When I first started working with Evan Mountain, owner of Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, he asked me to sign up for ballroom dance lessons so I could understand his customer experience.
My initial reaction was, “You want me to do what? I have no extra time. How could I ever fit this in?”
(Of course we both know that we find the time when it’s important. And the money.)
I understood where he was coming from, really I did. But I believed I could do a fine job of promoting his business without scheduling dance lessons.
We’ve been working together for a year now, and my husband and I just danced in our first competition Friday night, among other Fred Astaire students. As I sat in the ballroom, watching all of these people sashay across the floor in careful count, I suddenly saw the depth of his business and an idea for a book started to germinate.
The subtleties, the nuances, the deep meaning in what he offers is so much more than ballroom dance. And I didn’t get that until Friday, a year after we began working together.
All weekend, I’ve been pondering this idea of knowing deeply the work of my clients in order to fully promote them. Most PR agencies don’t go to such depths to understand their clients – they remain on the outside, telling stories that they see, rather than feel.
And it’s understandable – I have 12 clients – how could I possibly get inside of each of those companies enough to truly feel the impact and reach of what they do? In order to make a sensible business, I have to be nimble and quick, and my team has to be able to glean meaning from the outside.
But now I wonder how any of us can do PR correctly and fully without stepping inside our clients’ realms.
As a writer, I once wrote a short story whose main character was a man. I wanted to see if I could approximate in a believable way the thoughts, feelings and essence of a man, from his perspective. That’s a person I’ll never be, and while you are taught to write about what you know, plenty of writers pen historical novels about time periods they can’t possibly ever experience and they do it well.
So I thought a woman writer with any talent must be able to create a sympathetic and real male character. I succeeded with that, but it was a challenge. Writing from the perspective of a white, Jewish woman from the Midwestern U.S. is a piece of cake.
It’s not impossible to do good work without taking a year’s worth of dance lessons. It’s just probably not going to be work that carries the significance and perspective of the business from all possible angles. Something is inevitably lost.
It’s a question we as public relations professionals must ask ourselves, though: how well must we know our clients if we are to do them justice in creating successful public relations programs?
I’m going to argue that we have to know them and their businesses better than they do – it’s truly the only way to be of the most value and worth to them and have the highest level of integrity in our work.
That means our work takes time. I can’t know you in a month, or two, or even three. I can just begin. And I have to have sharp focus every time we meet and in every situation we find ourselves.
It’s the integrity-based method of doing creative work. Take the time, slow it down, and really focus.
In my book, it’s the only choice.