Each month, we interview a prominent communicator about a ‘lights on’ moment they’ve experienced in their career. This month we speak with PR Warrior, Trevor Young. If you like what you see, attend our ‘Finding your narrative – and how to use it!‘ workshop on 28 April, where Trevor will facilitate discussion around discovering your own organisational narrative.
Can you describe a major ‘lights on’ moment in your career… an event, occurrence or moment in your career when you learnt a powerful lesson that significantly changed your approach?
I think the simple act of blogging, particularly in the early days, taught me so much, in so many ways. Certainly starting my blog, PR WARRIOR, back in 2007 and publishing for the first time, having a digital soapbox – a platform that allowed me to share my stories, thoughts and ideas with a potential global audience – empowered me in a such a huge way and really made me think differently over time about PR as we knew it.
But there was this one time very early in the piece in 2007 when I published a list of bloggers to follow (‘Fast-track your new media mind‘) – these were people I read regularly and admired for the work they did. I was blown away when four on the list swung by the comments section to thank me for including them and/or providing other blogs that my readers may also be interested in. Tellingly, three of the bloggers in question have gone on to become popular speakers and best-selling authors – David Meerman Scott, Mitch Joel and CC Chapman, while Todd Defren has helped build one of the most progressive PR agencies in the US, Shift Communications.
What was the background to the ‘lights on’ moment?
The backdrop – the actual publishing of blog posts – was a bit of a slow-burn in terms of me coming to grips with the potential power of the medium, but the aforementioned article that generated comments from genuine thought leaders I admired, I didn’t see that coming. Of course, it happens all the time in every industry, but back then it was “lights on” because high profile professionals were, I think it’s safe to say, products of the media and often closed off and largely inaccessible to the public. In other words, it was all about them. This episode demonstrated clearly to me, however, that these ‘new’ thought leaders had it all over the more one-way broadcasting old-school thought leaders that we were used to. I’ve seen this play out in a huge way since, so it was a definite and positive ‘signal’ way back then.
What was the major lesson you learned?
I knew right then and there the world of communications had changed, fundamentally and irrevocably. I was coming around to that fact slowly anyway, but the interaction in the comments section of my blog post fast-tracked my thinking in this regard. Three things in particular jumped out at me:
- The deeply personal nature of blogging – anyone in the world could put forth their views and ideas, and others could comment on those views and ideas, personally and publicly.
- The real-time aspect of online publishing – things happen so quickly online, albeit a lot quicker today than in 2007. It’s about being aware of what’s going on, and jumping into the conversation when necessary to do so; don’t sit there and procrastinate for days, get involved, participate, have an impact!
- Most importantly, it was the act of generosity shown by these busy high-profile thought leaders; they didn’t have to take the time to do what they did, they didn’t know me from a bar of soap. Certainly that was what we were conditioned to believe. But this was the social web, and its effect globally has been profound as we all know. Indeed, this philosophy of giving generously online – of sharing ideas and information, of serving an audience – has had a major impact on me, and I know others as well. Genuine business and community leaders who ‘get’ this, who embrace the giving nature of the social web, will prosper in ways we couldn’t imagine five, 10 years ago, I genuinely believe that.
How have you applied that lesson in your career and what has the impact been?
The lesson came in many parts and combined have been indelibly reinforced countless times since to the point where today they inform my personal ‘rules of the road’ as far as PR and communications is concerned, particularly online.
I’ve always tried to be personal – and personable – on social media by thanking people wherever possible if they mention me in some way or include me on a list they’ve published, or even simply given me a quick shout-out for whatever reason on Twitter or LinkedIn.
But more than that, I’ve been incredibly influenced by the whole generosity of spirit that fuels the social web. Now, I think we’ve lost a lot of that in recent years as everyone gravitates to online channels merely to beat their chest, but I’m an optimist and a purist and I think we’ll see a return of that personal and generous interaction on social media as people wise up it’s the number one thing that really works time and time again. Technology might change, but we don’t as human beings. We still want to do business with people we know, like and trust. Therefore, it’s up to businesses to utilise social media technologies and online publishing platforms to get more people to know them, like them and trust them, and generosity of spirit plays a key role here.
And finally, the audience-first approach has well and truly been ingrained in me professionally. Here were these busy high-profile bloggers who took the time to recommend other people’s blogs to me. What message does that send? Hey, it’s a pretty good one. When was the last time you saw a humble leader from any business or political party go out of their way to promote their competitor? These guys did it because they felt my readers would be interested in checking out these other blogs.
How do you believe other communicators could benefit from your experience and the lesson you’ve learned?
There have been intertwining, cumulative lessons along the way (along with a fair bit of observational research) but essentially communicators will not go wrong if they adopt the following:
- Be personal on social media. Get out amongst it. Get involved as you – be human, be yourself. There are too many faceless, scripted ‘corporate apparatchiks’ in our profession. Don’t be one of them. This industry is already too guarded and often devoid of personality. It doesn’t work today, and most certainly will be even less effective tomorrow. If we want to cut through and communicate with people – which is our job – we need to personally be open and embracing of the social web and all it represents.
- Deliver value more often than not. Use social media and online publishing platforms not to ‘push your message’ but to provide value without the expectation of getting anything in return, either personally or in your professional guise as a communications strategist and adviser (you have influence within your organisation – use it!). We are now the media, with a growing number of channels at our disposal to communicate directly with our designated target audience groups. But we must not abuse that ‘power’ to simply push the corporate line – that doesn’t work – but rather, to add genuine value to the eco-system we’re trying to be a part of, to the audience we want to serve.
- Think ‘audience first’. This is crucial. This whole ‘we-are-here-to-push-a-message’ mentality has got to stop. We’ve crafted this message in the boardroom and now we’re pushing it on to the public ad nauseam. No, please don’t! It rarely works, and the more our profession clings to the flimsy notion we can ‘control’ the message and influence people as if they’re sheep, quite frankly, sucks. Yes, work out what we want to say – what is our narrative? – but in tandem we need to have empathy for our intended audience: What’s of interest and relevance for them, what inspires them, what do they care about? It’s a different way of looking at things, but it gets results in today’s noisy, hyper-connected world. I’m not saying forget about telling our brand’s story, but I am reinforcing the need to think more passionately and empathetically about our audience as a key priority.