Thursday, November 16, 2006

Advice From the Top

Earlier this week I interviewed Denise Graveline, President of Don’t Get Caught Communications, for the first in a series of interviews for my new “Advice from the Top” column. Thanks to Denise for her time and advice for the new generation of public relations professionals in Washington D.C. The interview, conducted via email on 11/16, appears below:

1) What advice would you give to younger PR professionals looking for ways to become agency experts on blogging, podcasting, or any of the new social media?

As with any new medium, sample it: Read lots of blogs, listen to podcasts, see what others are doing. Post comments on blogs -- with care, as your words will be public -- if your comments are relevant to the topic. And get as much hands-on training as you can. One thing I observe in teaching "blogging for your business" workshops is that PR pros of all generations need to catch up with these trends, but younger pros appear to accept the shift in technology faster. Training will help you get there with even more speed. I've even had clients drag their PR reps to my workshops to convince the counsel that a blog is needed -- don't make your clients do that!

2) What about PR students still in undergraduate programs? What topics do feel are not emphasized enough in your work with recent graduates?

Let me get old-fashioned here: Writing, grammar, editing, and critical thinking all are staples of our trade, yet I see PR grads with less and less command of the language -- or the ability to question spurious thinking. I'd love to see young professionals coming out of PR programs who can write and speak well, and analyze situations critically but constructively. Those are not the only skills that will get you a promotion, but without them, you won't go far. Even blogging is merely an easy way to publish writing -- if the content isn't there, you won't get the readers, no matter how cool the technology may be.

3) What’s one thing you wished you knew about communications or PR that took you a while to learn?

How to listen to the client -- whether the client's internal to your organization or external. You can only begin where the client is, no matter how good your ideas are. Fortunately, clients have a way of teaching that to you over time. Accepting that is your challenge, and learning how to bring them around is an art form you should well as being able to say "no" nicely.

4) How do you see media relations evolving in the next 5 years? Will the press releases still be as ubiquitous as it is now? Will journalists want to be reached in other ways?

Despite their ubiquity, I see less and less use for press releases or press conferences. But as a former journalist who took a "journalism approach" to media relations, I've always favored a phone call and sending over source material, or a fact sheet at best, to a news release. That used to be true only in rapid-fire breaking news situations, but now that we all live in a 24-hour news cycle, it needs to be the norm. Unfortunately, many organizations and firms use releases and news conferences as "concrete" signs of effort, rather than as effective tools. More promising: Using blogs as a media relations tool, particularly in short-term situations -- such as for a meeting newsroom.

5) Considering Washington’s focus on government and politics, have you found it necessary to combine your knowledge of communications with more of a public policy focus?

It certainly helps, whether you work inside or outside politics -- and it's important to remember why your organization is in Washington, typically because you have a constituency that needs to be represented here. When I first came to Washington, I was communications director for a large, nonpartisan scientific organization -- but had to work with the White House when the President addressed our group, or on policy issues as they affected our community. We might not take sides based on politics, but we certainly offered advice and had a viewpoint. Later, I served as a Deputy Associate Administrator in public affairs at EPA, a political appointment, and lived and breathed policy communications. Now I work with organizations of every kind, from government agencies to nonprofits. Most of the long-lived pros in town know how to work on both sides of the aisle, with professionalism and, mostly, without rancor.

6) Do you have a collection of business communications blogs that are a must read for you?

Absolutely. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel's Naked Conversations blog to see what's coming in their next book, "Global Conversations." Brian Brown's Pajama Market reviews model small-business blogs (and full disclosure, called my "Vegetables for Breakfast" blog "small business blog of the day" a while back). But I agree with Brian's advice to small business bloggers on virtually every score. And I walk my blogging classes through a series of corporate, nonprofit and small business blogs I like. You can find some of them on one of my blogs -- along with examples of my student's blogs -- at

7) Any other words of wisdom or comments on blogging, podcasts, PR in Washington in general…?

Take more calculated risks. Ask lots of questions. Get your hands dirty -- you won't know about what works until you've tried it. Get as much training as you can -- look at every job as a new master's degree. Work on a strategy for your career, even if it changes. Change it if it's been the same for a long time. Don't believe everything in your press releases. Tell your boss you need to take the next round of my blogging workshops, coming in early 2007; or bring your boss along. And remember that Washington is really just a very small town with a lot of hot air in it.

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