Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Persistence, Chance, and Luck Can Make a Career in Public Relations


“You shouldn’t have started your consulting practice so early in your career,” said one public relations professional while interviewing me for a job. 

“We couldn’t figure out your professional narrative,” proclaimed another practitioner, who was chair of a committee considering my application for membership in a public relations honorary organization. 

These comments stung. Yet once I put aside my bruised feelings, I could discern the underlying issue: my career had evolved in a non-traditional fashion that to some defied logic if not common sense. 

I never intended to work in public relations. Even after I landed my first job at a public relations agency, my path was anything but straight and narrow. I ended up where I am today through persistence, chance, and luck, not as the result of a detailed plan executed over time.

I originally intended to become a history professor. After earning my BA, I moved to Northern California to attend Stanford University’s PhD program in Modern European History.

I left school after earning a master’s degree, realizing that I was ill-suited for work as a professional historian. I turned my energies towards finding a full-time job.

A non-profit organization hired me as a Fundraising Assistant. I never raised funds, although I assumed other responsibilities. 

My roommate at the time talked about Toastmasters, a nonprofit organization that teaches public speaking and leadership.  It sounded like something I would enjoy. I checked out a local club. I liked it. I joined. Little did I realize that I had stumbled onto something that would transform my career.

I threw myself into Toastmasters. It turned out to be a place where I could channel energies that I had not yet had the opportunity to apply in my job. I prepared and delivered a lot of speeches. I assumed volunteer leadership positions throughout the organization. 

I began to promote the benefits of Toastmasters. I devoured its materials on publicity and applied what I learned; still, I felt more could be done. I turned to local community newspapers (the Internet wasn’t available yet). I started to learn as much as I could about them. I noted types of news they covered, and how I should submit information.  I had no one to teach me. I learned by doing. 

My efforts yielded many stories about Toastmasters clubs in local media. My fellow members were impressed. 

Meanwhile, I had concluded that I needed to leave my non-profit job. I hoped to apply my new media relations skills in a new job. A member of my Toastmasters club, who worked at a public relations agency, knew about my interests.  He invited me to come in for an informational interview. I did. Two months later, the agency offered me a job. I soon discovered I was the only person at the agency who didn’t have an undergraduate degree in either public relations or journalism. 

I started as a junior account executive, and in that role I pitched countless stories to reporters.  I did reasonably well in this work. What I understood less well was writing. I had no clue how to write using an inverted pyramid structure. I learned quickly, by writing countless drafts of press releases, pitch letters, and other documents. 

I look back fondly on this agency experience as I forged many relationships I’ve maintained over the years. Yet that agency’s harried pace and relentless pressure to perform wore me down. I looked for a public relations position inside an organization, and soon found one. 

After a year and a half in that position, I thought: “I can do this on my own. I don’t need anyone to direct me. I can be my own boss.” Voila, Mitchell Friedman Communications was born. It was 1992, when few public relations professionals were independent consultants. 

I didn’t have a business plan. I simply reached out to former agency colleagues. Several hired me to help with their media relations efforts. 

Soon, my Toastmasters experience beckoned me to expand my services. I realized I wanted to speak, train, and teach. I reached out to my former agency colleagues, who hired me to lead training programs. They also referred me to others. 

I craved opportunities to build longer-term relationships with individuals who sought professional development, above and beyond short-term training programs. Teaching seemed to hold some promise. Again, chance provided an opportunity. As a board member of a local public relations group, I got to know the academic coordinator at a school that offered master’s degrees in public relations. During one conversation she commented that “we’re always looking for people to teach.” I responded immediately: “I’ve always wanted to teach.” Five months later, in January 1998, I was teaching a new course about public relations on the Internet.

That teaching opportunity led to others at universities located throughout the U.S. and included the public relations campaigns course I continue to teach today. Still, as a part-time instructor, there didn’t appear to be a long-term career path for me at any university.  

I decided to return to school to earn a doctorate to increase my chances of landing a full-time teaching position. I studied organizational behavior and leadership, which I felt nicely complimented my public relations experience. After graduating in 2011, I worked in administrative roles at local universities while continuing to teach courses on public relations campaigns, crisis management, leadership, and other topics. 

In late 2016, I started a new part-time teaching position. It was unlike others as there was a legitimate path to a full-time role. I worked hard to get it.  In 2018 I landed that full-time teaching position—20 years after my first university teaching position.  

As I teach, consult, and coach clients today, I can share the details of my path with a confidence I had long felt was beyond my grasp. Indeed, there is no one, right career trajectory in the public relations field. I’m living proof of that.

(This piece was originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of Public Relations Strategies and Tactics, a publication for members of the Public Relations Society of America)

Monday, November 23, 2020

How U.S. Navy Public Relations Matured in the Pre-World War II Era (book review published)

My review of the book Selling Sea Power: Public Relations and the US Navy, 1917–1941 has been published in the November 2020 issue of Communications Booknotes Quarterly. You can read the review here (scroll down the page to find it). 

Check out what else I've been reading, and related thoughts, here

Monday, October 5, 2020

A Shout Out for Baby Boomers (we're not going anywhere, people)

Many people around my age are starting to think seriously about retirement. Some are planning an “encore career.” Yet I feel like I’m still in the third or fourth act of my working life. And I don’t know how many acts there are. In certain respects, I feel like I’ve had a reverse career. I opted for self-employment early on (probably too soon, in retrospect). Only later did I embrace the possibility of working for someone else. And I find myself now as a full-time employee, and happily so. 

That’s why I chafe when I hear “experts” anoint younger people as the future of organizations. That’s why I won’t remain silent when I hear people dissing people over 40 years of age. Not so fast, I say. Many of us so-called “Baby Boomers” are still going strong. 

A conference presentation I heard in 2016 epitomizes this perspective.  The speaker called on 40-50 year old audience members to make way for the 20-30 year old attendees. This younger cohort would lead the organization in next phase of its evolution. The older group’s best work apparently laid in the past. 

I’m by no means ready to turn anything over to anyone. No one is going to push me aside at this stage in my life. I have more energy than I did 10 years ago and I am ready to put it to good use for as long as I can. So, the speaker’s comments irked me then, and still do. 

We’re individuals, not people of a certain age. We can no more afford to discard people based on their age than we can based on any other criteria. Age brings experience, no doubt. But experience by itself won’t suffice. Valuable experience leads to wisdom. That’s a quality we cannot get enough of in our organizations. We need to tap into it wherever and in whomever it exists regardless of their age.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Rethinking the Meaning of Ethics in Public Relations

It’s September. That means it’s ethics month in PRSA and an appropriate time for every PRSA member to ask themselves: what does it mean to be an ethical public relations practitioner in 2020?

I believe developments in the past nine months have fundamentally changed how we need to think about our responses to this question. The pandemic and heightened attention to racial injustice in the U.S., among other events, have raised myriad complex, emotionally charged issues. We can no longer avoid these issues; social media stokes the flames so we have to make choices, each of which has consequences for us and our organizations. 

Given this current environment, public relations practitioners would be wise to actively engage all of an organization’s stakeholders. That commitment to engage everyone—not just media—is by its very nature an ethical choice. That is, it shows we take seriously the potential ramifications of what’s going on around us on the lives of all those who matter most to the organizations we have the opportunity to serve. 

To this end, I believe public relations professionals ought to step back and consider six sets of questions. They’ve been crafted with an eye towards helping practitioners recalibrate what they do given current and future challenges, as well as accelerating our collective evolution as ethical practitioners of our craft.

  1. Do we say or do something when something happens outside our organization (especially when our organization’s interests aren’t necessarily clear)? Why? Why not? 
  2. If we choose to act, what do we say, how do we say it, when do we say it, and where do we say it?
  3. How do we best advise organizations (and their stakeholders) on how to manage this new, ever evolving maelstrom of events and issues?
  4. Do we have the skills to take on this advisory role with clients? In other words, do we have strategic and tactical tools to think through the complexities of what’s involved, how developments impact our organizations, and how to implement our guidance at the most granular level?
  5. Do we have the opportunity to assume these responsibilities? That is, what does the public relations function actually do in our organization? Is the focus on social media and traditional media? Or is it framed more broadly in terms of public relations’ role in managing the organization’s reputation? Does senior management look to public relations for guidance, or consider them solely as tacticians? 
  6. Are we as public relations professionals willing to assume these broader responsibilities? In other words, are we willing to grow our skillset and/or move to a different organization that would provide us the opportunity to take on an expanded role?

In short, our willingness to grapple with these questions tests our ability to flourish as ethical public relations practitioners. I believe our times, and the future of our profession, demand we rise to this challenge.

(The Public Relations Society of America San Francisco Bay Area Chapter recently published this article on their web site, here

Monday, July 13, 2020

The True Meaning of Surrender

To “surrender” means “to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.” Synonyms include give in, yield, concede, submit, give way, defer, and back down.

Indeed, there are other definitions. But this one comes up on top in my search results.

When you surrender in this sense of the term you stop doing whatever you were doing, as you no longer can do it. Because if you do there will be negative consequences, and you’ve decided you no longer want to face them.

Then what? If you take the definition literally, you may tend to sit back. You allow something or someone other than yourself to be in charge. That can lead to a passivity, and with it a relinquishing of responsibility. You get lazy, even soft; why do you need to do anything seeing that after surrendering you’ve no longer in control?

No wonder surrender has a poor reputation. Because giving up control and responsibility reflects poorly on us, right? It suggests we’re weak, irresponsible, and at the mercy of others.

But surrender is a positive. It shows courage. It’s often easier to “go along to get along” than to do something different. Because to surrender means you change direction. You give up AND you get going in a different way. To that end, surrender demands constant action in support of the change. In other words, if you’ve given up something you’ve taken up something else. That “something else” needs reinforcement to enable it flourish in your life.

To surrender is necessary to improve and realize one’s potential. Don’t let the definition of the term, or its reputation, obscure that very important point.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

"Public Relations Ethics Through Leadership and Organizational Lenses" Presentation Scheduled for July 1, 2020

On Wednesday, July 1, 2020, I'm presenting "Public Relations Ethics Through Leadership and Organizational Lenses." It will be a webinar on Zoom sponsored by PRSA (Public Relations Society of America)'s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. The program is free to PRSA members. 

PRSA's Code of Ethics represents a starting point for public relations professionals as they ponder taking action. Yet, it represents one piece of a broader ethical landscape. In my talk I will challenge attendees to consider individual, professional, and organizational ethical issues that rightfully fall to public relations. In turn, these issues can provide professionals a platform to solidify their standing as trusted advisors to clients. I'll be drawing on my work in organizational behavior and leadership, and will offer suggestions on how public relations professionals can apply it as they grapple with a range of high-profile issues that clamor for their attention. 

PRSA members can go here for more information about the webinar.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Three Failings of Coronavirus Communications, and a Valuable Resource to Help You Address Them

I've been critical here of organizational communications regarding the coronavirus. Why? Three reasons:
  1. They fail to address the "what's in it for me." I've received a lot of email from entities I don't recall engaging, or ones that might have engaged once, or others that I've never heard of at all. In the vast majority of instances there was little connection to me--it was like, gee, we need to communicate about something very important with you because you're on our email distribution lists. The sum total has been inane and  worthless communication. In other words, there's a bigger, broader, more important purpose here that transcends the narrow "we need to do something because we need to do something" view that many organizations seem to have adopted during this crisis. 
  2. They fail to prioritize stakeholders. Not all stakeholders are created equal. Therefore, not all stakeholders need to hear from you (if at all), much less at the same time (and with the same frequency). 
  3. They Fail to Consider the Frequency of Communications. I feel like I'm bombarded by emails from one organization (a school) where I teach one class a year. I'm talking multiple emails a day.  Sure, news is breaking rapidly--but not that rapidly.
To help address these and related challenges associated with communicating about the coronavirus, I recommend Doug Levy's book Communications Handbook for Coronavirus. Since I reviewed the first edition of the book, Doug has spent time updating it. He's incorporated the insight he's gleaned from working on the front lines to plan and execute communication strategies related to the coronavirus. His sage counsel can help you to cut through the fluff to provide accurate, timely, and relevant information to key stakeholders. 

You can get your copy of the Communications Handbook for Coronavirus here

Saturday, March 21, 2020

It's a Great Time to Pick Up the Phone to Talk to People

I've met a lot of people during my career. I've always made it a point to stay in touch with them as much as possible. Social media has made the task a whole lot easier.

Then again, the quantity and quality of live connections have decreased dramatically. It seems like these conversations now only happen by appointment. Granted, if you really want to speak with someone, you want to make sure they're available.  Yet I've always found a spontaneous conversation with someone I know a "small pleasure." That's equally true for whether I make or receive the call. In both instances, they offer a valuable tonic that breaks my pattern of solo work (and even isolation).

And then there's the separate but related issue of having "friends" on social media we have never met. Often, we have never even spoken with them by phone. 

Now, we're largely restricted to our homes while keeping our distance from those out in public. The joy of these substantive conversations feels even more elusive. But we still have our phones. They still work. We still know how to use them to make calls. And we have time for these conversations. That's true even with the added pressures foisted upon us by the pandemic. In fact, I'd go so far to say we need these conversations now more than ever. 

To this end, I'm committing to picking up the phone to call people I know. And, more importantly, I'll be reaching out to people I "know" only on social media but have never spoken with. I'm overdue for these conversations. It's time. I want them to happen. And I need them to happen.  

So, let's talk. By phone. Soon. It doesn't matter who calls who. You can find my phone number on Facebook and/or LinkedIn if we've connected there. That's where I'll look for yours (if I don't otherwise have it). If we're not directly connected, I encourage you to reach out. Let's simply connect. Live. Real time. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

A Rant About Coronavirus-Related Emails

You’ve no doubt received the emails. You know, like those from organizations with which you have an ongoing relationship. Or others, from organizations with which you might have had a single transaction. Or still others, from organizations whose names you might recognize. But you may not immediately understand why they’re emailing you (see image to the right). And, finally, there are emails from those mysterious organizations. They leave you scratching your head. You wonder: how did you even get on this email list in the first place?

These organizations have chosen to communicate with us about their management of the coronavirus. I have little doubt others will soon follow. 

I’ve found no value in any of this email. None of it has been relevant to my specific needs or interests. Absolutely none of it. 

As I think about this communication more granularly, I'm perplexed. For example, it’s baffling why organizations in the travel and hospitality industries would reach out at all. Aren’t we not supposed to travel very far, if at all, for some undetermined period of time? So the fact that they need to let us know about their proactive measures is at best ill-timed. At worst, it's inappropriate.

Yes, it’s admirable for organizations to feel a need communicate about a public health matter. That’s true even if the issue may or may not have ramifications for stakeholders other than their employees. But the fact remains that the current circumstances seem to dictate greater caution. Perhaps more care is needed than ever before in our lifetimes. Communication must always be timely, appropriate, and relevant—not to mention accurate. The current tsunami of information, innuendo, rumor, and fear mongering demands nothing less. 

So, my request to these organizations: be quiet. Leave us alone. Take care of your employees and their families. We don’t care what you’re doing now. It doesn’t matter to us. It’s not relevant to the challenges we face during a public health emergency. If and when it becomes so, we welcome your communication. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Let's Keep Speculation, Conjecture, and Future Tripping to a Minimum

I remember the moment as if it happened yesterday. It was September 12, 2001. I was glued to my television set and the Internet. I craved any piece of news related to the calamity that had just taken place. I watched, listened, and read with rapt attention, devouring every morsel with alacrity. 

Not surprisingly, my anxiety increased. It peaked when I viewed the following item on CNN's news ticker: "Experts predict that the chances of another terrorist attack on the US are 100%." 

I panicked. I awakened my wife from a deep sleep. He looked at me, perplexed, told me not to worry about it, and went back to sleep. 

That second terrorist attack didn't happen. Nor did countless other developments that pundits had discussed, often in painstaking detail. 

The fact is that much of what so-called "experts" speculated about didn't happen. Everyone's educated guesses, conjectures, and pontification didn't amount to much. The fact is that no one can predict the future, no matter how much education, training, and/or wisdom they have. Sure, I understand that people attempt to deal with their anxieties by engaging in such chatter. But, if my experience is at all generalizable, it only makes things worse. So why bother? 

So I'll pass on the banter about the coronavirus. I'll say no to panic-induced water cooler and social media conversation. It doesn't do me any good. I'll do my very best to live in the moment, and focus on what I actually can control (a whole lot) and what I need to do (a whole lot). When relevant details come down the pike, I'll be there, ready to receive them. But I'm keeping speculation, conjecture, and future tripping to a minimum.