Putting the Relationship Back in Public Relations: Internal Relationship Development for Busy PR People, An Open Door Approach

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Public relations professionals are the epitomy of multi-taskers. Our task list can be instantly re-prioritized with the chime of an unexpected email landing in the inbox, or scraped entirely in the wake of a morning visit from the CEO. Often, I am disrupted (and we’ll come back to that word) by drop-ins from coworkers looking for advice; hoping to talk through some phrasing or potential strategy; or generally raising any number of the wide variety of PR needs that you might expect to find in an organization of our size.

I spend a lot of time looking up and saying, “Come on in.” While internally wishing I could just lock the door.

Don’t get me wrong, on days when I just have to plow through, I tack my “Gretchen is writing. Please feed the fish later,” sign onto the window, and try not to look up even when I can sense folks standing there, reading my work-in-progress memo, and staring anyway in the hopes that I’ll stop, look-up, and let them in. (This is incredibly difficult to ignore, by the way. And it’s slightly creepy, too.)

But this post isn’t about those times; this post is about that myriad of real-time exchanges that land at your door on any given day. How do you approach these exchanges? I’d like to suggest that how manage your personal internal exchanges in the workplace says a great deal about your true moxie as a public relations professional.

Realistically, it can be annoying to stop tweeting, emailing, checking the Blackberry, or skimming the latest updates from Ragan, FastCompany or PR Week to focus on the drop-in co-worker. But I’ve decided to stop calling these conversations distractions. Here’s why: if I neglect to use my expertise for relationship (and I like to call it coalition) building in the context of the closest relationships I have, I am missing the real heart of the PR profession. If my primary focus is on crafting the right corporate message, tracking the latest new media venture, or assessing the issues confronting the brand and strategizing winning solutions (all of which are absolutely critical to great PR work), but find myself less than engaged, or out-of-touch with the coalition in my own work group and beyond – then I am grossly out of touch with the real relationship management of the company.

I follow quite a few PR types on Twitter and other places who at times seem woefully out of touch with what it means to cultivate a relationship. And that is the center of what we’re about. Fundamentally, PR people need to get relationships – inside and out – and then we can work to truly engage “protect and enliven mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its multiple publics.” (Ugh, the old definition, right?)

Lately, in addition to just helping to sort through the specific task at hand, I’ve been paying particular attention to “the moment” of interaction, the actual communication exchange and relationship. My early graduate work was actually in Counseling Psychology, which is really interesting considering that I landed in my real calling as a public relations practitioner. In truth, the two degrees are not distant. Relationships require real, authentic moments of genuine connection and communication. And if I can’t practice this exchange with my coworkers, my work in PR will be stunted.

If I can practice it, goodPR will follow.

One of the key pieces life gives us is that experience enriches all of your future exchanges. For those of us in the business of relationships, this re-frames every exchange we have into a moment of professional development. I mean that. As I encounter customers, associates, vendors, other executives, residents in the community, the green grocer (okay, I don’t know that I actually have a bona-fide green grocer – what is that really?), or the soccer-parent on the parking lot, I practice the art of relationship development: fine tuning my understanding of communication, increasing my skill set, applying new ways of listening and responding to new topics, learning to suppress or express my opinions, viewpoint, or understanding of a situation to achieve a certain end goal.

I become, in essence a better communicator. And that’s equally true in the workplace.

Consider what I learn when I pause to not just meet with, review an agenda with, or pitch a design concept with my colleague, but when I really relate with him? Today, for example, I learned that one of my marketing managers is really hesitant about expressing a point of view, for fear that he doesn’t have enough permission from his superiors to really go after the results he wants. Okay. Let’s solve that by bringing the right people into the room and making sure the right conversations happen to get this young person the tools he needs to run with the ball. Because let me tell you, his idea will help us achieve our PR goals, too!

Or consider that I learned that another director has a great idea to improve how we currently allocate dollars for outsourcing and design, and was unsure whether or not I would support this new way of thinking because we’d never really gotten around to that in a conversation.

Or that a talented member of my group has aspirations in an entirely different area of our work, and finally had a moment to just express that – and that revelation is going to dramatically shift and generally strengthen our ability to cross train people in our department.

Focusing on relationships improves the immediate work environment, but it teaches me more about the specific attitudes, passions, fears, strengths, and weaknesses that make-up the people who daily make, pitch, create, and shape the brand I’ve been hired to protect. I can better move, grow, and promote the brand because I know the people. Relationships, internal to begin, are the core. So open that door – stop tweeting and start talking, and see what new avenues open up in your environment.

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