What a Newbie Learned at PRSA Speed-dating


By John Dowling

In a room full of 100-plus PR pros, I was the newbie.

The place was the PRSA Chicago chapter’s Oct. 21 “speed-dating” event, a great opportunity for me to learn and make connections as I explore opportunities in the communications world. The format: Breakfast, followed by a succession of 15-minute chats with agency leaders as they moved from table to table.

My takeaways as a newbie:

Crystal ball required. The communications world is in transition. Or tumult. Or “chaos,” as one agency leader put it. Audiences shift, channels evolve, new tools and platforms emerge. What’s the distinction between advertising and PR? The challenge is to get ahead of change, not just keep up.

Glass ceiling shattered? Of the 20 agency leaders on the program, 16 were women. Some work at big agencies, others run their own agencies. It’s a striking statistic – quite a contrast to other areas of business and society.

It’s a people business. Relationships are paramount, in hiring, in the workplace, in dealing with and retaining clients, and landing new ones. One leader’s key question in hiring: Are you a kind person?

Harmonizing work and life. “Balance” is probably too much to ask for, but the leaders I met said the trick is simply to make life outside of work a priority, for themselves and for the people who work for them.

Staying indispensable. Clients may see PR as a luxury, not as a necessity. PR people need to be conscious of the need to help their client contacts sell the value of PR work to THEIR bosses.

Know your audience. As the US becomes more diverse, communicators will need to craft culturally astute messages tailored to a wide range of audiences – while still keeping those messages consistent with the overall brand story.

Mind-reading. What a client says they want may not be what they really value. They might say they’re all about social media, but that Wall Street Journal placement might still be the way to the CEO’s heart. So it’s important to explore client wants thoughtfully.

Last thing: Two thoughts from a former journalist on how to get the most from an event like this.

Do your homework. Go into a session like this knowing something about the leaders you’re meeting – a shared acquaintance, a shared piece of career or educational path, a home town or home state in common. It’s a way to make an instant connection. (The PRSA organizers made this easy by providing bios for most of the leaders on the event web site; of course the rest have LinkedIn profiles.)

Know whom you want to meet and what you want to ask. Every leader who sat down at my table was open, candid and approachable. None brought a prepared speech! So it was a great opportunity for people like me to get OUR questions answered by people who really know what they’re talking about. And at least one leader I wanted to meet didn’t sit at my table at all – but we met nonetheless.

Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)  John Dowling spent 15 years as a learning and development executive for The Associated Press, helping to move AP’s global news network into the digital age. Now he’s a Chicago-based digital content consultant. Check him out on LinkedIn.

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