Lessons Learned From a Long Career in Public Relations

I did it. On July 31, after 17 great years at Ketchum, I retired from my full-time role as CEO of Ketchum Global Research & Analytics. However, if being retired means not working at all, then let’s call it quasi-retirement. I have contracted with Ketchum to serve as KGRA’s part-time chairman for the next two years.

When you reach retirement, people at earlier stages of their careers often ask what lessons you’ve learned. Here are three of mine…

1. Help people improve.
I learned this lesson from my boss and friend for the past 17 years, Ketchum CEO Rob Flaherty. Early on, he advised me to be better at managing down than managing up. As I move on to the next phase of my life and career, the memories that will stay with me most involve seeing so many great people join KGRA and Ketchum and then watching them grow — whether within our firm or through other exciting endeavors.

Managing is not about wins and numbers; it’s about the people whose lives you improve. It brings me great joy to have seen my successor at KGRA, Mary Elizabeth Germaine, develop from a project manager to a business leader. And watching the progress of Ben Levine, who started as my administrative assistant and now runs operations for KGRA in Europe, is one of the things that matters most to me as I look back.

2. Be ‘all in.’
Peter Fleischer, Ketchum’s head of business development, often urged us to “be all in” when rehearsing together for new-business pitches. While helpful in that context, the idea applies to other settings as well. We need total focus — on what we’re doing at the moment or who we’re talking with — to excel at our work in research and public relations.

People often applaud when someone can do many different things at once. But I think that’s wrong. Yes, we have to be able to move from one thing to another rapidly, but I always tried to be “all in” with every conversation or meeting; if for some reason I couldn’t, then I didn’t participate.

3. PR is not ‘ER.’
Unless you work specifically in crisis communications, you rarely have cause to consider anything an emergency in public relations and communications research. And yet, we see plenty of practitioners running around like their hair’s on fire. There isn’t any need for such hysterics. Frankly, if we calmed down we’d probably do a smarter and better job. I’ve seen incredible anxiety arise from PR people who were afraid that they couldn’t prove their value to the client or boss. One of our profession’s greatest pitfalls, in my view, is that because we sometimes lack complete proof of our value, we end up rushing around like lunatics.

Which brings me to my final point for this column, and my answer to another question I’ve been hearing lately: After 17 years in the PR world, what is my greatest regret? It’s that people are still asking if you can measure public relations.

After all these years, the Barcelona Principles, the validated metrics and the countless articles and case studies, for the last time, the answer is a resounding YES! You measure public relations by answering three questions: Did you reach the right people with the right message? As a result of reaching those people, what about them changed? How did changing people with your message affect your organization?

If these last bits sound like the words of a grumpy old man, you may be onto something. I swore that I would never become such a person in retirement. But some might argue that I always was.

A version of this article can also be found on PRSA.org.