A recent article in The Wall Street Journal
about a 50-year-old advertising executive trying to “keep current” in his profession helped trigger an existential question that has haunted me over the past few years: “Where do all the old PR people go?”
It’s patently obvious when you walk into any PR agency in the United States that there are only a handful of people who have actually placed a record on a turntable, stayed up late watching Johnny Carson, or who can fathom how people conducted business before email.
Frankly, the prospect of growing old and irrelevant is not particularly inspiring. I suspect that is why I have never seen an honest article on the topic in my roughly 20 years as a PR practitioner. Unless you make it a mission to stay up to date, there will come a time when your wisdom and experience devolve into stale ideas, colleagues’ rolling their eyes during team meetings, and your own inability to remember where you put your Palm Pilot.
How exactly does a PR executive stay current and relevant? The most important rule is this: Never rest on your laurels. The perception
that you are stuck in the past is not attractive to clients or colleagues. Your client’s mission is to stay one step ahead of their bosses—and the market.
So, you may just want to keep the conversation about running blockbuster media campaigns for now-dissolved big pharma companies like Rhone-Polenc Rorer, Burroughs Wellcome, and Connaught Laboratories to yourself. Any mention of tactics from the ’80s and ’90s—video news releases (VNRs), facts files (enormous accordion-sized files for journalists with background information), press kit mailings, blast faxing (yes, blast faxing)—will brand you as an old-timer.
Your ability to channel your experiences and knowledge into sharp, contemporary campaigns will win the day. It’s really your work and actions that matter, as well as how you rise to the challenge.
Though I’m a few years younger than Doug Gould, the “old” advertising executive featured in the WSJ
article, we both had the same instincts about how to approach the next phase of our agency lives.
First, he understood that staying isolated as a senior executive at a mega-firm would ensure his being out of touch with the latest marketing techniques. He moved to a mid-size firm where he would—out of necessity—not only manage, but also get his hands dirty with client work.
Second, he embraced and stayed current on new technologies through courses and technical implementation for clients, and incorporated this in all his work.
I once had a boss—also on the back nine of his career—who said to me, “Things aren’t changing; they have changed. And unless you change too, you are irrelevant.” He didn’t say it to be mean. It was a fact.
I would add something else to that thought—as a 40+ PR practitioner: There is a prejudice or presumption that you are not well versed in the latest digital and social media platforms. You actually have to stay a few beats ahead of the latest trends and be able to put those trends into context to demonstrate strategic wisdom.
Finally, even if your own firm lets you hang around in the role of “wise, slightly-out-of touch” elder, you must understand the disservice that you are doing in exchange for that graciousness. Your competitors, as well as your best clients, have a technologically competitive mindset. You owe it to your company, as well as your account roster, to stay ahead of the game.
How do you plan to stay relevant and employed in communications through the back end of your career?
A version of this article first appeared on Bliss Integrated Communication's blog. Connect with Michael Roth @M_Roth425.