What to Be When You Grow up: A PR Commencement Speech



My undergrad commencement ceremony, as special and Carolina blue as it was, was missing one thing. A commencement speech (most southerners can’t handle a 55 degree, rainy day in May). And today, as I watch student after student in long black robes roam the Boston streets, I wonder…

What I would have liked to hear that day from our speaker? What would have made an actual impact in my life and my chosen career? The answer: a speech specifically aimed at bright-eyed journalism and communication grads, something like this:

Good morning Class of 2015! Congratulations!!

You’re all sitting here today because you’ve taken the past four years to get book smart. To do some hard work, get good grades (at least relatively), tighten up your grammar, attend a party or two, and maybe do some good for the world. Now you’re off to enter the world of communications; the always changing, always on, always whirling world of, professional, careful, decisive conversation.

That’s what it is at the end of the day, right? We’re all just talking to one another, (and hopefully, listening too). Now your job will be to learn (over time) how to do this in a way that is meaningful and engaging. And, maybe, just maybe, in 140 characters or less!

So, what I’d like to share with you, on one of the most defining days of your life (at least for your Klout score), are the things you won’t learn right away. They’re not things to do when you grow up. No. They’re things you should be. A list I’ve developed based on years of experience from advertising agency to PR agency and beyond, 8 things I try to be each and every day.

They’re also the things that likely won’t sink in until you actually experience them. And that’s okay. My hope is that you’ll recognize these defining ways of being, even more quickly because you were here today. If not, at least you can tell an amusing story about the lame speech you heard on commencement day, and how you really wish it had rained so you could have just fast-forwarded to grabbing your diploma.

So here goes:

1. Be Personal. The old saying “it’s not personal, it’s business,” well, it’s not true. It’s all personal. It has to be. If you want to have meaningful, wait for it, “engagement,” you have to get personal. You have to dig down into your work and look at your client’s needs and their customer’s needs and you have to make products, provide services, and develop content that will resonate with them, whether they’re cognizant about it or not. I recently worked on a new business pitch alongside some amazing teammates. We all researched and then brainstormed the growing pain points of our potential client’s customers. We talked ad nauseam about how annoying a lack of connectivity across enterprises was. And it got us energetic. It got us pumped up. Why? Because we’ve experienced these problems first hand. We found a way to relate to both the brand and its customer base. By making it personal we were able to communicate the brand’s solution to this problem and, simultaneously, forge relationships with their customers in the future. When you get personal, that’s when you dig deep and come up with the really successful campaigns. This leads me to my next point.

2. Be Intuitive. In communications, you need insights. You’ll never be relevant if you can’t determine what’s of value to the person on the other side of your ad, or piece of content, or tweet for that matter. How do you develop insights? It’s a two-fold process. First, draw from your intuitions and personal experiences. If you want to have real conversations with people that translate to sales (and, drum roll please, ROI for your clients), you have to trust that little gut of yours. One of my staple statements, “WWYS,” What Would You Share?, always comes in handy. Because it’s true. If it doesn’t make sense to you and you wouldn’t share it, who would? Second, allow your personal experiences to inspire research, so that your intuitions combined with data help you to create communications strategies, ideas and content that are grounded in reality. In the pitch I mentioned before, we drew from our own dis-connectivity troubles and let those intuitions guide our research. From there we discovered the macro level frustrations that a CIO or CTO experiences around the same topics.

3. Be a Partner. Always. To your coworkers, to your clients, to your customers, and beyond. Where ever you work, your time is money. But the way to create a trustworthy reputation is to be a partner at all costs. To walk across the lines of communication, across the digital world, and help your clients, your colleagues, your bosses, your coworkers out, even if it isn’t in your job description or SOW (statement of work). Oftentimes I have coworkers or clients who are just starting out in the digital world (my specialty), and have questions…some as simple as, “What’s a hashtag?” <long pause> and some are more in-depth questions around how to become more active in the social space. Yes, it takes time to help out. But in the long term, this investment pays back in dividends, when you can see your coworker learning and getting better. And, as happened to me recently, chiming one of your isms back in your face and reminding you to practice what you preach (thanks Anastasia!).

4. Be Decisive. Just as it’s important to trust your instincts, it’s as important to give those instincts a voice. Especially when you walk into a well-seasoned company with articulate, experienced people at the helm. In front of such senior leaders, it can be intimidating to share your idea or have faith in the direction you see a strategy or piece of content going.  But, trust me, you have to get in there and roll up your sleeves. I remember the first time I edited the President of an old company’s blog post. He was the owner of the agency, can I really edit his blog? The truth was I found many ways to edit it. So I sucked it up, went to his office and shared my feedback. He LOVED it! And it got to the point where we were both able to provide each other feedback in our own areas of expertise. Hello – that’s why he hired me! Ultimately, if you’ve chosen a company that values your unique POV, that places an importance on what makes you, you, they’ll appreciate your willingness to go against the grain or be bold. And, maybe, just maybe they’ll listen to what you have to say!

5. Be Creative. Take 10 minutes every day to write something. Something of your own. This is how you will begin (if you haven’t already) to form your own opinions. You’ll explore new topics, you’ll find you have something different to say. And it will help you to hone your ideas in a safe place. Eventually, inspiring a blog post, a book, a picture, a new campaign, a new strategy, a commencement speech even ;). I promise you the time is worth it. You can’t ever be too busy to take time out to plan long term, to let yourself think outside of the box and forgive your blabbering, forgive your unordered thought and just write. Don’t judge, don’t delete. Just write. I like to do this with a pen and paper, but you may very well like to dictate to your Apple Watch. Whatever the case, create, create every day. This is what will keep you in touch with the core of what makes you a communicator in the first place.

6. Be Proactive. Take every opportunity to grow and learn. Not just about other people, but about yourself. Learn how you work best. Learn what triggers your creativity. Reflect back on the most efficient times of the day and try to remember what you were doing before, what you were doing during. For instance, I wrote this speech late in the day. Why? Aside from the fact that I’m a night owl, I wanted to put my whole mind into this for you. I wanted to use my most creative time, and guess what? That happens to be later at night. We may find a shift in the coming future that accounts for these kinds of individual preferences in the work day, but until then, figure it out on your own and proactively incorporate these learnings into your everyday. It’s what will help you to not just to get by, but to also be successful.

7. Be Informed. I really can’t stress this enough. You need to keep up-to-date. You need to read, read, read. And I don’t mean just keeping up with the news or the Kardashians. I mean keeping up with your industry trends. Yes, while you need to do that, you also need to be informed about your client’s idiosyncrasies, what pressures they have. What they’re worrying about. What keeps them up at night. You need to learn the nuances of media relationships, client relationships, internal relationships, as all of these will affect your ultimate results and successes. Once one of my teams found ourselves interacting with a reporter on Twitter, on the behalf of a client. And not just any reporter, but one that would be characterized as “very opinionated” and “hard to reach.” Because we knew this about her and her reputation in the industry, we were much more confident about our approach and our conversation with her resulted in a great success for the client. There’s just no way to be decisive and a great partner without being informed. So dive into the nitty gritty, spend time daily to learn what separates your clients from the pack, learn the industry’s nuances, learn your target audience’s challenges. There will never be a new technology that allows you to skip over those steps, not even Hyperlapse.

8. Be Valued. There are way too many firms/agencies to count and as you continue your career in comms you’ll learn that there are significant differences between them. Some are team oriented.  Some foster a sense of individuality and difference of opinion. Some don’t. Some work with markets that stay pretty similar. Some work with companies with new innovations on a daily basis. And these are the things to think about when you think about your long-term fit. In tech PR and I’ve found that an “all hands on deck” mentality (as my colleague Zora says), plays to my strengths. But that might not be your style. Long story short, you need to be at an agency that values you and has clients that you’re passionate about, that you (as we like to say at LPP) “nerd out” on.

I could continue. But the reality is that you’ve probably only heard a small percentage of what I’ve said, and a fraction of that small percentage is what you’ll actually remember. And I’m not even going to get into recall – that’s something I can only hope for if you see this speech again on YouTube. This is the burden and the challenge to each communications professional each day; to create things, to enable and foster conversations that are memorable. So today, move that tassel over and start cranking those engines, because in order to make the connections and create the content that will one day fuel the most memorable conversations of our time, you have to be YOU. Don’t take that lightly.

Thanks, and so many congratulations to you all!

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