Note from the Editor: This post is the prelude to a “Legends of Public Relations” series on Progressions, premiering on Jan. 13, 2014. Revisit Progressions over the next few weeks to gain advice and inspiration from four legendary public relations professionals.
When asked by PRSSA National President Brian Price to reflect on the “Legacies from Legends in Public Relations” book, two significant life revelations came to mind as I re-read the 34 essays — mortality and legacy.
Although neither Millennials nor Boomers want to think much about their mortality, I was forced to do so as I realized that a third of the initial contributors have died since writing their insightful letters just six years ago. Lesson: Make every minute count.
Those who have passed away since 2007 certainly left their marks on the public relations profession. They created their own special personal brands even though I doubt any of them ever viewed themselves as a brand. Lesson: Think about your legacy sooner than later.
While I doubt any of the leaders featured in this book thought much about their legacies when they began their careers, their insights provide a template for anyone striving to become a leader in the public relations profession. While you’ve heard some of the messages before, several particularly resonate with me, beginning with the late Betsy Plank — a dear friend and godmother of PRSSA.
Mention Betsy Plank and three words quickly come to mind: ethics, integrity and mentor. And those are the three qualities she first cites in her letter to young professionals.
“Ethics and Integrity. They are not simply a professional ‘code’ to begin observing on the job,” Betsy wrote. “They are one’s here-and-now character and compass — in today’s classrooms, in daily relationships and behavior throughout a lifetime.”
“Mentoring. In every corner of career and life, you’ll nurture and benefit from mentors,” she said. “But also — begin now to become a mentor — upperclassmen to younger students, new alumni to classrooms and interns. From wherever you stand today, reach out a caring, responsible hand.” It’s no wonder that the Plank Center created the Milestones in Mentoring Awards and that a special award is given to a young professional known for mentoring.
The late Larry Foster, former corporate vice president of public relations at Johnson & Johnson, was one of the best writers I ever met, so it was no surprise to see his recommendation that PRSSA members should “write with clarity and persuasion.”
And the late Jack Felton, former head of the Institute for Public Relations, said learning how to ask the right questions is key to a successful public relations career. This made me think back to when I served on a couple of boards with him when he, indeed, asked not-so-obvious questions. Rather than Who? What? How? When? Where? Why?, Jack would ask “Is it the right thing to do? or “Will this make a difference?”
Several letters, including one from the late Marilyn Laurie, former executive vice president at AT&T, discuss the importance of understanding the business of your company or client. “Learn the client’s business. Really. What’s the actual source of its success? What is the essence of the brand? What are the unspoken rules that drive the culture? Who are your allies on the business team? How relevant is your input?”
I am honored to be in the same book with these true legends, many of whom — especially Betsy — influenced me greatly. For anyone wanting to succeed in this great industry, spend an evening reading these letters. They may help you shape your future legacy.
How will you create your own legacy?
Ron Culp is a veteran corporate and agency executive who now serves as professional director of the public relations and advertising graduate program at DePaul University. Ron sponsors a PRSSA mentorship scholarship and writes the career blog, Culpwrit.