Advice I Wish I’d Taken: Lessons Learned from a Senior PR Executive

I’ve had a pretty fortunate career and over the years I’ve been given a lot of great advice about how to succeed in public relations from some of the best in the business. With all the noise in the marketplace today clients need great PR counsel more than ever, so I thought I’d share some of those insights.

“Clients will hire you for your strategic thinking, but they will fire you for your lack of results.” – Jerry Schwartz (CEO, GS Schwartz & Company). Jerry told me this my first day on the job. I was a new SAE. We’re in the ideas business and creating impactful insights for our clients is of great importance, but we need to show how our insights have made an impact. 

Impact will mean different things for different clients. For some it will be media results and for others it may be engagement with content on LinkedIn or another platform. Knowing what really matters to a client (and their internal clients) is key. 

“If you wouldn’t write a check from your own account to pay the bill you are about to send a client something is wrong. Don’t send the bill – come see me.” – Howard Rubenstein. When I first heard this, I chuckled and thought two things: 1) I’ll never have that kind of money in my checking account and 2) I ain’t never coming to your office to say a client shouldn’t pay a bill. 

Later in my career I learned the importance of what he meant. Treat the client’s money like it was your own. Spend your time (and their money) on things that will make a difference – if you don’t then you are cheating the client and yourself.

“What’s the move?” – Dan Klores. Dan may be the greatest publicist to ever work in this business. His brilliance is something I’ve admired my entire career. Dan knew there was always a story to tell for a client and a place for that story to be shared and reported. All you had to do was step back and look broadly at the pieces you had – like you would a chess board. If you looked closely enough the move would reveal itself. 

“Kerrigan, you need to read the damn paper before you get here.” – Richard Edelman. He was mad that I hadn’t seen a story in that morning’s New York Times that impacted a client (this was before Google). The paper was in my bag, and it wasn’t even 9am yet, but he was right. It was his way of saying the early bird catches the worm. Today – thanks to the internet and online subscriptions – I’ve read the NYT, the WSJ and a tabloid before I even have my shoes on. Coming to the job informed about what’s going on in the world, especially the things that impact a client’s business, is critical.

“Honor confidences like a doctor or a lawyer.” – Howard Paster (Chairman Hill & Knowlton). When you joined H&K you were given a laminated copy of the agency’s code of ethics to hang on your wall or pin to your cubicle. If Howard walked by and it wasn’t on display you could count on a new copy being delivered to you right away. Howard wanted to ensure that all of us understood the trust clients were placing in the agency. 

Yes, our profession is not regulated like law or medicine (I think it should be), but that doesn’t mean we should bring any less integrity to the job. Some may think it was odd for the chairman to care about a code of ethics being displayed, but I deeply respected him for it. I’ve long since lost my copy, but when Howard died, I promised myself I would make him proud and always do the right thing.  

“Don’t be an order taker.” – David O’Brien (CMO, Ernst & Young). This was said on David’s first day as CMO. Prior to that the EY communications team led a pretty comfortable existence. We all belonged to the Equitable building’s health club and 3pm runs for frozen yogurt were common. Partners told us what they wanted from us, we delivered, and we went home. 

David let us all know that in the eyes of the firm’s partners we were overhead – we were expendable. He implored us to call our clients (the partners and practice team leaders) – daily – learn the business, ask what they were working on and find ways we could help. If we wanted to wait to be told what to do – to be order takers – the Red Lobster that was opening in our lobby was interviewing candidates. We all started calling our internal clients right away. 

“Listen loudly.” – Gail Heiman (CEO, Weber Shandwick). Gail insisted that listening was the most important thing we could do for a client. Listen to their goals and objectives, but also what was going on in their lives, and – most importantly – listen to the online conversations that were happening about your client and their business. Listening tools are obviously more common now but using them the right way isn’t. And actually listening to a client (loudly) is a skill set that can take years to master.

And that brings me to where I am today – The Bliss Group. We’re a pretty happy place, but that’s not where we got our name. We’re The Bliss Group due to our founder, John Bliss. Our CEO, Cortney, recently reflected on things she learned from John. A key learning was that good ideas can come from anyone. That advice brought me full circle. 

Years ago, I got my first client – RICOH – listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for introducing the world’s smallest fax machine, the PF1. That achievement won the agency and the client several awards and drove a lot of sales, too. But the idea wasn’t mine. It was suggested by Manny – he worked in the mailroom. When sending out the release (we still did that then) he stopped to read it. He called me and said you should send this to Guinness for consideration. I laughed and said sure, and everything changed.  

So, all the wisdom and advice I’ve been given over the years matters. But Bliss hit the nail on the head. Great ideas can come from anyone – you just need to listen. 

Ken Kerrigan

Photo by Sam Jotham Sutharson via Pexels