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PR Functions: Three Keys to Advising the Boss
By: Patrick Foughty, APR
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In many organizations there is often a prevailing culture that persists in letting the boss (i.e. the Director, CEO, Commander, etc.) walk around without any clothes on. In other words, everything she says is golden and she can do no wrong. 

It’s easy to understand how this comes about; the kinds of people who work their way into leadership positions tend to be strong, dynamic personalities, are often Type-A, and in many cases are the smartest people in the organization. The good leaders inspire awe and gain loyal followers while the poor leaders, smart as they may be, foster fear and uncertainty. In both cases, those working directly under the boss, especially the immediate directors, vice presidents, department heads, etc., can tend to become a pack of "yes men" with a desire either to satisfy the boss by earning the head nod of approval or simply do all they can to avoid a face blast of malcontent.

This is where the public relations advisor must stand apart. But this isn’t something that just comes about; in order to be good at advising your boss and gaining her trust, you must tread carefully to find faults in her methods and decisions and frame them as positive or constructive criticism. Here are three things you can do to solidify your status as a reliable, trusted advisor:
  • Always find something personal that the boss needs to work on — do it early and do it often. This may sound pretty harsh, but your boss is a person — if she does interviews, speeches, or other public events, the reality is, she won’t be perfect. Make sure you find time to always debrief her after an event and always include constructive criticisms. Even if it’s something as simple as telling her she scratched her nose too often. If this becomes routine then the boss will expect your critique and soon you’ll find her asking, ‘What’d I do wrong, where’d I screw up?’ Of course the reply to which should never be: “You were perfect!”
  • When everyone is in agreement, turn on your radar. Ever been in a meeting where some decision was being made and everyone seemed cool with it? Or perhaps there was one person objecting who’d been drowned out? Well, as the PR pro, that’s the time your spidey senses should tingle — you’re overlooking something. If it’s not jumping out at you use this trick: The New York Times test, which simply states, Would you or the boss be comfortable seeing the decision you’re about to make on the cover of the New York Times (or any major periodical)? If you’re not comfortable with it, it might be time to rethink the decision. The real test will be if you have the guts to sit the boss down and tell her your thoughts...which she should expect by now (see above).  
  • Talk to your own staff — encourage their objections, share them with the boss. Guess what? You’re not perfect either. If you’re lucky enough to have a staff, you can bet they’re noticing the mistakes you’re making and pondering how they’d do it better. Solicit their ideas, be open to criticism, and when they’re right — and sometimes they will be — incorporate their inputs to your advice to the boss. This will build their confidence (especially when they see you telling the boss their ideas) and make you a better boss to them, learning from them as they learn from you.
Bottom line, if you’re always joining the club, you’ll soon find yourself outside the inner circle, or worse, never invited, relegated to days of writing press releases and social media posts. A trusted adviser you will not be, and when a crisis emerges, the recommendations of you and your team may fall on deaf ears.

Bonus: For those still too junior to have direct accountability to the boss, remember, you are accountable to your immediate PR boss and you will find yourself advising subject matter experts within your realm. Start practicing these ideas at your level now — develop good habits and methods. Soon it’ll become natural and you’ll be ready to be the VP of Communications.


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About the Author
Patrick Foughty is a former helicopter pilot turned PR lover. He pays bills by playing the role of Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. where he manages media operations and digital media for his organization. When he's not thinking about PR he's working on his first novel or studying medieval history.
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