How To Say “I’m Sorry.”

Depending on what minute you’re on in a particular day, a celebrity is probably apologizing for something. Maybe it’s Ellen DeGeneres apologizing for having one of the worst places to work in the world. Maybe it’s former NBA player Stephen Jackson apologizing for defending, then somehow continuing to defend NFL player DeSean Jackson’s anti-semitism. There are entire lists of celebrity apologies that made things worse, because people can’t apologize, because people are scared of apologizing. This is why people say insufferable, worthless things such as “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and “I’m sorry for the way I said that,” versus actually trying to make someone feel better. It’s an act of cowardice bred by a western culture that became obsessed with corporate America, pop-lawyering and pop-psychology.

In truth, a real apology – one that truly is sorry, and truly seeks to mend things, is an act of courage. There’s no perfect way to apologize, but I want to try and help you make steps towards doing so.

Why are people so scared of saying I’m sorry?

The simple apology – “I’m sorry” – is something that alludes most people because of a fear of repercussions. It’s the social version of thinking that if you don’t have a signature on a contract there was no agreement. If you don’t say sorry, you’re not admitting guilt, and by abstraction you’re not guilty of whatever it is you might be asked to apologize for. People think that by not admitting to doing something wrong – even if they did something, and it had the affect of what happened after they did it – they are somehow guiltless, and that without an apology, there’s no admission of wrongdoing, just like a court settlement.

This also extends to saying the three little words “but” immediately following an apology. “I”m sorry, but-” removes the apology and replaces it with whatever else you’ve got to say afterwards, and may as well say “I’m not sorry, and it’s because.” If you say “I’m sorry you feel that way,” you’re a worthless ghoul, and know exactly what you’re doing, because “I’m sorry you feel that way,” as well as its cousin “I’m sorry I made you feel that way” are simply abstractions of saying “I don’t think I did anything wrong, and you’re at fault here.”

In essence, not apologizing, or making someone feel like they have to apologize for something you did to them, is a form of abuse. Even if you believe what you did was right and they overreacted, frankly, you should try and understand why your seemingly-harmless actions had a negative effect. And, for the most part, if you’re someone who said “I’m sorry you feel that way,” you already know you messed up.

How to actually apologize.

I had originally had an evaluation of a crisis situation here, but I think something very basic needs to be said here.

  • If you are apologizing, say “I’m sorry.”
  • Whatever your apology is, and your actions are, you should make sure they are declarative, and fully take care of the situation. It may seem like the easiest thing to do would be to do little things to make things better and hope that you can do the bare minimum to get through a situation, but you are most likely wrong, and it will make you look worse.
  • Say you are sorry, why you did it (if there is an explanation), and then what you will be doing to fix things.
  • Once you have done that, stop talking about it. If you are asked about it more, say that you’ve made your statement on the situation. If it’s a legal situation, refer them to your legal counsel.

Though this is very generalized, the core of it is simple – actually apologize, own your mistake, don’t hand-wave, don’t attempt to blame it on someone else, and then 𝙎𝙃𝙐𝙏 𝘿𝘼 𝙁𝙐𝘾𝙆 𝙐𝙋 . If you keep getting asked about it, it’s most likely because you didn’t really apologize or didn’t do enough to fix the problem. In truth, you are never going to satisfy everyone, but you should try and make a satisfactory apology and solution.

Here’s a simple one: Mookie Betts in 2016 said that he would never kneel for the national anthem, as he believed it was insulting to the military. He then chose to kneel during a game in July 2020. He said the following:

“I wasn’t educated. That’s my fault,” said Betts, who the day prior inked a 12-year, $365 million contract extension. “I need to be educated on the situation. I know my dad served and I’ll never disrespect the flag, but there’s also gotta be change in the world, and kneeling has nothing to do with those who served our country.”

This is good apology for the following reasons:

  • He said he was at fault (“my fault”). He did not attempt to say “there were exterior pressures” or something else.
  • He explained his previous position as uneducated, that he had sought education, and at the end of said education had, in fact, realized that he could both respect the American flag and kneel, because kneeling does not disrespect the flag, the military, or his father, and that it’s an act of defiance against negative forces in the world. That’s called “taking action“.

An Actual Apology Beats Any Explanation

The core of a good apology is that you’re actually sorry. A great deal of people think that an apology has a necessary amount of explanations of intention – why you did what you did, the things going on in your mind, the powerful reasons that endeared you to do the thing that made you do the thing. The problem is that the more you explain, the more likely you are to have to apologize for something else, and the less sorry you actually seem.

Take the United flight where a passenger was brutally beaten for not giving up their seat on an allegedly overbooked flight. The passenger, a 69-year-old man, was pulled from his seat and beaten unconscious by the police. Initially, United CEO Oscar Munoz said that he would have a thorough investigation done, only to then try and justify the act by saying the passenger was “disruptive and belligerent,” in a letter to his staff.

An important detail here is that, clearly, Munoz believed that it was right that the passenger was assaulted by cops, because he would not abide by airline rules (?). Putting aside the sociopathy of seeing that video and thinking “well, he should have left his seat,” Munoz could have literally said nothing, or said “it’s truly abominable that passenger was treated that way,” then settled this quietly. However, because he insisted on explaining what happened as quickly as humanely possible, he I’m-sorry-butted himself into a scandal.

His letter to his people could have been short – he didn’t leave his seat, he was asked to leave, and he was brutally beaten, and we’re disgusted by the cops that did this, who do not work for United, I’m sorry you all had to see this, that’s bad, I as CEO am meeting with X person at the Chicago Aviation Security Authority to do Y. But sadly, he had to explain himself, because deep down – I assume – Munoz believed the cops acted well, a thing he could have hidden inside his horrible brain, and thus explained how much of a ghoul he was.

A whole day later, the Airline referred to the event as horrific, took full responsibility, and Munoz had to appear on Good Morning America to talk about how much shame he felt. It was an unforced error after a series of extremely unforced errors, compounded by more unforced errors, all getting away from doing one thing: saying sorry.

Here’s how this should have gone:

  • United should have found out everything immediately before issuing a statement beyond “we’ve seen the video, and it’s truly horrifying.”
  • Behind the scenes, United should have immediately seen to the full medical treatment of the passenger, paid for every possible form of comfort possible, and made sure, uh, he wasn’t dead. This is not for PR purposes, this is for “being human being” purposes.
  • They should have issued an internal memo saying that an investigation was taking place, and that they were going to find out exactly what happened, but this was not a thing that should happen, ever, and that something would be done, but obviously this was an extremely big deal and thus needed a full evaluation.
  • They should have then put out a statement saying that pending investigation, they were fully taking care of the passenger who had been hurt, and that United passengers, guests, and human beings should not and will not be treated like that.
  • They should have then put out the statement around how sorry they were, and that they were working with the authorities to stop these violent acts ever happening again, and they were sorry to the passenger, anyone who was around him or on the plane, and anyone who ever flew United, as this was extremely traumatic.
  • They should have then publicly apologized to him, given him free first class on United for the rest of his life, very publicly disclosed a settlement with him, because it made it look like they were actually sorry.
  • They also should have put real money into de-escalation training with the Chicago airport authorities who very much seem to be the people who messed up here!

Note: they settled with the passenger anyway. Possibly for $140 million. I do wonder how much cheaper this would have been had Munoz not gone ahead and tried to explain why he was beaten unconscious and dragged off of the plane like a dead animal.

The important part of everything I’ve written above is that very little of it actually explains anything. There was no explanation that United could have given that would warrant what happened to the passenger. What people cared about was whether the guy was alive, healthy, able to breathe, because they imagined themselves in that situation and were horrified.

In whatever situation you find yourself where the end point is everyone being mad at you, nobody wants to know whether you had good intentions, nobody wants to hear the saga that led you to doing a bad thing. It doesn’t matter if you had some sort of justification for the thing you did wrong. People want to hear you’re sorry, they want to hear you’re doing something to fix it, and then they don’t want to hear anything more from you that doesn’t noticeably improve the situation.

Evaluate. Sort the situation out as best you can. Make a statement. Shut up.

A note on “if things are worse than they seem.”

If you’re in a situation where you’ve apologized only for what’s come out, you have two choices – you can either get ahead of what’s happening and make a statement that addresses it, or you can keep it hidden, so that when it comes out you have to do this dance again. This is always a tricky one, depending on the egregiousness of what you did. For the most part, this is one I’d hand off to a lawyer, as it’s so broad it’s unanswerable.

Let’s take a data breach. The media announces that there has been a breach of your information and only disclosed that there were names and addresses revealed. You know social security numbers have been revealed too. You should go ahead and disclose that the moment you can, despite the fact that you know it will damage your reputation. Why? Because hiding it will damage your reputation more. Note, this obviously must play second fiddle to the security of your current data and any potential ways in which you have to protect users, but for the most part, if it’s leaked, and it’s been compromised, you have to go to the media and tell them immediately.

The Beauty of Silence (And Time)

A classic problem with apologies is the silence immediately following them. You’ve said sorry, you’ve said you’re doing something, and everyone’s still mad. Why are they still mad? You said you’re sorry, and what you’re going to do, but everyone’s still mad at you and asking for more explanations! What do you do?

  • Step 1: Nothing
  • Step 2: The things you said you’d do to make the thing better

What you don’t do is continue to answer questions, or worse still continue to answer questions nobody’s asked about the situation. If you get a media inquiry, you point them to your previous statement. You say “nothing further to add at this time.”

This applies everywhere – arguments with your spouse, colleagues, friends, professional events, wherever you’ve chosen to mess up. The classic folly most people make with an apology is expecting it to be an emotional panacea, immediately making the person feel better and totally recovered. You will simply have to weather the storm in silence, or by repeating yourself and saying you’re sorry, and repeating your statement. If you can, the best solution is simply to say nothing more at this time – you cannot fix the problem more than you have done, and you will only make it worse.

You also do not want to get pissed off and keep talking, thus making more stuff for you to have to apologize for.

You may even find said person you’ve wronged, even accidentally, keeps bringing it up – it’s your job to realize that the injured party, the victim, is still hurt, and you have done wrong. You will likely repeat yourself. You will get new questions, and you may have to say “as I have said,” without a drop of venom or frustration. That’s because you did something wrong, and you cannot travel back in time to fix it.

The most important thing here, which applies to all apologies, is to actually mean it. If you don’t mean it, you will break, and your non-apology will make things worse. Depending on the situation, you may have apologized to keep the peace. If you actually want to keep the peace, act as if you are sorry, by which I mean returning to the above repetition of your statement.

It’s so easy to fill air to “fix” things or “give your side of the story.’ But the truth is, if you are actually apologizing, your side of the story no longer matters. The side of the story that matters is the person or party you’ve wronged, and making things better with them.

And finally…”what if I’m not actually wrong?”

You are not reading this because you’re not actually wrong. Give me a break. If you’re reading this and internalizing it, it’s because your apologies keep leading to bigger, stupider arguments, and even bigger, stupider apologies. You keep having arguments with the same person or party despite saying you’re sorry, and you’re not sure why that is. The reason is because you are not actually sorry, or you are not actually apologizing, or some combination therein.

The post How To Say “I’m Sorry.” appeared first on The Future Buzz.


Shipping creative work

If it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count. If it’s not creatively productive, it’s not helpful. And if we’re lucky, this is the heart of our work. The work of creation in our chosen medium, putting ourselves on the hook, being asked to do something that’s never been done quite this way before.

Call this the work of a Creative, with a capital C. Someone who commits to making things better by leading through their work, and bringing insight and magic and utility to interesting problems.

It requires us to trust ourselves. To find a voice. To understand systems and genre and craft.

After a year of work, we launched the Creative’s Workshop last year. It quickly became the most engaging at-your-own-pace workshop at Akimbo. The people in the workshop gave and received more feedback each day than most people get in six months. And streaks of a hundred days of productive work in a row were the norm.

We only do this twice a year, and the new session is open for registration today. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read the details and check out what previous participants have said about it. The last session was powerful enough that it became the basis for my new book, which comes out in November.

If you look for the purple circle on this page, you’ll find our secret discount, which is at maximum value today, but it eventually disappears.

Our future depends on the ability of each of us to find a way to make things better. To seek connection, to enable possibility and to open doors for others. I hope this workshop can help.


Why Negative Reviews Are Good For Your Brand

I had a long conversation the other day with a friend who used to be an auto journalist about negative reviews. He told a story of when a colleague sent his (negative) review of a vehicle to the PR company behind said vehicle. He also told me a story of how someone’s feelings were hurt when he wrote a negative review of another car, and how a particular colleague told him that he should “go easy on them.” It reminded me distinctly of my days in games journalism when I’d sit down, crack my knuckles as if I was doing something important, and write a negative review of a PC game, only to turn it in and get in a little bit of trouble for being a little too nasty.

This wasn’t uncommon.

There was – at least for the years I was doing games journalism – a genuine sense that you couldn’t be too mean or too critical of a particular big publisher, though this was generally brushed aside when it came to smaller publishers, which wasn’t unique to games but definitely was extremely annoying. The change that happened was that it became necessary to critique big releases, and publishers responded by delaying embargoes on reviews (IE: the agreed-upon time that you can post your review of a game, essentially an outlet’s trade to get a game early enough to have a review up for release date) to the literal day of the game’s release. Outlets responded by not posting reviews on release day, letting games “sit” a bit and having more robust reviews. A big mess, all essentially to trick gamers into buying a game before reading an honest review, or at least to stop the inevitable – that gamers might find out a game, well, sucks.

The same thing happens in tech, in the sense that there are agreed-upon embargo dates to post reviews on, in the event a reporter receives something in advance, and if the thing is already released and they’re simply reviewing it, the rules of engagement are oftentimes as simple as “please send it back to us when you’re done.” What some PR people interpret reviews as – and no, I’m not going to be kind and say “oh they’re just doing what the CEO says,” because PR people apparently have working brains – is a lubed tube of positive press, a chance for a person to write something nice and get free shit because they were nice.

Nuh-uh. A review is something that exists to give a critical third party statement on your product. It may be positive. It may be negative. If it’s negative, they’re most likely finding stuff in the thing you sent them. It’s meant to be their own subjective evaluation, because a review is an abstraction of word-of-mouth, which is inarguably the most powerful force a PR person can hope to harness.

Now, if you’re a PR person, you may think negative reviews are bad. The truth is that they are only bad if your product is bad, which if it is…well, your product is bad, fix your product, don’t release bad products. I’ll get to that in a little bit.

What happens far more often than I’d like is that PR people take negative reviews as people “being haters.” This is not true, you are a huge baby if you consider someone a “hater” because of a bad review, and I wish you’d stop saying it because it’s unproductive to the world at large. In your general life, if you bought something and it was bad, you’d say you hated it and why you hated it. If someone does that in a review, they are doing so because they feel that the thing was bad at the thing the thing was meant to do. They are also doing so so that their readers know whether something is bad, so that they spend their money or don’t spend their money on it, or something else.

How To Deal With Bad Reviews (And How They’re Actually Good For You)

One particular stinker of a PR firm working for MSI recently attempted to bribe, then threaten a reporter for giving their laptop a bad review.

Now, the smart money here would be to say to the reviewer “yeah, your findings are correct, the trackpad is off,” or put him on the phone with an engineer, or, if you know your laptop sucks, just kind of say that the things he’s found are consistent with the final product. Brace yourself for impact. The review’s gonna be bad. Threatening someone with no more review samples or sponsorships because they said your bad thing is bad is childish and moronic – the act of a coward and a charlatan.

I can guarantee the internal conversation here branded this reporter some kind of hater, an outlier in an otherwise perfect crop. Whenever you do this, you are hurting yourself. This is stupid. You are stupid. If they have found a legitimate problem with your device, fix that, then go back to the reviewer.

Why? Because if you go back to a “hater” and say “hey, we heard you, we fixed it, what do you think?” you may turn them into a convert, who will absolutely lose their shit at a company that legitimized their feelings and respected their opinion. You know who also loves this the fucking consumer. Consumers are used to being told their opinions and dislikes are stupid, and that they don’t know what they want.

Sidenote: yes, there are occasionally haters. They are very rare. If you are a PR person reading this and using this as an excuse to call someone a hater, I'm going to come to your house and break every toilet, I am going to leave you with no way to go to the bathroom. Next time you need to go to the toilet, you are going to have to do so in the trash.

Negative reviews are good for you because they show consumers that everything positive about you isn’t paid advertising. Negative reviews show that you are fallible, like regular human beings, and your ability to take criticism like an adult and use it to be better will allow you to be a stronger, better company. A good company will have bad reviews. A good product will have them too. Nothing is perfect, just like the human experience, and you should be realistic about that.

To conclude, I know reading negative stuff sucks. It hurts. I’m not emotionless, and I recognize criticism is painful, especially when there’s nothing you can immediately do about it. Maybe if you know something is a little flawed you’ll take it only to certain reporters who won’t, well, be so harsh on it. Maybe you don’t do a big press campaign around it. Maybe you put it back in development. Depending on the product it may not be possible. But if you’re working on something categorically bad, perhaps it’s worth not putting it out there at all.

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Two kinds of decisions worth focusing on

HARD ONES because you know that whatever you choose is possibly the wrong path. Hard decisions are hard because you have competing priorities. Hard decisions that happen often are probably a sign that the system you’re relying on isn’t stable, which means that the thing you did last time might not be the thing you want to do this time.

EASY ONES because it probably means that you’ve got a habit going. And an unexamined habit can easily become a rut, a trap that leads to digging yourself deeper over time.

 

PS The Early decision deadline for the October session of the altMBA is tomorrow, August 4th. If you apply by then, you’re still at the front of the line for admission… Apply here.


Steal the time from comfort

Everyone gets the same 24 hours. Reset every day, a fresh start.

Some of us are privileged enough to have the choice on how to spend some of that time. We can feel busy, but the busy-ness is largely a choice, a series of decisions we’ve made over the years about the things we choose to do, but have come to believe we have to do.

These habits are now comfortable. Walking away from spending that time will cost us comfort. In the short run. But if we don’t walk away from how we spent time yesterday, it’s hard to imagine that tomorrow will be much better than today.

HT: This riff from Derek Sivers is still resonating with me.


A too-simple answer to a complicated problem

The problem: how can we get people what they want and need?

It turns out that the simple short-term answer is the market.

The marketplace makes it possible to buy a nail clipper made of hardened steel for just four dollars, but only when you’re ready. The marketplace offers some people a solid brass set of the cups and balls magic trick and other people a hand-blown glass vase.

The marketplace is hyper-alert and never tires of finding overlooked corners of desire.

But the marketplace is not wise.

It’s blind, short-term and fairly stupid. Because it has no overarching goal. The market is nothing but billions of selfish people, trading this for that, without regard for what’s next.

Left alone, capitalism will devolve into corruption, bribery and predatory pricing leading to monopoly. Left alone, capitalism will pollute rivers, damage our health and create ever greater divides.

Capitalism gets us an opioid epidemic, the dark patterns of social media and doom scrolling.

Because the market isn’t wise. It has no sense of time or proportion.

The only way for the simple answer to solve our complicated problems is for it to have guardrails, boundaries that enable it to function for the long haul.

That’s something we need leadership to get done. And it’s more likely to get done if we acknowledge that we need to do it.


There Are No Public Relations Lessons To Be Learned From Any Media Property

Every so often, when I want to feel true pain, I subject myself to one of the single worst websites on the internet – PRDaily – a snake eating its own tail of PR people in denial about their relevance to the world at large, with the occasional summary of how a big company spent millions of dollars and how PR people were at some point involved. They also love to make posts, just like the rest of the industry, about lessons you might learn about PR from something not related to PR, such as The Lessons You Can Learn About PR From Bird-Brained Historically Inaccurate and Genuinely Terrible Rap-Musical Hamilton.

This awful screed is an example of PR people searching for relevance and importance in popular culture, a truly depressing and embarrassing pursuit. This is the career version of buyer’s remorse – when you realize the job you do is not exactly the most important in the world, instead of saying “hey, at least I get paid money and people are happy,” you say the following:

The post, “7 PR lessons from ‘Hamilton,’” is the platonic form of these “how do I make this about PR” posts:

  • Incredible stretches of interpretation to make something from X media thing about PR: ““I am not throwing away my shot.” For PR pros, this phrase has many applications. There’s only a small window to jump on a social media trend or be the first to the table with a clever phrase that stands out online. Often, you have one chance to successfully pitch your story in a way that piques reporters’ curiosity.
  • Totally nonsensical shit: After Burr, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson approach Hamilton with evidence suggesting that he embezzled funds, Hamilton publishes “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” which outlines his torrid affair with Maria Reynolds…If members of your organization have messed up, whether they’re employees who have overstepped or an executive who is trying to cover up misconduct, persuade them to get ahead of the narrative. This involves coming clean and being transparent with the crisis, along with taking responsibility for the fallout and outlining reparations or ways it won’t happen again.
  • An attempt to make PR seem more important through stretches of logic: “I want to be in the room where it happens.” PR pros can sympathize with Burr’s outburst in Act Two. For communicators, it’s all about getting a seat at the strategy and decision-making table. To ensure your place, focus on being a business professional who can expertly communicate, instead of a communicator with some business knowledge.
  • Some sort of point about how, despite making an entire post on PR’s relevance, you have no actual control over anything that happens in the public: “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Remember that you don’t control the narrative of your media coverage nor social media engagement. Reporters are there to tell stories their readers will want to read, not elevate you and your organization. Members of your online community might sing your praises or criticize your practices, but they want to have a dialogue with you, not be blasted with additional brand copy.

These posts are some of the most cynical, putrid deposits in PR, and, while seemingly harmless, are part of a larger issue of misleading and gaslighting young PR people into believing that they have a larger affect on the world than they do. By making these posts about PR lessons from a big famous thing, you are telling the PR person that everything is about PR, that PR has relevance to everything, that they are more important than they think and that their world can be seen through the lens of PR.

By leading PR people to have a greater degree of self importance, you relax the need for critiques – both of oneself and of the industry at large – and a genuine ignorance of that which may cause you to be better at your job. The irony is that these same people who love these posts also talk about how the PR person isn’t the story, while at the same time trying to feel as important as they possibly can. It’s fine to not be important, it’s fine to not be popular, and it’s fine to not have relevance to every piece of modern culture.

I really do mean that, and I want to be clear to PR people that just because your job can be described as sending emails at scale or writing lots of documents, that’s totally fine. You are in a well-compensated industry with lots of work. You do things that do have an affect on the world, though those things may be someone else’s achievements, and that’s okay too. Your job isn’t as interesting to describe as, say, a doctor’s, or a lawyer’s, but guess what? It’s also nowhere near as hard to do and requires far fewer qualifications. You don’t have to make up why you’re important, you don’t have to puff it up, you have a good job, and through said job you likely have a better chance at working at the companies you want to work at than most people.

Please, stop trying to pretend we’re more important than we are. Be happy with what you’ve got.

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Weasel decisions

One way to make a decision with a team or a partner is to clearly make a decision. Have a budget, do the math, lay out the risks and the options and decide with intent.

The other method is to weasel your way forward.

Act as if.

Be presumptive.

Hide relevant facts or conceal your fears.

Avoid talking about the real issues, figuring that you’ll figure it all out as you go.

When you are uncomfortable with here, and it’s really tempting to want to be there, it’s easy to weasel your way forward. It feels urgent and appropriate. It rarely is.


Your “Years Of Experience” Are Meaningless

Hello, you! I hear that you have 25 years of experience in the communications field, and have worked with the Fortune 500. I myself have put on my own website that I have a certain amount of experience, and that I have worked with the Fortune 500, the Fortune 100, hell, I am the Fortune 500 now. I have become one with them, I am a rat king of Fortune companies, rolling around consuming matter both edible and otherwise.

In all seriousness, though, nobody cares. Sure, there’s the immediate gut-check of “have they done stuff before,” but for the most part if you’ve encountered any PR manager or CEO who’s tried to order you around, they’ve brought up how many years they’ve been doing their job. They have said that they have 30 years in PR, doing corporate communications, and that as a result your thoughts are both invalid and stupid.

Your years in PR are apparently what give you the ability to do your job, not your actual achievements or things you’ve done with your own hands.

This rant bubbled up in my skull because I was recently forced to read posts from the Public Relations Society of America’s recent banning of a member from said forum for asking very clear-cut questions about things like “why do we say we are making money when we are losing money” and “why do we hide who is doing the financial audits” and “why have we not had a new CEO in 18 months.”

The forum posts, which I won’t share because they are private and every one of the whiny babies who likes to post about how much they love public relations would go completely insane if I did, are mostly people repeatedly saying that Mary is being mean, and also how many years of experience they have, and how many years they’ve all sat around talking about how good PR is in their PR group for PR people.

Note, if this comes off as a petty grievance – it is! This is my website, not your website.

For the most part, I realize that people need to justify their existence through whatever things they believe to be valid. It’s a tough world out there, and we’ve all got things we hang on to when we’re feeling a lack of self confidence. But PR people have this insane attachment to how many years they’ve managed to not get fired, or how many years they’ve managed to stick around in a field where the barrier to entry is having an email account.

I want you to take a minute to think about any time in your life that you’ve told someone you’ve had X years of experience in something as part of an argument or management situation. If you’ve said it in a pitch for new business, fine, we all do that, but if you’ve said it in a conversation to justify your argument, it’s invalid and stupid. I have known many, many communicators that in two years of time in PR have more experience than someone who has 15 years of micromanaging and making 22-year-olds cry because they messed up the bullet points on an agenda.

In fact, I’d argue that if you have 15-25 years in marketing or PR, there’s a decent chance that you have inverse experience depending on what you’ve done with your career. If you’ve done the thing that many PR people do – found an agency, hire 15 people, distance yourself from the work, or perhaps move in-house somewhere with a big time and an agency – you’ve probably put yourself in a position of “management” that’s divorced from the actual practice of marketing or public relations. If you’ve done that, every year that you choose to not do the actual job and choose to just do “strategy” is kind of like thinking that you’re going to lose weight by spending hours planning workouts that someone else will do.

This is an issue with corporate America as a whole, but nowhere is it more obvious that it’s a problem than in marketing and PR.

I’ll be writing more about the big problems with the PRSA soon, but for now that’s all I got. I couldn’t work out a featured image for the post so I put a picture of Jim Carrey as the mask. Smockin’!

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Where to Start When Leading Through Crisis

I don’t take the opportunity to write about how I lead Portent as much as I’d like to.

As an agency dedicated to creating positive change and driving engagement for our clients, our attention has little room to slip as the brands we partner with look to us as guides through uncertainty.

Over the past five months, my role has shifted focus due to the environment we find ourselves in today. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. We navigated a social justice moment that re-sparked a movement. And we are approaching what may end up being the most intense election cycle in many of our lifetimes.

Through that, we’re expected to keep the lights on and continue to push our clients forward. We’re expected to drive results for our clients. We’re expected to show the path forward for our people.

Running a marketing team is hard. Leading a marketing team through crisis is even harder. And to be honest, I couldn’t be more impressed with how our leadership team has led over the past five months.

Yes, this is a proud agency leader moment.

The environment we continue to find ourselves in for the foreseeable future demands a shift in approach to leadership. It’s evolved for the better, and I want to share how we made that change because I don’t think it’s only relatable to folks who find themselves in leadership roles at a marketing agency.

We’ve relied heavily on these principles over the past five months to guide the Portent team. And while many marketing agencies find themselves in a fragile place as client budget drastically fluctuate, I couldn’t be more proud of this agency or optimistic about our future together.

Be Transparent

Yes, it’s cliché.

It’s cliché for a reason.

We opened up the books for everyone to see internally. We’ve shared all of the wins and all the losses. We’ve talked about what success looks like, and we’ve talked about what happens if things take a turn for the worse. We started doing live Town Hall events with anonymous Q&A sections. Our leadership team answers every single question.

Somewhere towards the end of March, I lost count of how many times I said, “I don’t know.” I’ve felt vulnerable saying that as the agency’s leader, but sometimes, “I don’t know” is the truth and the truth builds trust.

But this honesty is just one part of the puzzle; equally important is what follows. After I say, “I don’t know,” we figure out how to right-size a path forward to fit our needs.

Everything is on the table for everyone to see.

Provide Space

It’s time for more agencies to actually take care of their people.

I’m tired of meeting good people who have been taken in only to be spit out at the end of their agency career jaded by the industry as a whole.

No matter the role of the people on your team, the lives of those team members have changed significantly in the last five months. For most of us, the easy change to see is to a remote-based environment filled with Zoom calls and little opportunity for personal connection. But the impact this “new normal” has had on individuals stretches farther than our professional lives, and continues to evolve and change.

Why do we still expect our team members to work in the same way or need the same things they needed at the start of the year?

Since March, we’ve reshaped our approach to billable hours, time tracking, last-minute deadlines, and unreasonable client requests to better protect our people.

Our benefits have changed and will continue to change as we navigate uncharted waters. Proactive communication, effective prioritization, and better-disciplined project management keep us on track to get through what we must get through. The leadership team has hounded (in the best of ways!) their team members to take paid time off through all of this.

That approach provided everyone in the agency more space; to flex when they work and are in a flow, to flex when their mind isn’t with the agency and our clients, and to flex when the daily news cycle is too much to take an eye off.

Guess what? Engagement from the team is stronger than it’s ever been, and client retention—despite today’s environment—is as high as we’ve ever seen it.

Get Feedback

Lead with genuine empathy, and you may find that you receive more openness and honesty than you ever did before.

Remember that part about not knowing what to do?

The questions, conversations, and input we have received during this time continue to directly shape what we do and how we do it.

We’ve always worked to get feedback, but the cadence, openness, and directness of it has substantially increased this year. Thank you, again, to all of the Portent team who has helped here.

Looking Forward

And while we remain remote and dispersed for the foreseeable future, I think many would agree that in some ways, we’ve grown closer than ever as an agency.

Yes, there have been bumps along the way, and I don’t expect us to be in the clear anytime soon. But we’ll continue to be transparent, provide space, and get feedback. I mentioned earlier that the external environment caused us to change our approach to leadership and adopt new principles along the way. I’m an optimist; I believe we will eventually settle into a new normal free of constant crisis. And when we do, these principles won’t change.

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