ADVOCATING ADVOCACY

I have yet to come across a training course designed to help public relations and communications people develop the most important skill they need for success: self-confidence.

There is any number of courses that will help you better manage the media, make you a better writer or communicator in a corporate crisis, but I’ve not seen a ‘self-confidence for communicators’ course advertised.

Calling a grizzly old journalist on a national to pitch them a story requires self-assurance, as does going on the radio to answer questions when something’s gone wrong.  Presenting your agency to a prospective new client calls for self-belief.  Defending your business against false accusations levelled by a competitor or disgruntled ex-employee requires poise, while advising a CEO who has lost control that the best thing for the business is for him to resign requires … well, you get the point.

Public relations, or corporate advocacy, is a ‘confidence’ business. It typically asks you the question ‘what should we do?’ at times when the stakes are high, the odds short or the opportunity important.  Your answer, and the way you implement that answer, puts you in the spotlight with the grown ups who are highly paid and have big offices.

In fact, working in public relations is a lot like entering the debating chamber.  Your role is a daily succession of proposing or opposing motions, accusations or arguments in a way that makes others behave and think differently and better towards your employer, its products and services.

In many ways, this can be the best part of the job.  The perceptions of some are deeply entrenched and unlikely to change without robust debate. It’s professionally more satisfying to alter the perception of an enemy that to reinforce the view of a friend.

Practice helps, but a lack of familiarity and knowledge of the topic, otherwise known as being underprepared, erodes the speaker’s confidence.

Successful debaters do their research, gather the facts and consider the counter arguments the opposition might present.  They go into battle armed with talking points or a script, an analogy or two, perhaps a joke and a few prepared Q and As and put downs.  Or, as Richard Kline, the American actor and director, put it:  “Confidence is preparation.  Everything else is beyond your control.”

Public relations is advocacy and advocacy is often difficult.  Engaging in the difficult, especially when getting it wrong happens in public, is not everyone’s cup of tea.  I’ve worked with too many communications people over the years, both in-house and in consultancy, who found it easier to step away from the awkward and to delegate the difficult.

The one thing all those individuals have in common is that none of them got any better at it.

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