10 Lessons For Getting Ahead in PR and Communications

October 02, 2019
By iQ Staff
Rick Zwern.

At our annual iQ 360 all-agency meeting, we heard from Rick Zwern, worldwide director of executive development at WPP. Rick shared his top 10 lessons learned from a career spanning more than 20 years in communications working with high-level executives and worldwide brands.


1. Your mother will never understand what you do for a living (and that’s OK).

Explaining to your mother what you actually do as a communications professional can be a challenge. She may come away from that conversation thinking you spend a lot of time on Facebook or write for the newspaper. Just know that most of PR is about getting clients to tell the truth, which is what your mother raised you to do. And no one paid her to do it.


2. Decide what you want to be known for.

If you don’t define yourself, others will — and you may not like their definition of you. Figure out what you want to be known for, whether you’re the person people call in a crisis or the one clients turn to when they need a strategic outlook. Direct your time and efforts toward growing in that area.


3. Learn the language of business.

If you want to progress in your career and be taken seriously by clients or company leadership, you need to speak the language they do. This means studying balance sheets and understanding how your clients make money. This will enable you to participate in the conversation and weigh in using language that’s important to them.


4. See yourself not just as a communicator, but as a business consultant.

Change your mentality from “I just do PR” to “I am a business professional engaging with clients on a peer-to-peer basis.” You have the right to be in the room when important conversations are happening because you add a valuable perspective. You need to have a seat at the table in order to hear the conversation so you can do your job effectively.

In order to do this, you must invest time beyond your communications role to truly learn your clients’ or your company’s business: industry trends, the competitive landscape, long-term plans. If you do this, you will elevate yourself from the expendable role of a vendor who supplies services to the critical role of consultant and trusted advisor. But don’t assume you know everything. At one point in my career, I thought I knew all the right answers, then I found the real skill was knowing the right questions to ask.


“I thought I knew all the right answers, then I found the real skill was knowing the right questions to ask.”


5. Don’t confuse efforts with outcomes.

One of the biggest mistakes PR people make is confusing efforts with outcomes. You put so much time and effort into pitching, working with reporters, preparing your CEO for interviews. If that hard work doesn’t translate to outcomes, your client will not care how many hours you spent crafting the perfect key messages. They will not understand why your bill is so high when their company’s reputation hasn’t improved. They will not see value in your role when everything is status quo. They will only see the outcome of your efforts. You must focus your efforts on getting results, changing perceptions, measuring impacts and communicating how your work affected your client’s business.


6. Responsibility is taken, not given.

Don’t wait to be told what to do, what to learn, what to fix. Look around and see what needs improvement. Think about the opportunities your clients are not taking. Consider what skills you can improve upon to help your company and your career. Take action. One way to do this is to look at what your supervisor does on a daily basis. What do they spend their time on? Ask yourself if there’s anything you can take off their plate, or anything you can do to make their work easier. As you take on more and more responsibility, you will develop experience, skills and confidence to keep growing as a professional.


7. Communications is a team sport.

Your biggest success factor in your career is your ability to work on a team. Anything worth doing in this industry — the most influential, inspiring, enduring work — is done in groups. The greatest leaders and visionaries of our industry aren’t individual superstars, they have amazing teams that help them execute their big ideas. Think about your own role on a team, whether you’re a leader or follower, and how you contribute to the group’s success.


8. Be fun to work with.

We log more waking hours at work than we do with our family. Be the person your clients and colleagues want to spend time with.


9. If you have a short attention span, you’re in the right industry.

Anyone who works in communications knows that every day is different. If you enjoy going to the office without knowing exactly what your day will be like, this is the job for you. You need to read the newspaper every day to keep up with current events and industry trends. You need to be able to think on your feet and act quickly. If you thrive in this environment, it can be incredibly rewarding.


10. Aspire to be your client’s trusted advisor.

Serve your clients or company, but don’t be subservient. You are not an order taker — you have real value to add that your client won’t find anywhere else. Show them you care about their business, but also that you care about them as individuals. Get to know their preferences, ask about their families, and really listen. Earn their trust and they will open up to you about the issues that keep them up at night.