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Three Qualities PR Professionals Can’t Afford to Lose – and Two They Need to Gain

February 18, 2016

By: Rachel Catanach

My husband was a great fan of David Bowie and really grieved for him when he died. When he heard the news he changed his Facebook profile picture to his favourite Bowie image and played his music every night for at least a week. I also liked Bowie’s music but not to the same extent. What I really admired was Bowie’s ability to reinvent himself while remaining true to his craft. To me, this is his true legacy and there are lessons we can all learn from his shape-shifting mastery.

Much has been written about the PR industry’s transformation and the new skills and attitudes needed for success. There is no disputing change is necessary, but what should we keep? What qualities are still true north for our profession despite the social revolutions, economic tidal waves and technological innovations that are irrevocably changing the communications landscape? Here are the three qualities I believe we can’t afford to lose and two we need to further develop.

Can’t lose qualities

Empathy: Every day in our work we make judgments about how people will react – what they may think, feel and do in response to a situation or experience. While research and data can help us predict human behaviour, they are not an end in themselves. Drawing really good insights from data, which is a first step to good ideas, requires experience and empathy. Putting ourselves in others’ shoes is second nature for many PR professionals. Empathy is central to generating earned trust. We can’t afford to lose it.

Curiosity: Curiosity may have killed the cat but it’s what keeps PR professionals top of their game. Our ability to question the status quo, keep on learning new things and ask “What if”…even if it means exposing the elephant in the room. This simple question is just as effective in a crisis as in driving the creative process. As David Bowie said in his 1999 commencement address at Berklee: “…what I found that I was good at doing, and what I really enjoyed the most, was the game of “what if?” What if you combined Brecht-Weill musical drama with rhythm and blues? What happens if you transplant the French chanson with the Philly sound? … Can you put haggis and snails on the same plate? Well, no, but some of the ideas did work out very well.”

Courage: Our profession is all about helping leaders communicate with courage, craft a point of view and say it with conviction. In other words, thought leadership. In the multi-channel world we live in, the way these thoughts are communicated may have changed but the original courage to stand up and be counted has never been more important.

Qualities we can develop

Visual story-telling: We need to be better visual story-tellers. As Matthew Trammell said in the New Yorker about David Bowie’s music videos: “David Bowie’s androgynous appearance, his interstellar motifs, and his mind-bending visuals set standards that an unsuspecting public didn’t notice were being set. He pulled audiences across genres toward him, at a time when music was pushed out to targeted demographics in stratified categories that now seem antiquated.” David Bowie pushed visual limits. We should too. Adding words to pictures can change the context and add new dimensions to stories, drawing audiences in further and creating more powerful narratives.

Creativity: There is no doubt we have some brilliant creative minds within the PR industry. However, as an industry we need to systematize creativity better within our organisations so it is part and parcel of everything we do. Having appropriate structures and processes in place will ensure that creativity becomes a repeatable act – not just something that relies on a few good people to chance upon a great idea.

There has never been a more exciting time to be in the profession – and never more opportunity to add real value. A final comment from David Bowie: “I don’t know where I’m going but I promise it won’t be boring.” And here’s to that.

Rachel Catanach is the Senior Partner, Senior Vice President, Managing Director at FleishmanHillard Hong Kong and board member and former Chair of the Council of Public Relations Firms of Hong Kong. You can reach her at Rachel.Catanach@fleishman.com.