Empathize for PR Success

Writing’s important to PR, but empathy comes first

A couple times each semester I have the opportunity to talk to students.  At Davenport, GVSU, Ferris, Calvin … typically in PR or marketing classes or to PRSSA groups.  When I speak with PR students I am usually asked the all-important question: “What is the most important skill for the PR professional?”

Early on in my career I would not have hesitated and simply blurted out “writing.”  I still believe solid writing is a non-negotiable skill all PR pros must have.  This especially holds true for those who focus on media relations, trying to share their organization’s important messages through the filter of the news media. Writers at traditional newspapers and magazines can be quite scornful of “flacks” who can’t write up to their level.  Even for new media proponents, good writing is necessary to build and hold an audience. Plus, good bloggers have to overcome writer’s block and post often or risk losing their following.

Today, however, I believe there’s a skill that’s even more important than writing to the successful PR pro — the ability to empathize. Let’s face it, in PR we have many “publics” we need to understand and address.  It’s easy when you’re talking to audiences who think and act just like you do. Unfortunately, 99.9 percent of all PR pros must at times talk to people who aren’t exactly like them.  Which means you need to be able to empathize.

It requires you to understand your audience and know their wants and needs.  It requires you to do the research and maybe conduct some interviews.  The better you understand your audience, the better you will be able to communicate with them. Makes sense, right?

So, if there’s an important initiative at Davenport University that we need to share with others, I have to understand the needs of our key audiences, including our students, our faculty and staff, our alumni, our donors, community leaders and legislators, prospective students and their influencers (i.e., parents and counselors), our board of trustees and … well, I’m sure there are others!  Each have a different perspective on whatever our news item might be, which means we have to tweak our message by audience. One message does not work for all audiences.

So, it starts with empathy.  But it still ends up with writing.  And along the way, you had better be good at research and planning. Oh, and if you have solid design sensibilities and are handy with a camera,  you’re golden!

Happy New (fiscal) Year!

Wrapped up my first fiscal year at Davenport University.

Although I haven’t been at Davenport University for a full year yet, we just closed the books on our fiscal year last week. And what a year it was!

I started the day after Labor Day, and it wasn’t long before some serious labor was going on within Davenport’s University Relations & Communications group!  First, the new Exec. Director of Marketing, Steve Landrum, and I collaborated on new branding for the University, resulting in a new look, feel and key messaging, summed up with the new tagline “Get where the world is going.”

Simultaneously, we co-led the creation of Davenport’s new website with the head of IT, Brian Miller.  This project, already in the works when we started, involved creation of an outcome-focused design to lead prospective students to the information they need to make the decision to join Davenport. Launched last week, the site is totally on-brand and really does a great job of positioning the University as the place to go for business, technology and health.

After creation of the brand, Steve’s efforts were devoted to launching it via DU’s advertising, while I set about the task of rebranding all University communication vehicles.  We began with internal electronic newsletters for students and staff, with outstanding results. With new branding and new functionality, the blog-style newsletters achieved 350% and 250% traffic increases, respectively.  We then rebranded the President’s newsletter to key stakeholder audiences, created a new brochure sharing the University’s Vision 2015, and rebranded the alumni magazine, DU Review.

Of course, along the way we needed to support various University initiatives, including the opening of its new Sneden Center, the new Downtown Center for graduate studies, announcements about campus changes in markets across the state of Michigan, events like Hot New Year’s Eve in downtown GR, Commencement and the Excellence in Business Award Gala.  PR and Social Media efforts were ongoing, of course, and there is always the need to create new plan and report on everything we’re working on.

That pretty much sums up how I “got where the world is going” this past year.  I’m looking forward to what the New (Fiscal) Year has to bring!

Shifting Seats

Moving to a new job doesn’t mean the end of old relationships. Your circle has just expanded!

A couple years ago, I was upset that some families we were close to had left our church. A wise elder said it was OK, sometimes people just need to switch seats. They continue to be part of the larger “church.”   That same wisdom applies to relationships established in the work world, I guess. In the past 18 months I’ve shifted seats a couple of times — once when I didn’t really want to — and now my circle has expanded.  I get to know and appreciate a new crowd even as I strive to maintain ties with those I called “friend” at my workplace.

Yesterday I was asked to write up some memories of one person I worked with, Cindy, who is celebrating five years at Amway Corp.  Here’s what I sent to her current manager:

I met Cindy when we both served on the WMPRSA board in the early 2000s. She impressed me as smart, competent and accountable. She got things done. Plus she was nice. A few years later, when we had an opening for a new editor at Quixtar, Cindy applied and I was thrilled to be able to bring her on staff.  Very quickly she became one of the superstars in Communications…she made every team she joined better, not just because of what she contributed, but because of the impact she had on others. Her team members became better because she helped them focus and because she was such a great example.

Later, organizational shifts changed reporting relationships and the editorial team reported to a creative director while I managed external communications, including PR, advertising, digital marketing, and sponsorships. Again Cindy applied for an opening on my staff, this time managing all things digital, and again I didn’t have to think twice about welcoming her aboard. She moved into the new role and immediately whipped Amway U.S. social media and digital outreach programs into shape, working with outside agencies and internal partners. 

I am glad Cindy and so many others I managed continue to contribute their strong talents to the ongoing global success of Amway. I often feel like my biggest achievement during an 18-year Amway career was the great people I brought into the company. And among the greatest of those is Cindy. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s been only five years for her given all that she’s already accomplished within Amway (not to mention having two kids in that same period of time!). 

…I can’t begin to single out a “favorite memory” with Cindy or with any of the great people I worked with at Amway. I enjoyed my staff and many of my peers throughout my years at Amway and loved nearly every minute of being with the company. At least, I think I did. I guess it must have been pretty good if my “afterglow” memories are so favorable!

At Davenport, I have the pleasure of managing Rick (who has considered Cindy a mentor in the past) and Sasha.  We had a late afternoon meeting yesterday to talk about what we’ve already accomplished since I joined the university in September as well as the opportunities that still lie ahead for us.  Thinking about the staffs I’ve worked with in the past and the one I work with today made me realize that all of us are always shifting seats somewhat, but that doesn’t mean we have to change who we are and what we bring to the table.  And it doesn’t mean we have to lose our old connections, either. Social media helps us stay in touch. So do industry gatherings, community events, and good old-fashioned “let’s do lunches.”

Although my new life is very full, schedule-wise, I need to make time to stay in touch with those  I used to (and still) call “friend” at Amway Corp. I saw some of them at a WMPRSA meeting this past week and at holiday gatherings last month. I do have the occasional lunch with these friends.  I hope to see more of them all in the weeks and months ahead!

A Year in the Life

In a few weeks I start the next chapter of my career at Davenport University as Executive Director of Communications.

The day after Labor Day I begin the next chapter in my professional career when I report to Davenport University as the newly appointed Executive Director of Communications. I’m excited to be joining a university that is “on the grow.” With a brand new campus near the junction of M-6 and M-37 just south of Gerald R. Ford International Airport, there’s a new excitement surrounding Davenport and the programs it operates statewide.

The position will provide a wonderful opportunity to contribute strategically to the university, and I look forward to sharing more about what I’ll be working on after I start!  Meanwhile, I’m working on finishing up assignments for some of my Luymes PR LLC clients, including LEAD Marketing Agency, Brann’s Steakhouse & Sports Grille, the Alliance For Health, IMN Inc., RapidGrowthMedia.com, and more. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with so many great companies this past year.  From Adoption Associates to Zondervan, West Michigan is blessed with quality organizations.

My Davenport start date is just two days shy of the one-year anniversary of my last day at Amway Corp. It’s been a great year learning what it means to be an independent consultant, to be an entrepreneur, to service clients even as you seek new ones. This past year was marked by the generosity of so many others who gave of their time and counsel to me, referring business, and offering unlimited encouragement.  While starting a new business is always difficult and typically not so profitable in the beginning, I am happy that I was able to come out on the plus side and have such a rich experience as well!

This story, I am certain, is to be continued!