Friday evening, millions of Americans tuned in to watch Frank Capra’s holiday masterpiece, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Although never intended to be a Christmas movie, it has become a holiday mainstay ever since it started appearing on TV in the 1970s.
I never miss it, and this year, I realized the 1946 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed offers some wonderful, yet inadvertent, lessons for those in the public relations industry (or for most industries).
Here are a few of the lessons:
1. “I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I'm gonna see the world.”
In PR, as in any other industry, seeing the way other people live and work is important in order to gain a little perspective. George Bailey wanted to be an architect, and to do that, he was going to travel. He wanted to see “Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum.” Then, he was “comin' back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields, I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm gonna build bridges a mile long.”
Just as George Bailey knew he could not design a great building without seeing the Parthenon, a PR professional cannot expect to understand the world if they’ve never been anywhere else.
In this day and age when technology has made our world smaller and smaller, a PR pro has to be well versed in so much information just to keep up. The only way to appreciate how other people live and how the world works is to go out there and see it up close. So whether it’s for business or pleasure, make it a point to shake the dust off whatever crummy little town you call home (that includes you, New Yorkers) and see the world.
2. “Will you tell that guy I'm giving him the chance of a lifetime? You hear? The chance of a lifetime.”
Spot trends and get in on the ground floor.
Sam Wainright was trying to convince George Bailey to get in on the ground floor of the plastics industry. He said that if George was willing to leave his family’s building and loan business, they would become rich. Sure enough, George stayed behind, and Sam became filthy rich.
If George had listened, he might have accomplished all the business goals he wanted to at the beginning of the film: travel, build things, become wealthy. The key here is to see the trends in business—whether it’s a client’s industry or PR—before they happen. Take notice of news in the moment, and think how concepts or products might affect business months or even years down the road.
3. “What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word, and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”
Ambition is good. Overreaching is good.
While George and Mary are out for a late night walk, George offers to give Mary everything she wants in life. He is so sure of his abilities and future that he knows he can give her the moon.
I was a lifeguard for seven years. During training, we were taught that if someone is in trouble in the water and you need to throw a buoy, the best way to get it to them is to throw it past their head and pull it back, so they are sure to catch it. Overreaching is as good in PR as it is in lifeguarding. It shows excitement and passion. Clients will almost always appreciate excitement and passion much more than caution and restraint.
Don’t be afraid to express an idea that may seem outlandish. Never be afraid to lasso the moon.
Just be sure to overreach, not overpromise.
4. “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn't there to save them, because you weren't there to save Harry.”
Everyone’s actions have consequences.
Toward the end of the movie, after Clarence the angel has made it so that George was never born, he brings him to the cemetery to show George his younger brother’s grave. In this reality, Harry Bailey fell through the ice and died at age 8 because George was never born to save him. So when a transport of men during World War II was in trouble, they were not saved by Harry.
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PR is a powerful industry. It can make or break careers or even lives. Especially with the speed of social media, a narrative developed by those of us in PR will become gospel in hours or even minutes. So be mindful how your actions affect the next guy and the next guy down the road.
5. “No man is a failure who has friends.”
Network. Develop relationships.
A good PR pro is only as good as his or her network. We need to stay in touch with reporters, editors, bloggers, old colleagues, industry communications people and many others. A good network is an invaluable tool to help us do our jobs effectively and is a necessity in a job search or—in a pinch—if you find yourself short $8,000 like George Bailey.
Once you make a new connection, develop that relationship. A publicist can generally do more with a weak story and great relationships in the media than a strong story and an empty rolodex. Reporters are too busy to read every email from publicists they don’t know. Also, a great relationship might make a reporter think twice before taking a hatchet to your client in his next article.
Ross M. Wallenstein is a senior account supervisor at The Marino Organization, a New York-based firm. Connect with him on Twitter @RossWallenstein.