When you’re working in the comms dept and a senior executive you don’t know terribly well walks unexpected into your office, sits down and starts by asking how the family is, there’s a strong likelihood the conversation will turn to what they can do personally to help you ‘raise the profile’ of the business.

This usually means one of two things: either they want to give their old school chums an opportunity to see how successful they’ve become; or they’re looking for a new job and believe a profile needs raising, but not necessarily the company’s.

I was having a related discussion with a former colleague over the weekend.  My friend’s boss, a divisional leader whose relatively tender years belie her advanced ambition, was insisting she be introduced to the speaking circuit outside her sector and expertise.  This, the boss was sure, would help secure a lucrative non-executive directorship or two.

“It’s unnecessary work for me, it’s not a corporate objective and it’s a distraction for my team,” my friend explained.  “She has no idea how much time and effort is required and refuses to let me recruit someone to manage it as a project.”  It all sounded more vanity publishing than Vanity Fair to me, and not an unfamiliar challenge.

It’s a conundrum.  Where does your responsibility to promote the company end and to help build the individual’s career begin?  The challenge is exacerbated by the ease with which such activity (establishing mainstream thought leadership, demonstrating a commitment to diversity etc etc) can be justified. Furthermore, the art of public relations doesn’t have an activity-off-switch – there’s always something else you can do.

The reality is that if you’re raising the profile of a business or institution, and no one is getting a little bit famous in the process, you’re doing it a little bit wrong.  Corporations need people to help bring the story alive but you also need to keep a check that you’re not creating a bit of a publicity monster in the process.

There was little advice I could offer my friend, except to point out the tactics I have used when faced with similar vanity publishing assignments over the years:

  • Suggest they deploy their abundant skills ‘internally’ first.  It’s always a challenge to get senior managers to take employee engagement seriously and to dedicate time to meet the troops in a regional satellite operation on a Friday afternoon.
  • Find a low level speaking opportunity or two on the circuit they want to join. These are easier to secure and if the speaker does well first time out, better and bigger opportunities may follow.
  • Remind them that social media is networking for the 21st century and help them create a blog/Linkedin/twitter account – reminding them that authenticity demands that it’s their voice, not yours, that’s heard.
  • Introduce them to a specialist PR agency or speaker bureau that will appreciate the work and hope the executive agrees to fund the cost out of their budget, if not their own pocket.

If all else fails, you could always get yourself out and about in the hope that you get noticed and that the new job YOU’RE offered doesn’t come with the same vanity challenge.