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Ask an Expert: Doug Hecox

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Doug Hecox

We asked Federal Highway Administrator and American University School of Communication (AU SOC) adjunct professor Doug Hecox about what it takes to be a good strategic communicator. Hecox, who is also a successful comedian and has written jokes for Stephen Colbert and Jay Leno, was happy to weigh in.

What are the top five things that make a good strategic communicator?

Let there be no mistake – good strategic communicators need MANY good qualities. That said, if I had to choose only five, Writing and Editing would top the list. One needs to know how to write with the proper style for the right audience at the right time. As I tell my students, it’s a little like being a good painter. One needs to know how to use the various colors on the palette at the right time, and the right artistic style for the right reasons. Picasso wouldn’t be so highly regarded if he only knew how to draw stick figures. The diverse styles in which he excelled were key to his success – just as they must be for communicators. If all you know how to do is write speeches, your career options will be very limited. Similarly, anyone who thinks you can do public relations or promotional work in the modern world with only press releases and media advisories is a dinosaur. Social media have been an absolute game changer for the industry, but press releases, advisories, newsletters, speeches, web content, and so on are all necessary for success… and knowing how to write them well, quickly, and for the right audience is critical.

Second, though often overlooked among public relations firms and others in the field, News Judgment is key. Recently, I was asked by a public relations student at a university in Ohio what skill is the most important, and to me it’s obvious – news judgment. Understanding what reporters and producers need, understanding their timetables, deadlines and anticipating needs is super important. Writing and editing are valuable, but understanding the news industry is something I see lacking among far too many in the public relations field. Especially in government, where public affairs work is part and parcel of so much, far too many people claiming to be media experts or public relations specialists have never worked in media. Not having had an internship in a newspaper, TV or radio station seems like telling the world you’re a chef when you’ve never actually eaten in a restaurant. If you don’t know what news is, you have no business pushing it on reporters. I worked in radio for several years, wrote newspaper articles and columns for two decades and even delivered newspapers as a kid. I really like news and I believe strongly in the work done by reporters. A free press isn’t enough – we need to have a LOT of free press. We also need a society that supports it and understands its primary function is to protect the public from bad government decisions, officials and so on. There is a reason the freedom of the press is our nation’s FIRST Amendment to the Constitution. It is critical to everything our nation depends on. A free press is what keeps America free, and if public relations people don’t understand the passion of reporters and producers, or the work they need to do – or the ways in which it gets done – they can’t succeed.

To succeed in any field, but especially public relations, public affairs or strategic communications, one must be curious and creative. Curiosity and Creativity are tied for third and fourth, in my opinion, because they are flip sides of the same coin. Reporters are curious people, and PR people must also be. If we can’t look at information and ask, “why is this news?” or “what does this really mean to the public?” we aren’t doing our job. In some cases, asking, “why is this news?” will reveal that it is NOT news. Public relations practitioners often have to advise their senior leadership or clientele that announcing a new flavor of cola, or a new way of recycling bacon grease, is not newsworthy enough to warrant the effort. Asking oneself, or one’s team, how we can actually boost something so boring into something useful for reporters and producers – something worthy of their attention – is where curiosity is a strength. Simply accepting basic facts, cranking out a press release and hoping for the best is a waste of everyone’s time. The public relations field is not a Play-Doh Fun Factory, in which people just turn the handle and out comes something magical. It takes curiosity and creativity to ensure that the message is being crafted and delivered as effectively as possible.

Last but not least, Persistence is vitally important. Finding a perfectly creative solution, winning slogan, memorable infographic or anything else is never easy. It’s time consuming, and can often lead to long frustrating meetings, late nights, and temper-tantrums until the right solution emerges. We all know the story about Thomas Edison’s famous persistence, and I’ve lived it. As a comedian, I once tried to write a hilarious joke about Edison’s invention of the light bulb. It took me 999 tries before I finally made one that worked. Persistence is key to success in pretty much any field, but especially in creative fields like public relations and communications. Inventors like James Dyson, of vacuum cleaner fame, reportedly developed more than 5,000 prototypes in his quest to invent a better vacuum cleaner. I know comedians take a while coming up with perfectly worded jokes, and writers do the same with novels. The TedTalk speakers all take a while to think of great ideas… and then how best to present them. Racing out the door with half-finished, or inelegantly developed ideas is no way to succeed. It takes persistence, and a willingness to put in the long hours toward a truly excellent product.

In what ways are journalism and PR skills compatible?

As I tell my students, journalism is the heart and soul of public relations. In my experience, if you don’t know how to think like a reporter or producer, or to write like a reporter or editor – Associated Press style, and so on – you’ll have a tough time in public relations. Understanding what news is, and why it’s newsworthy, being skilled at writing and editing for news, appreciating the importance of timeliness, among others, is key to being a good journalist… AND to being an effective public relations professional. Also, recognizing that the public relations industry depends on the journalism community is important. They are not two separate industries. They are closely tied, and many of the same basic news skills and commitment to accuracy transcend them.