Beyond People Persons

“I’m a people person!” That was the battle cry of most of the students I knew in college as they declared, with several exclamation points and a smiley face, that they had decided to major in public relations, marketing or communications.

And indeed, things have not changed a lot since my college years. The field remains populated with individuals sporting superior moods, manners and manes. When I’m in a PR agency suite, the REM lyric “shiny happy people holding hands” is the soundtrack I often unconsciously put to the scene.

Still, there are a relative few unreformed, unrepentant Grumpy Guses and Gertrudes in the business. They close their doors and look inward as their colleagues chirp about all the trendy things they did together over the weekend. They slink away in horror when ice breaker games inevitably break out at inter-office meetings. They do their best thinking alone in their drab, toyless offices, not in those madcap agency brainstorming sessions. They work in public relations, but avoid relations with the public.

And the business needs more of them.

This is wholly unscientific, but I’d guess 80% of folks who work in PR are more extroverted and 20% are more introverted. In some types of practices the mix may be even more lopsided, such as consumer relations.

And it doesn’t seem like that trend is likely to end any time soon. When recently addressing a class of earnest University of Minnesota PR majors, I mentioned off-handedly that I was introverted. A young man with exquisitely highlighted hair expressed genuine shock that an introvert could work in public relations. I felt like Lobster Boy at a carnival freak show.

When I mentioned to this same class that I studied history and political science in college, a lovely young woman asked me, with sympathy in her voice, how I learned to write without the benefit of a public relations major. Her concern was genuine, and oddly touching.

Look, don’t get me wrong. The perky People Person is clearly a great profile for many aspects of public relations. It helps with the initial job interview, event planning, most types of new business pitching, interoffice team building, and many other aspects of PR work. Moreover, extroverted PR people connect well with extroverted clients, of which there are many in this world.

However, it strikes me that the biggest downside of overstaffing with extroverts is that many extroverts are a bit too eager to please and be liked. PR people often are most valuable when they are delivering the least popular counsel. “I recommend you not say that because it’s not true and fudging will kill our reputation.” “I know you’ve always done things that way, but you have to change with the times.” “You’ll look foolish if you do that, because it doesn’t pass the smell test with our target audience.” “We can’t charge for that because it’s not in their best interest.” “Sure it’s hip and fun, but it doesn’t achieve the goal we were hired to achieve.”

Now more than ever, the PR business needs to be offering more of this kind of tough love. Few enjoy delivering such unpopular counsel, but my experience is that those who most love to be loved particularly avoid it. Such candid counsel often chills relationships, and that is a higher price to pay for the extrovert than the introvert.

Moreover, some parts of PR work lend themselves to introversion. The essence of public relations is empathy. It’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, because you can’t effectively persuade the target audience or your client until you can get yourself to think and feel like them. It strikes me that empathetic analysis is often an inward looking endeavor that suits the introverted well. Likewise, introspection can come in handy crafting a persuasive argument, analysis, plan or strategy.

None of this is to argue that PR agency Human Relations Department directors should replace all their Perky Pauls with Petulant Pams. Extroverts will always be the backbone of PR operations. And I must admit, sometimes the icebreaker games aren’t as humiliating as I expected. But it is to say that Meyers Briggs diversity in PR is as important as other kinds of diversity, and that the best hire may not always be the best interviewer, or the person with the most narrowly relevant resume.

– Loveland

tax amnesty kind

14 thoughts on “Beyond People Persons

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Fascinating! How well we remember Meyers/Briggs and that other one–Strong/Cambell (?) But maybe the introversion/extroversion scale is an inadequate overgeneralization. I sense you’re describing someone who can listen, think, distill, understand and then articulate a message. This is likely a rare personality with an eclectic intellectual background and curiosities who doesn’t “major” in public relations but later selects the field as best way to express his manifold aptiudes and interests. He is able to grasp often divergent concepts and then communicate them. There is good argument for the classic liberal arts education afterall.

  2. bbenidt says:

    I was thinking about how to word what I wanted to say, then read Dennis’s comment, and that’s what I want to say.

    Is empathy the essence of PR? I think what Dennis says above — ability to listen, think, distill, understand and articulate — is closer to the essence, and empathy helps with the listening (and figuring out whom to listen to and how to get to them), the understanding and the articulating.

    There are way too many people in PR who will go off chasing whatever rabbit their client puts in from of them and too few who do the thinking and analyzing and tough counsel Joe talks about.

    Some clients don’t want thinkers, just perky rabbit chasers. Those are the clients you wanna dump. The best clients value the thinking and questioning — and not just in crisis counsel. If you’re talking about what messages to convey, they value the questions — even ones such as “is this true?” “Is this consistent with your organization’s values?” “Is this the main thing you want people to know about your organization?” “What are you most proud of?” “What do you think would help fix this problem?”

    The empathy is a great attribute that helps us be valuable to our clients, partly by helping us be decent human beings who know how to ask tough questions with compassion and a bit of diplomacy. Empathy helps us be part of their team — critical thinking helps us not drink their Kool Aid.

    But that liberal arts background — critical thinking and broad awareness and knowledge — is the place to start. Many people say we need more people with business backgrounds in PR, and that’s true. And we also need more people with razor-sharp minds, whether they perkily relate to the public or not.

    Cool discussion. Thanks, Joe and Dennis. And the question to you, Joe, about how’d you learn to write wtihout PR classes, makes me shiver.

  3. jloveland says:

    1) Maybe it goes like this. Listening is a prerequisite to empathy and empathy is a prerequisite to persuasion.

    Empathy — the ability to feel another’s emotion — strikes me as the hardest to achieve quality in the string. If you can’t feel a bit of what the target audience is feeling, I don’t see how you can hope to persuade them. There are many times when I’m listening on an intellectual basis, but not able or willing to feel the emotion behind the words.

    2) Re: The kid in the PR class’s question about writing.

    I can totally understand how a 21 yo student would have that question, because she’s experienced so little of life and other kinds of people. I can’t understand how PR agencies seemingly come to the same conclusion, as evidenced by their preference for PR/communications majors over non-traditional backgrounds.

  4. Dennis Lang says:

    Mr. L and B–You’re describing a very engaging field. Sounds like the ideal PR pro should combine a little philosopher-psychologist-historian-author. Plenty of serious introspection required. There’s some artistry involved in this. And I used to think the dedicated journalist who crossed over was copping out.

  5. jloveland says:

    I’d personally rather have someone with a talent for psychology than a flawless technical writer.

    Don’t let us overromanticize the discipline, Dennis. There are plenty of opportunities to sell out in any field, and this is no exception.

  6. Kelly Groehler says:

    Please refer to Recruiter’s link for exhibit A on the sell-outs. Excellent piece, Joe.

  7. jloveland says:

    BTW, my observation is based on the dozen-ish agencies I’ve been exposed to in and out of this market, not any agencies in particular. For the record, Weber Shandwick, the agency that twice was silly enough to hire this introverted political scientist, strikes me as more committed to this kind of diversification than the industry as a whole.

  8. Dennis Lang says:

    Among the many insights that still resonate from a journalism class presided over by Mr. B awhile ago is an anecdote he shared that I think touches on all of the above: listening, understanding, empathizing, communicating. He had interviewed a particularly resistant subject, as always in that subtle way of his attempting to uncover the hidden truths just out of sight. He wrote the piece, possibly having some trepidation over the subject’s reaction. When the subject read the article the response was surprise and gratitude. Its author had indeed discovered truths unknown or at least unexpressed by the subject himself . He felt understood.

  9. This seems a decent place for me to get this little load off my chest:

    Public relations DOES NOT equal media relations. The primary goal of public relations work is not – or, should not always be – “get me press.”

    And fluffy media relations – “getting me press” – seems to be an area in which the bubbly extroverts would tend to succeed.

    Meanwhile, I’ll be over in my toyless office. I do, however, have a guitar in my office and three at my home office. (For the introverted purpose of playing for myself.)

  10. Dennis Lang says:

    While you folks are still on the topic (sort of)–truthseeking and message-conveying–did anyone catch Eric Alterman’s amazing “New Yorker” article (March 31) on the end of journalism as we’ve known it, the rise of the Internet, and its consequences? Is the average citizen with an appetite for information going to be the big loser with the passing of “first-rate” journalism?

  11. Dennis Lang says:

    A couple readers followed up on Mr. Alterman’s article predicting the extinction of the newspaper business. (4/28). One comment caused me to think of the Crowd. A journalism professor suggests “a glaring failure of newspapers in not making their importance known to the public….The industry and Individual newspapers could well benefit today from the assistance of public relations firms that are able to tell the story of newspapers that they themselves unfortunately don’t–that they produce news coverage unlike any other media.” To what degree is the demise of the industry attributable to the message it has failed to convey regarding its value?

  12. EMM says:

    Ah. I have so many thoughts after reading this exchange from last spring.

    Whenever a student says she (calling it as it is 80% of the time) wants to go into public relations because she likes people, I think of the old joke: “So do cannibals.”

    And Benidt. I’m calling you out. YEARS ago when you were an above-average journalism professor at MSU and i was attempting to profess public relations, you came into my classroom (more than once) and declared public relations people were “flaks..paid liars.”

    And now in 2008 you ask, “Is empathy the essence of PR?” My god. What’s next? I suppose you’ll be starting your own consultancy some day soon while I continue to hoe them rows…:-)

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