How to be a Great PR Professional
By Emeka Oparah
This piece was inspired by an article published by Business Insider entitled “Meet the 25 Most Influential PR People Behind the Success of Corporate America,” which is led by Facebook’s VP Communications/Public Policy, Elliot Schrage. Formerly VP of Communications at Google. Schrage holds degrees from Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government and has testified before the US Congress. Others named in the US list include Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman Public Relations, the largest PR firm in the world, with clients like PepsiCo, Hewlett-Packard-Packers and SAP. His parents built the company!
The list also features Dave Senay, President and CEO of Fleishman-Hillary; Leslie Dach, EVP of Corporate Affairs and Government Relations at Wal-Mart; Stephanie Cutter, who was Deputy Campaign Manager for President Barack Obama; Harris Diamond, CEO of McCann; Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick; Donald A. Baer, President and CEO of Burson-Marsteller; Beth Comstock, SVP and CMO at GE; John Iwata, SVP of Marketing and Communications at IBM; Jack Martin Global Chairman and CEO of Hills & Knowlton, Christopher Graves, Global CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, among others.
A very interesting list, there are some common characteristics among these top-notch professionals: they either run the largest public relations agencies in the United States or manage some of the largest and most recognizable clients or both. The same applies to our Nigerian stars which include the likes of Yomi Badejo-Okusanya, Nkechi Alli-Balogun, Folake Ali-Mumuney, Kufre Ekanem, Nkiru Olumide-Ojo, Chido Nwakanma, John Ehiguese, Muyiwa Akintunde, Bolaji Okusaga, Debola Williams, Ayeni Adekunle among numerous others. There are unique attributes about these industry leaders both in the United States and in Nigeria and these are the points I want to call out in this piece.
Back in the Jackson School of Journalism, where I studied Mass communications and majored in Public Relations and Advertising, I was fascinated by such names as Ogbuefi Alex Nwokedi, Group General Manager, Public Affairs of National Oil later NNPC (who is now the Traditional Ruler of his community); Kevin Ejiofor, Corporate Affairs Manager of Cadbury Nigeria; Sam Adenekan, Corporate Affairs Manager of Nestle; Larry Agose, Public Affairs Adviser, Nigerian Breweries; Kabir Dangogo, Head of Public Relations, First Bank; Fumi Onabolu, Head of Public Affairs, UACN; Dr. Phil Osagie, MD of The Quadrant Company (TQC) and Mr. Vincent Oyo of the same TQC. They were the leading lights of the industry at the time-and my dream was to be like them, when I grow up (as we say in these parts). I also dreamt a bit further to become a Director with a seat in the Executive management of the company I would work for!
There are basic requirements for becoming a good Public Relations professional. And, of course, there are higher requirements, which will make you a great profession, bearing in mind that good is the enemy of great. So, let me start with the basics, which I refer to as Core Competencies of Public Relations Professionals. You either have them or you don’t and if you don’t, then you have no chance in hell or heaven to make a career in Public Relations. First is good writing skill. Second is good public speaking skill. Third is good interpersonal skill. Fourth is good analytical skill. Fifth is good network of media contacts. Sixth is good network of government contacts. Seventh is a good social skill. Eighth is a good computer skill. Ninth is a good social media skill. Tenth is a good problem-solving or crisis management skill. To the tenth, you may add good mediation skills, which come in very handy in crisis management.
Now, most of these skills are teachable while some like interpersonal skills and social skills are mostly innate. You are born with them. For some, it is manifest from childhood, while others have to develop them. These two are very crucial and most challenging because they are used to bond with others. Sometimes, you have to bond with someone you don’t really like because of the job. The good thing is, if there is mutual respect based on professional competencies, likeness may get in the mix. As I had said, these Core Competencies can be taught, learnt and acquired.
There are, however, some qualities, attributes and competencies that cannot be transferred from one to another. These are the ones that differentiate between a good and a great professional. One is Emotional Intelligence. The other is Prudence. And the last one is Courage. To go far or high in the public relations profession or any profession, for that matter, these three attributes must be present. These are softer skills that can come in handy, especially in difficult or challenging time, and make the difference. I will take them one after the other.
Before I do, let me even adumbrate a little on Writing, Speaking and Interpersonal skills. How could you even begin to dream of a career in PR, if you are not a good writer? Who will draft the CEO’s speeches? Who will write the Media Statements and New Releases? Who will supervise the development of all content associated with the organization? Who will write the internal communication materials? On speaking skills, isn’t it taken for granted that the PR Manager will be the Master of Ceremonies at some company events? Who introduces your executives at presentations? Who anchors your corporate presentations? Who is the first-line spokesperson of your organization? Perhaps, not much should be said about interpersonal skills since one of the top Key Results Areas of a PR manager is Relationship Management. You couldn’t possibly manage mutually beneficial relationships much less profitable relationships, if your interpersonal skills are bankrupt or non-existent. Could you?
So, let me move quickly now to these softer areas, which however, counts for more than the hard skills mentioned above. And I will start with the strangest or the one, which is not too Commonplace-Emotional Intelligence or EQ. Emotional Intelligence, according to Talent Smart, is that “something” in us that is intangible. It is your “ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.”
Talent Smart, the world number one provider of Emotional Intelligence or EQ states: “Emotional intelligence is made up of four core skills that pair up under two primary competencies: personal competence and social competence. Personal competence is made up of your self-awareness and self-management skills, which focus more on you individually than on your interactions with other people. It is your ability to stay aware of your emotions and manage your behavior and tendencies. While Self-Awareness is your ability to accurately perceive your emotions and stay aware of them as they happen, Self-Management is your ability to use awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and positively direct your behavior.
“Social competence is made up of your social awareness and relationship management skills. It is your ability to understand other people’s moods, behavior, and motives in order to improve the quality of your relationships. Social-Awareness is your ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people and understand what is really going on while Relationship Management, in this sense, is your ability to use awareness of your emotions and the others’ emotions to manage interactions successfully.”
Perhaps, I should say many of us already exhibit EQ unconsciously. The idea here is to educate us on what it is and how it works so we can pay particular attention to it because it guarantees high performance and excellent results. It is said that 90% of high performers have high EQ. It is believed that 58% of your job performance is due to EQ. In the US, people with high EQ earn $29,000 more than those with low EQ. There you have it. If you want to rise to the top, earn six digits and get a seat in Executive management, you need to improve on your EQ. There is a lot of literature on EQ, but Talent Smart is the world champ. Google them. You will thank me after.
Next is Prudence. The dictionary meaning is generally being cautious, careful, restrained or slow to talk and act. The Holy Bible in Proverbs dwelt extensively on this important attribute or quality. It can even be a skill. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent,” it says in Proverbs Chapter 19 Verse 10. “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it (Proverbs 27:12)”. Sadly “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (Proverbs 14:15) and so it is “The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way” (Proverbs 13:8a).
Sometimes, it is better to say nothing at all than to say just anything. Personally, I would rather not say anything or be quoted as saying anything, especially during crisis. You can defend silence but a word or statement once put out cannot be retracted. By ignoring an email or text message for one hour or one day or forever, you can save yourself and/or your organization a lot of distress. The ability to restrain your tongue, your fingers or yourself, generally, can actually make the whole difference in dealing with difficult situations. Prudence. When I read some Media Statements or Rejoinders, I wish I was consulted before they were issued because I would have counseled against them, which is not to say there are no times a rejoinder, rebuttal or clarification is not necessary. Prudence is a by-product of wisdom, that sense of discernment, which makes you look very well before you leap or not leap.
The third and last soft skill crucial in the process of becoming a great PR professional is Courage, which in this case signifies boldness, audacity, daring or fearlessness. A professional must not only stand up for his or her profession but stand by his or words and actions. This is usually possible when you have the necessary knowledge and strong character to back your position. It is Dutch courage, when you are not strong or fortified with sound understanding and compelling arguments. If you have integrity challenges, you may not be courageous enough to take on vested interests, which exist in every organization. That said you must have high EQ to discern when to fight for or back off or back down from a position you strongly believe in.
Ladies and gentlemen, my professional colleagues, the time has come for us to rise up to the challenges of our professional calling. We must decide today to make ourselves and our profession relevant in the scheme of things in our organizations and our country Nigeria. It is time to stop running errands for men and women of means and those in power like professional errand boys do. We must join the dignified club of decision makers. To achieve this, we must begin to demonstrate superior skills in and knowledge of the communication functions. That way we can fit in, like round pegs in round holes, in corporate and public communications functions as well as other leadership positions in public service and the private sector. We have so much value to add, especially in the effort to build and sustain a positive reputation for our country. We currently do not look so good as a people and as a nation, my dear friends, and I’m absolutely certain we can actually help to change the narrative, change the situation and, therefore, change the status quo.
Let me end by making a very simple recommendation: Start today to capture your thoughts, views and opinions on our industry, the economy and the polity in writing and have them published in the traditional media and the democratized social media. That is a sure way of building your influence, a critical sine qua non in the quest for greatness.
This is a paper presented at the February Meeting of the Lagos Chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, NIPR by Emeka Oparah, Vice President, Corporate Communications & CSR, Airtel Nigeria, February 7, 2019