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Don't Be an Ostrich: Managing the "Public" in Public Relations

Sean Silva

The ostrich is known for sticking its head in the sand when scared, thinking that its inability to see anything means it is fully hidden and protected from all danger. Unfortunately in today's smartphone-centric, over-communicative era, many professionals have evolved into Grade-A ostriches when it comes to navigating their surroundings.

I was on the subway to work the other morning and, while on the train, a young professional was having a conversation on her phone with a co-worker. She spoke passionately about recent successes, and it was soon clear that she was in our field of public relations, which naturally piqued my interest.

I listened on as this young professional addressed her myriad of work-related responsibilities. Little did she know that I, standing right next to her and dressed down in honor of the ever-sacred Casual Friday, not only worked in her field but am involved in the hiring process at our firm. And she certainly had no idea that, in overhearing her conversation, this dressed-down PR executive was silently evaluating her candidacy based on how she spoke about work. Unfortunately, the tides soon turned for the worse.

The woman began venting to her co-worker about all her work-related frustrations - co-workers she despised, high-maintenance clients who mistreated her, and a series of senior resignations at her firm. At one point she even uttered the phrase, "I would never work for a PR agency again". The certainty I had about offering her my business card evaporated as quickly as the equity markets during that fateful August correction.

What's the lesson here? Don't be an ostrich.

Treat any public forum like you are surrounded by reporters and/or potential employers and assume anything you say out loud is being evaluated by someone who could use the information to their benefit. Now, if you are forced to "Work from Subway", make sure you're sounding smart. You never know who might start a conversation with you if your commentary shows value.

This also applies to your client work. We're in a very volatile market environment, and investors have a lot of questions about what to expect next. Where appropriate, push your clients to be transparent during times of trouble. Don't overpromise just to get stakeholders off your back. Manage expectations using simple, consistent messaging.

Lastly, this is particularly important when working with media. Shutting out reporters when a client is undergoing public scrutiny is a sure-fire way to slant a reporter's story against you. Even if you're not commenting on the record, providing context on background can at least help guide a reporter to tell a more balanced story. Granted, this concept is not a one-size-fits-all tactic. There are many instances where, during turbulent times, there just isn't much to say in general. But, making yourself available for informal check-ins and catch-ups can go a long way with the press. End of Story

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