As we near the end of the fall semester, it's not too early to begin thinking about New Year's resolutions. I can think of 10 useful maxims that bear restating now, even for the experienced college PR officer. Most of them are about establishing—and maintaining—your most valuable asset: credibility.
In no particular order:
Do what you say you are going to do. And do it in the time frame in which you said you would. Reliability is such a simple concept, yet so hard to live up to. It's tempting for PR people, besieged with requests, to make promises they cannot keep. But trying too hard to please others will backfire if you don't deliver, and will eat away at your reputation.
Above all, don't say you will do something for someone just to get that person off your back. Better to contain the negative feedback by saying no now, and explaining why, than to deal with the fallout later from a project poorly done.
Meet often with your president and supervisor. Clarity about what your bosses expect is essential to your ability to take independent action. Depending on their personal style and professional priorities, presidents can interpret their institution's mission in a dozen different ways, and they must continually adapt to changing conditions. Your supervisor may have a different sense than you of the college's needs based on inside knowledge of the senior administration.
It behooves you to stay current with what your higher-ups are thinking. Don't wait for your president or supervisor to come to you. Make it your priority to get to know their constantly evolving agenda.
Be on time. Being habitually late to meetings looks sloppy, regardless of your excuse. Saying you are too busy or justifying it by telling yourself you were working on something more important is a figurative slap in the face to your colleagues. Of course there will be exceptions when you have no choice but to be tardy. And many of your colleagues regularly arrive late as well.
But don't fall victim to the self-serving joke that your institution runs on its own time, different from the "real" world. Showing up on time is a simple but effective way to underscore your professionalism.
Tell the truth. Our jobs require us to exercise discretion about what we say, and to choose our words carefully. We are always trying to frame things in ways that put our institutions in the best possible light.
But your credibility, once compromised, cannot easily be restored. Sometimes, you may have to leave certain truths unsaid. No one expects you to volunteer unflattering news, unprompted. But if people don't take your word seriously, you cannot be effective, no matter how clever you are at using smoke and mirrors to disguise a lie.
The truth almost always comes out. In most cases, the sooner, the better—whatever negative fallout awaits your news, once it is made public, you can begin to move on. Lying merely compounds the original mistake. No amount of salary can compensate for the loss of reputation that you risk by disseminating falsehoods to protect your institution.
Circulate. To do your job effectively you need to be out meeting with people on and off the campus on a daily basis. Your bosses need to understand that, and you have to earn their trust by consistently producing the favorable publicity and good will on which your college depends. Trying to do so from behind a desk—even via today's online networks—is like working in a strait jacket.
You must sit down face to face with journalists and faculty members, attend lectures, visit with students, meet alumni, talk to community leaders, consult with admissions officers, present at departmental meetings. All of those activities are necessary to truly know your institution, guarantee a steady flow of fresh ideas, and educate others about your work.
Don't be cowed by people with desk jobs who resent your mobility. You are only as good as your information, and you need to listen and learn about other people's perceptions and methodically articulate your own to speak and write with authority. We all need quiet time to think and write, but our content depends on the quality of our interactions with others.
Think on your feet. Despite the fact that much of our work requires us to respond to events outside of our control, don't let that define you. There's nothing more satisfying than spotting a need or defusing an issue before it becomes a problem.
That applies to using the tools of the trade as well. Wherever we turn, we confront major unknowns. The technology we use to communicate our messages is rapidly changing. The media landscape in which we try to make a strong and lasting impression is in the early stages of a vast restructuring, without a clear end in sight. We are, inevitably, one step behind the social habits of the next generation of college students.
Our best strategy for thriving in this shifting environment is to not get locked in to any single way of doing things, no matter how effective or visionary it may seem today. If our recommendations are to stay relevant, we have no choice but to get comfortable with uncertainty and hone our skills at adaptability.
Keep your ego in check. Accept that you will seldom receive credit when things go well but you will often hear about it when they don't. Remind yourself that sometimes keeping your mouth shut is the best way to achieve your long-term goals. If you need information from a colleague who is unhelpful or rude, you must patiently find ways to gain that person's cooperation. A reputation for being considerate, flexible, and credible in your dealings with others will serve you well over time.
Be humbled, too, by the knowledge that most of your accomplishments are the product of a team effort. After all, you did not write that faculty member's new book, you did not design the snazzy journal that showcased your writing, and you did not invite the Pulitzer Prize winner who drew crowds and gained lots of media coverage as a result of your publicity. If you want the blame to be shared when things go wrong, don't be stingy about sharing credit when they succeed.
Improve your writing. Yes, we PR types need excellent social skills. Yes, people are reading less these days, and have shorter attention spans. But that makes the ability to write clearly and concisely more important than ever. We have less time and space to get our ideas across, and more platforms than ever. Our voice must be consistent, but tailored to diverse audiences and diverse media.
Good writing gets at the heart of our professional credibility, too. Our writing, in all of its forms, becomes our public record. Our bylines follow us. The care we put into the words, our attention to detail, our ability to make complex ideas accessible, our veracity, our creativity, the faithfulness of our translations of our college's mission, all contribute heavily to our reputation.
Embrace your institution, warts and all. You've got to feel fiercely loyal to your college to put in the necessary hours and endure the inevitable setbacks. To be credible, you have to be genuine in your praise of the institution you represent.
It's not that you have to love everything about your college, or ignore its flaws. That also gets back to credibility: It is not believable to others, much less yourself, to pretend that your institution doesn't need to improve in some areas. But if those flaws mean that you can't wholeheartedly support your college's mission, you will be doing both it and yourself a favor by moving on. When you find yourself becoming cynical or see your work as just another job, it is only a matter of time before your effectiveness begins to wane.
Stay current. Avoid getting so caught up in day-to-day operations that you fail to invest in your own future. Even if your department's professional-development budget gets slashed, that's no excuse for falling behind. You can always learn something about best practices from your colleagues at other colleges. Many webinars are free; they only require your time.
Taking a course on your campus can improve your writing and give you invaluable insights about your college. Studying a subject outside of your comfort zone, in Web design, for example, or photography, can push you in ways that will positively inform your job.
For all of those maxims, don't be afraid to admit your weaknesses or ask for advice. It's not credible—there's that word again—to pretend that you are good at everything. And we all make mistakes. Acknowledging those mistakes can be painful in the moment but helps build trust in the long run.