The cancelled CIPR Sir Stephen Tallents lecture last week provided an opportunity for some catch-up meetings. These, in turn, taught me some lessons in networking and relationship management, then and now.
I’ll leave a thin veil of anonymity over their identities as I’m keen to explore the archetypes, not disclose private conversations.
I caught up with someone I’ve known for the three decades I’ve been in public relations. I’m describing a very effective operator, who seems to know everyone and who has developed strong reputations in practitioner and in academic circles. These relationships have been developed through face-to-face interactions or one-to-one phone conversations by a person who keeps a low profile on social media.
For here’s a paradox of public relations. We operate on the cusp between the public and the private, and much of our currency is in the exchange of conversation (news, gossip even) with others making a living from this very space (such as journalists and analysts).
I learnt a lesson. To do this well, you need a strong interest in others and a good memory. You need to be good company and you need to be able to hold your drink. Above all, you need to remember the anecdotes and confidences exchanged in these conversations - and not repeat yourself (as I tend to) at your next meeting.
Students will have no understanding of this, just as the life of spies and double agents will feel like ancient history (despite the evidence in the news).
Let’s illustrate this with one easy technique that will even so be beyond the mastery of most students. This master of relationships turns conversations into a real-time channel as quickly and as often as possible.
So rather than prolonged exchanges on email, text message or IM, why not press the dial button and develop and conclude the conversation in real time? Only that way can you know the other person is giving you their full attention. The relationship manager above all has to be charming company, and there’s nothing less charming than switching off from the other person.
How can educators teach this skill? Industry networking events are good practice (students in my experience are very daunted by the challenge of meeting ‘real people’). How about a task involving working the room and then recalling the details of the others there: what were they wearing, where do they work, what are their interests, what else was discussed - and what were their names? Not everything, let's remember, can be found through a Google search.
I understand police officers are trained in such memory techniques, and I’m sure it’s essential in spying.
I know I’d fail the test, but I do at least recognise the importance of developing this skill.
The second archetype is a more recognisable one. Here’s someone who has graduated with a public relations degree within the last decade, and who has found their niche in the industry after just one or two moves.
This is a familiar story of crafting a social media presence in order to announce yourself to the world. This person had the obvious interest in writing (they were at one-time a would-be poet) but supplemented it with less obvious interests such as coding that marked them out as ‘one to watch’.
Quick aside: at some time I must have taught this person something, and this would have been the classic asymmetric lecturer-student relationship. I’ve long forgotten what I might have taught them, but am much more conscious now that I have even more to learn from them. Let’s politely describe it as a more symmetric relationship, though it might be more honest to acknowledge it’s asymmetric in my favour (as a learner).
Be careful, though. It has its downsides.
The mention of poetry may seem harmless. But I mentioned another interest from this person’s time as a student and this caused them to wince.
Once it’s out there, you’re never going to close the lid on Pandora’s box. My memory may be fallible, but Google and Facebook want to keep the memory alive as the data we share is a marketable commodity to them.
It’s that classic balancing act between risk and reward. Living your life in a transparent social media goldfish bowl may seem an obvious choice for someone navigating a career in public relations, but it’s not the only option as I’ve shown. Nor will it always be a benign or advantageous one as many have found when excluded from public office for ill-judged social media messages sent years earlier.
We are all learning to negotiate the boundaries between public and private, and in public relations work we advise our clients and organisations on what to make public and what should stay private.
It’s challenging and interesting work. Only discreet gossips need apply!
Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.