The Moment That the Light Bulb Turns On

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By John Lonsdorf, President, R&J Public Relations

I’ve been running a PR agency now for over 27 years.  During that time, I’ve had a lot of employees – some good, some duds, some simply mediocre, but thankfully, a lot who have been absolutely terrific and who have driven the success that we’ve enjoyed over those years.

Do you know who the best employees turned out to be?  No, not the ones who came in and immediately tried to “set the world on fire.”  No, my best employees, including several who continue serve our clients’ needs in management positions at R&J, are those who came in with a world of potential, but who had yet to experience that transformational moment that ALL good PR people seem to have – that magical moment when the light bulb turns on over their head, and they realize what it takes to be strategic as opposed to tactical.

I remember the exact moment it happened for me:  I was a young account service person working at an advertising/PR agency.  I had worked my way up from advertising copywriter to what was then a unique hybrid position where I was also servicing accounts.  I had written a corporate brochure for one of my clients, a large regional commercial real estate company.  It was good (in my humble opinion), and I was proud to go to present it to the client’s CEO, bask in his anticipated adulation and triumphantly deliver my finished work back to the designer at the agency.

The CEO liked it too – but, of course, he had some suggestions and changes.  So I dutifully took them back to the agency, worked hard to not just make them “work,” but also to make them good, and I went back to that CEO with his finished copy.  Or so I thought.  Suffice it to say that this process was repeated over, and over, and over again – and you can add several “overs” to that.  It got to the point where my boss at the agency called me in and said that I had to take control of the situation and bring this project across the finish line – you know, so we could finally send that big fat bill.

So I went to the client CEO and, exasperated, said something along the lines of “Why is it that EVERY time I come back to you with this copy, you make changes – some of which contradict changes you made previously?”  (This was my very naïve and inexperienced attempt at “taking control.”)

He looked me in the eye and said, “I was depending on you to tell me when it was perfect and finished.”

Wow.  What a kick in the head.  And what a revelation.  My role in this dance was far more significant than I had ever realized or had allowed myself to think.  The client trusted me.  He trusted that I had his best interests at heart.  And he trusted me enough to be in control of the situation and to offer my professional judgment, not to be just a glorified courier service – and I was failing miserably!  As if that in itself wasn’t enough, it also hit me that my boss at the agency had that same level of trust.  And I had been shortchanging both of them – and my career at the same time – by abdicating this professional responsibility.  In short, I was being tactical instead of strategic.

That was the moment the light bulb lit above my head, and I began to view my position from a completely different perspective.  Instead of simply a cog in the bigger machine, I was the one in charge of the switches and controls – and it was up to me to take charge of the situation and to strategically look ahead and anticipate the steps that might need to be taken two, three, or even more steps ahead in the process.  It was a hard but necessary lesson to learn.

In my time owning the agency, I have seen many parallel examples in my great employees, most of whom came to me early in their careers, with a world of potential, but without the realization that the difference between “adequate” and “superior” is almost always in how strategic you are in the way you approach your job and your clients.  Good PR people get this – maybe not at first, but shortly into their careers when the light bulb above their head turns on, providing all-important illumination.

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