Managing a leading Philadelphia public relations firm

April 26, 2013
Fear on alarm clock

“Everything I know about management I have learned from reality TV and sports.” And so began my portion of a conversation with a management class at Ursinus College in suburban Philadelphia. Fortunately, I was in some pretty rarified company with a C-level executive from a major consumer products company to my right, an executive from Vanguard on my left, and someone internal to Ursinus College administration in between us all.

They all came from organizations larger than the 50 professionals who comprise Gregory FCA. So I relied on them to address questions of management theory. My world, unfortunately, is much more concrete. Here inside a mid-sized PR firm, we don’t have the luxury of rigid frameworks and structures. We don’t do engagement studies — as one of the speakers explained. Rather, engagement is demonstrated each and every day in a constant drive to remain relevant to our customers, deliver results, and ultimately help our clients achieve their business objectives.

But still, there is a method to the madness of managing a leading public relations firm here in Philadelphia. So here’s what I shared with an audience of bright, young people eager to learn about the world around them:

Question 1: What motivates you?

FEAR O’CLOCK: Fear wakes us in
the morning and drives us to excel

My answer as an entrepreneur: “Fear.” Once the laughter subsided, I shared with them that every day I launch from bed fully aware of the expectations upon me — to meet payroll, to land new business, to exceed the expectations of a roster of clients who have entrusted us with their image and reputation. It’s fear that makes us run in the morning. That brings us to the office over the weekend with the troubling questions that haunt all entrepreneurs: Are we good enough? Do we want it enough? Do we know enough? And in the end, will we make a difference in the growth trajectory of each of our clients?

Question 2: Do you really have to care about people in order to manage them?

My answer as an entrepreneur: “It’s all about sincerity, and once you can fake that the world is your oyster.” Again with the laughter. The truth is that most people who succeed in public relations are more focused on the creative process and the ideas than they are on people and emotions. The line between the two has always been my greatest challenge. I told the class I am apt to run over people in pursuit of that one idea that will resonate with a market and win the day for the client. I struggle each day to balance the two.

Question 3: What makes people loyal?

My answer as an entrepreneur: “In 2013, I do not believe that people are inherently loyal to an organization.” Rather, professionals, and particularly young professionals, are loyal to certain aspects of a profession. That might be IT. Or it might be social media. Or it might be media relations. Or it could be writing and communications. You need to find those people who are passionate about your products, services, and clients, and all of a sudden you find alignment.

Question 4: What would you tell a young person just starting in business?

My answer as an entrepreneur: Find your passion. I don’t care if it’s furniture making or public relations. I don’t care if it’s journalism or entrepreneurship. Find out what turns you on, what captures your attention. What you think may be one step beyond you. Then master it while you are young, when you can afford to take risk. Find mentors to direct you. Invest the time to acquire the skills behind the craft. Spend the 10,000 hours needed for proficiency, and then go for it. Success will follow.

Question 5: What’s been your biggest surprise of the evening?

My answer as an entrepreneur: “That the word ‘organization’ has been used so much this evening.” In my firm, we have another word to explain our collective efforts. It’s simpler than the word organization. We always use the term “We” to explain our singular focus on client service and delivery. It’s up to the collective We to grow our business, master our profession, stay current or ahead of the business, and surprise and delight clients. It’s not an organization. It’s We.

Question 6: What is your take on the skills and commitment of young professionals just joining the workforce?

My answer as an entrepreneur: Never have so many young people joined the workforce with so many needed skills. Public relations and communications is a booming industry. The ascent of the Internet. The availability of media. The always-on, informational world we live in. It demands great communicators, and guess what? The new workforce has spent 10 years communicating with one another — on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other digital channels. That’s an incredible installed base of pre-trained talent. To manage it, we need to understand that young professionals want to work collaboratively. They want to be challenged. They feel most alive when they are multitasking and moving quickly working with others. They may sometimes overestimate their skills, but you can’t punish them for errors of aggression. Only errors of omission. If they’re trying, that’s great. If they are simply not engaged, that’s a problem. They want to inherit the world quickly and probably will.

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