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How to be a PR Pro Without Losing Your Soul

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

What’s the best book about your job?

The one that paints the truest picture?

Warts and All

Once I get to know a client/friend/social acquaintance/someone I get on with, it’s a question I always ask.

  • I want to know the challenges they’re facing in their professional lives
  • I want to understand their industry
  • I want to know what makes them tick

Graphic Design

I’m working more and more with graphic design agencies; helping clients sell more online.

So I’ve enjoyed reading the book spoken of in hushed tones by UK graphic designers.

A searingly honest account of how to succeed in this artistic profession.

How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul

Similarities to PR

And the more I read the more I realised that a graphic design consultant’s life bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the PR man/woman/pro.

Adrian (and Dave’s) 21 Golden Rules for Designers (and PRs)

So here are 21 tips from the author, Adrian Shaughnessy, for any graphic designer (or PR).

I’ve picked the ones that chimed with me.

Underneath each tip, I draw on 19 years’ experience as a PR consultant (four working for a small five-consultant agency, 13 for the world’s biggest, then coming up for two years as a one man band) to give my two-penneth.

Twenty-one practical observations that will provide succour when you’re lying in bed at night, replaying the day’s losses and victories and asking yourself…

How has it come to this? How have I ended up a capitalist lackey? Beholden to the god of money/power. I wanted to be an astronaut. I could have been someone. There must be more to life.

Picture of stars to illustrated PR pro without losing soul Glasgow PR consultancy Zude PR

Which star’s my soul? And how can I reach up and catch it?

The thing to remember is you are someone. Most people would give their eye teeth to work in jobs as challenging, creative, and fast-paced as ours. 

You’ve just got to dig a little deeper to find that Count of Monte Cristo treasure horde.

Whether you’re working for a large or small agency (studio, in design terms), or setting up on your own (I’ve done all three, as has Adrian).

This is the book waiting to be written about the PR industry.

It shines more light than any book I’ve ever read about being a PR consultant (and it’s about design).

In the meantime, thanks to Adrian, here’s a handy guide to:

How to be a PR Without Losing Your Soul

#1: On What It Takes to Make It

Adrian, the designer: “It seems to me that all the necessary qualities to be a designer can be boiled down to three essential attributes that we need to combine with talent and craft skills: cultural awareness, communication skills and integrity.”

Dave, the PR: Spot on, Aadriiaaaan.

I’d still put writing skills (a subset of communication) front and centre for PR people.

But it’s the ability to get your message across whatever the audience that is most important.

Whether that’s persuading a client that your advice will yield results or a chameleonic ability to change tack depending on the personality type of the person you are talking to.

#2: On That Mule-Like Instinct

Adrian, the designer: “There’s a mule-like instinct in nearly every designer…It’s an instinct, inherent in all designers, that says: a little bit of my soul has gone into this and it is not going to be removed without a fight.”

Dave, the PR: I don’t see this enough in the industry I love, Adrian. I do see it in designers, and I have a lot of respect for that.

As PRs, we should take more pride in the work we produce and advice we give to clients. A belief that we’re giving the right advice.

And we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t try and persuade clients that our advice is worth listening to. Not give way on the first “no”.

#3: On Integrity

Adrian, the designer: “That’s integrity for you – there’s a price to be paid for it. Just remember, it’s always less than the price of our self-respect.”

Dave, the PR: When I set up my company I did a lot of soul-searching. What was my company all about? What are my values? My tagline: “Integrity, trust, and results”.

Easy for you to say, I hear you holler. You run your own business. I’ve got bosses, targets to hit, a family to feed.

Wrong. Integrity’s the key to any job, and we can all practise it. And if you can’t, in yours, ship out. Simple.

#4: On Working Life

Adrian, the designer: “The three most important watchwords for working life are: impermanence, speed and reinvention. Those who grasp these concepts and learn to deal with them will find working life less arduous than those who fail or refuse to accept them.”

trainline speed to illustrate Glasgow PR consultancy Zude PR's blog post,

Everything travels so fast nowadays. We have to keep pace.

Dave, the PR: Perhaps if lightning speed broadband and the Internet had never happened, these watchwords wouldn’t be so important.

Or maybe it was always thus. Writing in 2010, Adrian nails it. If you are not getting to grips with “new PR” you really should.

If you’re a PR consultant, and you don’t, you’ll be out of a job in five years’ time. Or business will be very hard to come by.

There’s plenty of advice available from nice people like me. Read it. I did.

#5: On Being Different

Adrian, the designer: “If by doing things your own way and following your instincts you choose to travel down a different path, then go ahead. In a world of conformity, ‘different’ is good.”

Dave, the PR: Now you’re talking, Adrian. Take your book for instance. Not only do I dig the content but also the design. It’s not normal. It stands out. It helps me take in the insights easier.

It’s simple but beautiful and the analogies paint the pictures. So, little illustration is required. That’s counter-intuitive for a book about graphic design.

As a PR, you need to challenge the status quo, ask why at least five times, and approach things anew. “Same old” won’t cut it anymore.

#6: On Running a Studio

Adrian, the designer: “We only achieve goals in life by negotiating our way towards then: bulldozing our way doesn’t work. The most important skill needed to run a studio is a questioning sensibility.”

Dave, the PR: Have you heard of Aesop’s fable about The North Wind and the Sun? If you’re a manager, be the sun. And if you run a studio/office/agency always ask why, in every situation. Don’t just follow the crowd.

#7: On Studio Ethos/Belief

Adrian, the designer: “But I firmly believe that every studio needs a philosophy. We have to be prepared to stand up for this philosophy and not discard it at the first sight of trouble. If we want to be taken seriously, we have to believe in something, and that something has to be genuine; it has to be something by which we can be measured, first by ourselves and then by others. We mustn’t be frightened of promulgating our beliefs. People respect principles, especially in a world where they are becoming increasingly rare.”

Dave, the PR: People only truly follow you if you believe in something. Something you’re passionate about (and I don’t mean making money). This applies to attracting clients and getting the best staff.

And I mean really believe in something. Deep down.

This one should strike a real chord for everyone working as a PR consultant. Ask around. Find the right organisation for you. And if it doesn’t exist, change careers or create it yourself.

#8: On Business Planning

Adrian, the designer: “But business plans are only good if they are ruthlessly honest. You must assume the worst. Be tough on yourself, and assume that bad things will happen. Assume you will have more outgoings than income; assume you will have fewer clients than you hoped for; assume that you will be paid more slowly than you’d like; assume that you will have a bad debt in your first year. Not deceiving yourself is the secret of business planning.”

Dave, the PR: Ruthless honesty eh, Adrian. I like it. Don’t make it too long either. And boil it down to one sentence at the top. What are you trying to achieve?

For example, it could be to beat your competitor. It could be, become the best in a PR niche.

#9: On Hiring

Adrian, the designer: “They have to have general knowledge. I hate people who don’t read. I hate people who don’t cook, or don’t know anything about music. I couldn’t work with anyone who only goes to McDonalds…I need team people who have general knowledge because that’s what we do.”

Little girl reading a book to illustrate Glasgow PR consultancy Zude PR's post.

Read lots. Start early. If you haven’t, start now.

Dave, the PR: Can you say this kind of thing, Adrian? Haha. I wholeheartedly concur.

As a PR, you have to know about the world around you. I don’t care where you get it from. But get it. Or you won’t get on. And you will be short-changing your clients, and your employer.

#10: On Clients

Adrian, the designer: “There are no bad clients, only clients turned into bad clients by bad designers…Good clients are rarely compliant; they are usually demanding, inquisitive, infuriating, and maddeningly inconsistent – but with a fundamental sense of fairness.”

Dave, the PR: Yes, it’s the fundamental sense of fairness you’re always looking for in a client. I partially agree with the first point, albeit I’ve had a couple of stinkers in my time.

But the hallmark of an always-improving PR consultant is an ability to learn lessons from a bad client experience, by looking inward.

#11: On Choosing Clients

Adrian, the designer: “Better to go after companies and institutions that need root-and-branch help. We will have to work harder, but if we are sucessfull he results will be infinitely more satisfying.”

Dave, the PR: Adrian, you nailed it again. As PR consultants, there are many calls on our services.

Each job I take on is an honour and a challenge, which I attack with gusto.

But it’s the one where I have the ability to influence the company’s entire marketing approach, make a difference, and benefit their bottom-line, that I strive for.

#12: On Meeting Clients

Adrian, the designer: “Many designers use encounters with clients as opportunities to talk about themselves and boast about their skills and achievements…to counter this understandable instinct for self-promotion I have a rule when meeting clients: I never talk about myself until they ask me to…An inability to listen is a serious handicap for a designer – it’s like trying to sprint while wearing a full scuba-diving kit.”

Dave, the PR: Just listen, will ya. Everyone wants to have their voice heard. Your voice counts too but don’t ram it down a prospective or current client’s throat. They won’t like it.

Be humble. You know you’re good. You don’t have to bang on about it.

#13: On What Makes a Good Job

Adrian, the designer: “There are three questions to ask ourselves at the end of every job. Is the client happy? Is the job profitable? Is the project newsworthy (the work’s ability to attract attention). If we can answer yes to all three questions, the result will be ‘good work’.

Dave, the PR: In that order. With particular emphasis on the first.

#14: On Making it On Your Own

Adrian, the designer: “Because consumer tastes can change quickly, designers also need to be well read, open to new ideas and influences, and quick to react to changing trends. The ability to work independently and under pressure are also important traits. People in this field need self-discipline to start projects on their own, to budget their time, and to meet deadlines and production schedules. Good business sense and sales ability also are important, especially for those who freelance or run their own firms.”

man in coffee shop to illustrate Glasgow PR consultancy Zude PR's post

A passable knowledge of the best coffee shops in which to meet clients also helps.

Dave, the PR: Setting up and running your own PR firm is tough. Especially in a competitive, established marketplace, like Glasgow. And it’s even more multi-faceted than Adrian writes.

But it’s rewarding. And if you ever want any advice, you have my number.

#15: On New Business

Adrian, the designer: “…a huge proportion of new-business opportunities for designers are created in one or two ways: word of mouth, or random encounters in the business and social nexus that most of us live in. The simple fact is that we get most of our work from people who know us, from people who’ve heard about us, and from networking with friends and associates.”

Dave, the PR: If you’re a PR consultant and don’t wish to starve, you need to meet people.

It is important to remember that in this brave new world of content marketing, most of your business depends on who you know.

Of course, for them to recommend you, they need to be comfortable with what you know. Which brings us back to content marketing.

If you work for a large agency, you need to be on rosters/supplier frameworks etc.

But activating that roster still depends on fellow PRs in the organisation you’re pitching to, knowing you. It is very rare that decisions on large tenders are made solely by procurement teams.


#16: On Awards

Adrian, the designer: “Despite all the moaning and controversy that surrounds the winning entries (‘Why did they choose that? I did something identical six years ago.’), it usually is the good stuff that wins.”

Dave, the PR: You have to be in it to win it. Like you Adrian, I’ve been on judging panels and won awards. The best entries won.

And whenever I did a piece of work I was really proud of, more often than not, it got a gong.

#17: On Proofing Copy

Adrian, the designer: “After completing a piece of writing, I change the font, column measure and font size, and then re-read everything. Like pinning visual work up on the wall, it gives us distance and fresh perspective, and never fails to show up problems and deficiencies.”

Dave, the PR: Ooh, top tip, Adrian. I’ll do that in future.

#18: On Plain English

Adrian, the designer: “Many designers adopt the language and mannerisms of their corporate clients: personally, I’ve never done this. Even when I worked with hard-core corporate people, I’ve made a point of using plain language, plain logic and common sense – and I’ve always felt that most of the people in corporate land have appreciated this.”

Dave, the PR: You’d think for PR consultants this would be second nature. It should be. And it’s criminal (considering our profession) not to follow this advice.

But have you ever read a PR company industry press release? For example, announcing a new business win? It’s our job to stop the Buzzword Bingo, not make it worse.

#19: On Pro-Crastination

Adrian, the designer: “Even when a thoughtful client or a considerate employer gives us a generous lump of time, what do we do with it? We delay starting the project until the last possible moment, then end up doing the task in the same amount of time we would have had if we’d been given the usual ‘want-it-tomorrow’ schedule.”

Dave, the PR: Raise your arm if you’ve done this? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. Try not to. It’s bad for your blood pressure.

#20: On Creativity

Adrian, the designer: “Risk + discomfort + sweat (+/- inspiration) = creativity…We have to flirt with failure if we are to produce anything with the sap of genius in it. If we don’t occasionally look into the abyss, we end up producing work with all the excitement of a pair of well-worn carpet slippers. To put it bluntly, there is no creativity without risk.”

Dave, the PR: Most PR companies don’t like risk. They like being paid. On time.

But do you want to be churning out tartan footwear for the rest of your life? Please note: this does not apply to crisis management.

#21: On Fear

Adrian, the designer: “The biggest problems designers face is fear: fear of clients, fear of failure, fear of ideas. Our ability to overcome fear if perhaps the greatest skill we can acquire…Most of us deal with fear by falling back on the familiar and the safe. But if we do this, we are not allowed to turn round and say our lives are dull. If we are going to avoid losing our souls. we have to overcome the fear.”

pr fear nigh terrors pic for Glasgow PR consultancy Zude PR post

There are ways to rid yourself of those PR night terrors.

Dave, the PR: Oooftt, saving the best ’til last eh, Adrian. I couldn’t agree with you more. And if you, reader, want to find out how to overcome that fear, here’s one I wrote earlier.


The moral of this story? If you want to find out the very essence of someone’s professional being, ask them to recommend “that” book about their industry. The one that tells it like it is.

And who knows: you might just learn something about your own profession too.


How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul book in Glasgow PR consultancy Zude PR's blog post.

For more excellent wisdom, and some of the best analogies I’ve ever read, buy Adrian’s book. It’s brilliant.

If you want more blog posts like this, an occasional reading list, and a weekly digest of the world’s best content in the increasing converging world of SEO, PR, content and social media marketing, sign up now.

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N.B. A quick pre-publish “Google” shows, in an uncanny twist of fate, that there is, in fact, a just-published e-book on this very topic. Here’s a link to Public Relations Ethics: How to Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul. You can download the first chapter for free. It’s more about ethics (theory, with practical examples) than the wide-ranging topics covered in this blog post.

“Night terrors” photo credit: Kansas Poetry (Patrick) via / CC BY-ND


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