Start Your Year with Grit, Adaptability and Focus

Turning the page to a new year is a moment to look back at the past and forward to the future. And so, as we take our first steps into 2020,  I find myself thinking about the two questions I’m consistently asked about life in the world of public relations. 

The first is, “What is the biggest change you’ve seen in your career?” This one’s easy, because it’s a topic that’s dominated our discipline for years and shows no signs of letting up: the influence of digital technology on how information is disseminated and consumed.  

Those of us who have been in the industry for decades have experienced this story firsthand – and anyone who’s joined in the past decade has spent their whole career wrestling its implicationsIn brief, technology has influenced communication through improved access—”the democratization of mediaand significantly diminished cost. It has radically altered how and where people consume information or connect with things that matter to them. All of this has inhibited the ability of institutions to control the management of their brands and given rise to the 24-7 news cycle. If you want to make an impact, you’d better have something interesting to say to stakeholders. And you’ll need to be willing to have that conversation on your audience’s terms, not yours.   

The second question is, “Given the current state of the industry, what are the personal attributes that most directly lend to success?” My answer to this is simple, but I hope not simplistic. I believe every successful modern communicator needs three things in order to navigate this ever-changing landscape: 

Grit: Public Relations is an endless series of challenges to be met and obstacles to overcome.  People who find longterm success have a toughness about them, a mental steeliness that helps them weather the inevitable twists and turns. One of the most difficult parts of this job is the degree to which success is out of a PR person’s direct controlyou can do all the right things and still fall short of your goals.  Understanding that, and having the courage to attack the challenge again and again, is essential. 

Adaptability: Today’s PR professional needs to have radar for change. The priorities have shifted, the competition has taken an unexpected step, the pop culture landscape has surfaced new opportunities.  The ability to see what’s coming and pivot toward it—or away from the issues that causes—has never been in higher demand. The communicator with concrete feet will be the one left behindand quickly. 

Focus: Solving communications challenges is often an exercise in keeping an eagle eye on results that matterto the client, to the program priorities, to your teamThere will be dozens of unexpected realities that will threaten to take you and the brilliant plan you created off course. It’s the ownership of the results that matter, the North Star that enhances our chances of success and makes our work effective and efficient. 

Diving headlong into the challenges of a new year is the perfect moment to check in and make sure we’re keeping these attributes top of mind.  While the best of us bring so much more to work every daycreativity, empathy and analytical skills, to name a fewwithout grit, adaptability and focus, that North Star is much harder to find. 

Michael O’Brien is Chief Strategy Office at Ketchum, focusing on the firm’s immediate and long-term global business strategies. He leads client experience globally and also coaches client directors across the global network helping solve client challenges, training to promote best practices, managing agency effectiveness — all with the goal of maximizing every Ketchum client engagement. 

This is Michael’s second stint with Ketchum.  Previously he headed Brand Marketing at Ketchum New York.  Some of the accounts under his direct leadership included the Eastman Kodak Company and Visa USA.  During his tenure, Michael’s teams won every major public relations industry award including PR Week Awards, PRSA Silver Anvils and Holmes Report Sabres. Prior to returning to Ketchum, Michael spent four years at Cohn & Wolfe, as the director of the Global Consumer and B2B Practice and the general manager of the agency’s New York office. He served as a senior counselor to many clients including Nike, Ford and Panasonic.  

Michael also served as the director of Global Communications at Mastercard International.  In this position Michael managed global communications strategy and implementation for consumer credit, business payments and e-commerce products.  He also spent five years in various account roles at Ogilvy Public Relations. 

He received a B.A. in Communications from Marist College.  Michael is currently serving as Chairman of Marist College’s Lowell Thomas School of Communications Advisory Board.