Thursday, April 28, 2005

It's Performance Review time

Public Relations is a lot like baseball. We all strive to make the “perfect pitch.” Getting a “hit” is all part of a day’s work. So, when I embarked on my public relations career – still high on the memory of the New York Mets defeating the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, I thought if I could apply these basic principles of baseball I’d be a “PR All Star” in no time.

And then it happened: my first performance review. I barely had one year of experience under my belt, but I thought I might receive a verbal pat on the back and maybe a small bump in salary. Alas, like a bedazzled Boston Red Sox fan who assumed the Mets would lose the World Series – I was wrong.

For those who aren’t baseball fans, in 1986 the Mets defeated the Red Sox in a stunning comeback. My performance review didn’t go nearly as well. Those who listened to the games on the radio may recall New York Mets’ announcer Bob Murphy shouting, “The Mets win! They win!” If you were a fly on the wall during my performance review you’d undoubtedly recall the words my boss said to me: “Ken, you’re a fraud and a failure who will be found out at any agency you go to large or small.”

I felt like I’d been hit in the head by a fastball.

O.K. What I did next changed my career. When the meeting was over I left the office and walked down Fifth Avenue to the library at New York University. I’m not really sure why. I had graduated from NYU the year before and I guess in some Freudian way I was trying to crawl back into the womb of academia.

I took the elevator to the library’s seventh floor. NYU has a large public relations collection, and as I perused the shelves one book caught my attention, if only because of its prescient title. It was “Your Future in Public Relations” by Edward Bernays. In the book Bernays outlines what he believed to be the ideal qualifications for a public relations professional. Naturally, I was eager to see how I matched up against his list.

Character and integrity were the most important personal traits of the public relations professional, wrote Bernays. The public relations professional first owes integrity to society, then to his clients or employers, and as importantly to himself, he continued.

Bernays may be the father of public relations, but for me at that moment he was more like Polonius giving advice to Laertes. I quit my job the next day.

Playing basketball with my brother for the next two weeks, I kept thinking about the Bernays book. I discovered I was a terrible basketball player, but thought I still might amount to something in public relations.

I made a checklist of the qualifications Bernays described:

- Act with integrity in everything you do
- Be guided by objectivity; don’t just tell clients what they want to hear
- Be discreet and honor confidences like a doctor or lawyer
- Understand the principles of psychology – what makes people tick
- Have an imagination – which Bernays called “that rare and sparkling quality which springs to life automatically under proper stimuli”
- Develop a broad cultural background – essential in dealing with people, ideas, and trends in society
- Be insightful – see the implications of actions
- Read as much as possible – business magazines, newspapers, lifestyle publications, etc.

I’d like to say that at the age of 21 I had mastered these traits, but I don’t think anyone really can so early in life. Fortunately, as time went on I managed to be surrounded by professionals and opportunities that allowed me to develop these skills time and again.

One of those professionals was Howard Paster, former chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton. I once asked Howard what traits he looked for in hiring professionals at his agency. I wasn’t surprised that his comments mirrored those of Bernays. “The professional must be flexible, simultaneously balancing the needs of clients, staff, and self, always exercising judgment and employing fairness and honesty in dealing with a complex array of constituencies,” he said. Howard even insisted that all employees of Hill & Knowlton visibly display the agency’s code of ethics in their offices.

And yet, when most of us look to hire new staff we don’t immediately look for these traits, but too often let writing tests be our guide, as if a measure of knowledge learned from “Elements of Style” were more important than character and integrity.

Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Bernays is this: “The mastery of routine skills in public relations is useful, but of less importance than some of the other desirable characteristics. Skills can be learned or hired. Character, integrity, and a logical objectivity in the individual practitioner are the really essential attributes of any public relations [professional] worthy of the name.”

Just something to think about as “performance review” season starts and this year’s crop of graduates gets ready to ask you for a job.