13 Lessons from 13 Years as a PR Consultant
Some learned the hard way...
In the bustling sphere of public relations, the terrain is ever-changing, challenging, and, above all, enlightening. From managing delicate reputations to shaping public perception, the journey of a PR consultant is a remarkable blend of unpredictability and control. Having served as a PR consultant for thirteen years and working in the profession for nearly thirty, I’ve had the fortune to gather a trove of insights, transforming my career path into a veritable learning ground.
In reflection, I’d like to share the 13 most valuable lessons I’ve gleaned from my enriching stint in PR consultancy. These “pearls of wisdom,” many learned the hard way, span relationship-building, communication, strategy development, and beyond — encompassing the very soul of what it means to be a PR consultant in the contemporary world.
Relationships are Paramount: PR is built upon relationships — with clients, media, influencers, and stakeholders. Building and maintaining these relationships is essential for success. Don’t underestimate the power of a congratulatory note, a share or retweet on social media, a quick coffee, or a call to brief catch-up. But don’t be annoying. Pleasant check-ins when they make sense are great, but when it comes to the news media, trying to jam a square-peg story into a round news hole is unwise and can eventually cost you a friendly relationship.
Listening is as Important as Speaking: The ability to truly listen and understand clients’ needs, feedback from media, or public sentiment is crucial. Communication is not a one-way street. Don’t listen for your chance to speak, listen to learn, and gain perspective.
Transparency is Non-negotiable: Always be transparent with your clients about what you can and cannot achieve. Overpromising and underdelivering can harm your reputation. Look, I know when you’re just starting out or on the heels of a pandemic you may be willing to take on all comers — but it is ultimately self-defeating. Confession: over the years, I took a few gigs I had no business accepting. It resulted in mediocre results that left the client cold and made me look terrible. Stretch yourself, yes, but keep your perspective. That leads me to…
Adaptability is Key: The media and PR consulting landscape is constantly evolving. You need to keep up with these changes and adapt your strategies accordingly. Staying stuck in old methods can result in missed opportunities. That’s why I have always been an early adopter — of social media, podcasting, and trendspotting. Doing so has made me money because other PR pros had not staked a claim in those territories.
You’re Only as Good as Your Last Success: The world of PR moves fast. Yesterday’s win might be forgotten tomorrow. Strive for consistent results and continual improvement. And do not take your clients for granted. Ride high for a day or so — but get right back in the salt mines for your clients.
Know Your Audience: Understanding your audience — their interests, concerns, and behaviors — is fundamental to creating effective PR campaigns. Tailored messaging resonates more powerfully. If you don’t, you’re just taking shots in the dark. You may hit something eventually, but you don’t deserve to.
Not Everything is a Crisis: Some things may seem like a crisis in the heat of the moment but aren’t. Learn to differentiate between a true crisis and a temporary issue. Handle each accordingly. One of the hardest things I have to tell my crisis clients is to wait. To do nothing — yet. To ride out the news cycle and to wait and see what develops. That’s no fun, but it's why they pay me the big bucks, right?
Reputation Takes Years to Build, Seconds to Destroy: Every interaction, every campaign, and every public statement is an opportunity to build or damage your client’s reputation. Be mindful of this responsibility. One off-the-cuff remark can take you off message and wreck everything. I’m not saying to be a robot — but make sure your mental guardrails are set before you make any statements.
Everyone Has a Story: Every brand, every individual, has a unique story to tell. Uncovering and articulating these stories can lead to compelling PR campaigns. The corollary to this is a hard truth: not every story is newsworthy. Not every story is interesting. All stories deserve a hearing before you pass — but be sure to be candid with your client.
The Devil is in the Details: It’s crucial to pay attention to every aspect of your PR plans — from the accuracy of a press release to the timing of a campaign launch. Small errors can have significant consequences. I have no problems when a client finds a misplaced hyphen in a blog post draft — that’s part of the partnership — but I make damn sure I do not send anything out unless I have triple-checked the facts, grammar, and tone.
Creativity Can’t be Overlooked: Creative ideas can cut through the noise and capture attention. Invest time in brainstorming innovative approaches. But also remember, your creative approach may be ill-advised and destroy everything you and your client have worked years to build. Be careful!
Data is Your Friend: Just ask Captain Picard. Data can provide valuable insights, guide strategy, measure success, and justify PR efforts to clients. Don’t shy away from the numbers. Yeah, yeah, I know PR measurement is half art, half science, but avail yourself of everything you can to make your case.
Never Stop Learning: The PR field is constantly evolving, and the best PR consultants are those who continue to learn, grow, and develop their skills. I was quoted in my friend and colleague Marc C. Whitt’s new book on PR When in Doubt, Make Applesauce!: Core Habits of the Masterful Public Relations Professional:
“I often tell people my liberal arts education is the perfect “cocktail party” degree because it necessitated learning a little about a lot. My young mind feasted on classes about history, political science, music, debate, science, psychology, writing, communication, and more at university. That experience set me up to be a lifelong learner, desirous of understanding how things work, how the world is connected, and why things happen in our society. In addition, it helped me develop an ability to mentally turn on a dime — a tremendous asset. From amiably chatting at a party with a medical doctor about her research to getting pulled into a discussion about the effects of social media on society, having something to offer helps you navigate well socially. That “party trick” serves me well professionally to this day.”
Click here to get the book and read the rest of my comments — along with pearls of wisdom from dozens of other PR veterans — most way smarter than me.
The Lessons Continue
After 13 years in the PR industry, I can confirm that every day is a new learning experience. It’s a field that requires quick thinking, resilience, creativity, and above all, a genuine passion for helping clients navigate the world of public perception.
As we continue to ride the wave of the ever-evolving PR landscape, these lessons are my constant companions, reminding me that the journey is just as important as the destination.
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