After a 35-year career in public relations, including 18 years with my own business, I’m about to retire. Effective May 1, 2020, I will no longer be handling consulting or writing engagements – and I’m really looking forward to trying some new things.
Cleaning out client files earlier this month was like a trip down memory lane. I was reminded of a panoply of campaigns, crises and interviews on behalf of clients representing a wide range of industries. It has been quite a journey, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other career.
I started my PR career in the mid-1980s. After working for two international non-profit organizations, I decided in 1990 that the time was right to transition to the for-profit sector on either the agency or corporate side.
Having what I thought was valuable experience working with reporters throughout the world, a terrific mentor who really understood the media relations business and a just-completed graduate degree in communication and management, I was brimming with optimism and ready to take the next step.
As so often happens in life, however, things didn’t work out exactly as I envisioned.
For starters, I had the misfortune of trying to make this transition in the midst of an economic recession. It also didn’t take long for me to clue in that the for-profit sector was generally somewhat skeptical of my non-profit experience, and some considered it second tier. I was determined to prove myself, but how?
I attempted to arrange meetings with people in PR jobs to which I aspired, both on the corporate and agency side. Some were incredibly gracious, encouraging and generous with their time – while others wouldn’t give me the time of day.
For those who took time to hear my story and offer career advice, I consistently received feedback that I needed agency or news media experience to be considered for a corporate communications position or for a spot with a large PR firm.
While that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, I nevertheless took their advice to heart and started working as a correspondence for the Daily Herald, a newspaper covering Chicago suburbs. My compensation was a whopping $35 per article, which included my time attending meetings, conducting interviews and writing stories about city government, local schools and law enforcement.
Actually, I would have done this for free because the by-lines were far more valuable to me than whatever fee the paper paid for my stories. It also helped me see life through the eyes of a reporter.
After much persistence, I also landed a job with a small advertising agency near Chicago. It didn’t pay much but provided that all-important client experience. A little over a year later, I was hired by one of the largest PR firms in the Southeast as an account executive. A mutual acquaintance put me in touch with the agency’s president at the exact time he was looking for someone with my background and experience.
Some would say that was luck, but as a Christian I know there is no such thing as luck, and that it is God who opens and closes doors in our lives and careers. My task was to make myself as marketable as possible, be sensitive to His leading and knock on doors to see which ones opened.
In the years that followed, I worked with a talented group of 80 agency colleagues, serving local, regional and national clients and helping manage campaigns that included Tennessee’s year-long bicentennial celebration. I also was part of our agency’s media training and new business teams.
Four-and-a-half years later, a rising ad agency in the Nashville area recruited me to head up its PR division, which I did for four years before venturing out on my own.
On April 8, 2002, I launched ABC&D Communications (each letter stands for a family member: Andra, Brooke, Carolyn and Don). My goal that first year was to survive and earn enough to pay the bills. Much to my surprise, I immediately landed a huge piece of retainer business, followed by two additional retainer clients in the next few months along with several projects. By the end of the year, my business was booming.
When I started ABC&D Communications, a friend who had his own ad agency advised me to “prepare for success.” I thought he was being kind and encouraging, and frankly was skeptical that I would have much success that first year. He turned out to be right on target.
For the past 18 years, I’ve been blessed to have served well over 100 clients through my firm, as well as many others through my previous agency work, and to participate in a number of speaking engagements at professional conferences, webinars and podcasts.
In 2012, I wrote a post commenting on an article titled “10 skills the PR pro of 2022 MUST have.” We are now less than two years away from 2022, but my top 10 list of traits and skills for PR success are, I believe, as relevant today as when I wrote about them eight years ago. In fact, I believe they are timeless keys to PR success. Here they are, as I described them in 2012:
Integrity. Yes, I know there are unscrupulous PR people just as there are unscrupulous people in other walks of life. But sooner or later the truth emerges, and the bad guys get exposed and discredited. If reporters, clients or customers don’t trust your word or character, you’d better find something else to do because you aren’t going to have much of a career in PR in 2012 or 2022.
A positive attitude. Being a positive, energetic person with a can-do attitude will always go a long way. The world is full of people who can give you a dozen reasons why something can’t be done or won’t work. And sometimes they’re right, but often it’s because they’ve allowed themselves to become negative and cynical in their thinking, always seeing the glass as half empty rather than half full.
Relational skills. Being a team player and having the ability to relate well to people at all levels will never go out of style. It’s one of the most important traits of successful people, whether in PR or in other disciplines.
A knack for networking. Being a resource and connector for others will pay off, even if there’s not an immediate personal benefit. From assisting reporters or bloggers looking for good sources to building relationships with key influencers in the community and industry, time invested in people is never wasted.
Balance. Know how to strike the balance between needing to get information out quickly vs. ensuring the information is correct and credible. If you wait too long, in today’s 24/7 news cycle you may miss out on opportunities. But a quick response must also be a responsible one, and if you want to keep your credibility make sure the information you disseminate is accurate to the best of your ability.
Strategic thinking. The ability to do effective planning and see the big picture separates the strategists from the order takers. Effective PR people are able to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously without losing focus on the long-term objective. Those who think tactically (what needs to be done) without also thinking strategically (why we are doing something and how we should go about it) will have a hard time advancing in PR.
A cool head under pressure. Thinking quickly, clearly and calmly under pressure—and helping others do so in a crisis—will always earn respect among peers and leaders alike.
Flexibility. A PR person’s day can change in an instant, and you need to be able to shift priorities at a moment’s notice.
A yearn to learn. A broad-based college education that incorporates working knowledge of PR principles, business, journalism, marketing and the social sciences is a good start, but learning should be a life-long activity. Keeping up with industry trends through blogs, conferences, industry publications, etc., will keep your thinking fresh and make you a valuable resource to others.
The ability to communicate clearly, concisely and relevantly, regardless of the medium being used. A good PR person understands the audience he or she is targeting and what’s important to them. Knowing how to adapt a story to a particular niche and medium—and how to speak to people in a meaningful way— has always been vital to success. As audiences get more and more segmented, the demand for this skill will only increase.
As I write this final post and start a new phase of life, I am grateful for the journey and excited about the future.
I want to thank my clients for entrusting their businesses to me for their PR needs; my colleagues for all I have learned from them; the reporters who have considered my pitches and done some first-rate stories about my clients; readers of my blog who have shared thoughts and insights over the years; and my family for being a constant source of support and encouragement.
Most of all, I want to give thanks to the the Lord Jesus Christ for blessing me with such a wonderful career and for His unfailing faithfulness to me.
Don Beehler is a PR consultant, strategist and writer who helps clients communicate effectively, manage their reputations and build their brands so they can advance their business objectives. Prior to founding ABC&D Communications, he held management positions with advertising/public relations agencies in Chicago and Nashville.
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