO of Golin for 12 of his 26 years at the Chicago-based agency.

2 thoughts on “Rules for Being a Chicago-style PR Person

  1. So people in other cities don’t share these qualities? Do you have to be born there or is it something acquired like from the drinking water, or doorknobs?

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