The Style of Chicago PR People

PR Chicago Style Rich Jernstedt

Rich’s Rules on the Style of Chicago Public Relations People

As presented at the Chicago PRSA Chapter reception to honor Rich with the Senior Leader Award, December 2, 2015


“I LOVE PUBLIC RELATIONS!” What an important, challenging, ever-changing profession. I believe good communications is at the center of every interaction. If it isn’t, bad communications is. Either way, public relations professionals have opportunities to be involved in some very exciting ways to show what communications can do for initiatives, brands, events…even social movements.

I really LOVE PUBLIC RELATIONS IN CHICAGO! When my wife and I moved here in 1972 to experience “the big city”, we planned to return to Oregon after a year.

But after that year, we were both happy in our careers. I was convinced Chicago is a fantastic place for communications people. The variety of opportunities, the understanding of the importance of the work, and the quality of the people performing it are world-class.

Makes me think about “Public Relations, Chicago Style.” Like our pizza, hotdogs, sports fans, politics.

But, our world is too small and fast-paced. Communications is global, local and now even very personal. Plus, Chicago-trained practitioners are located and doing work wherever there is a need to reach key audiences. So, it’s not about the Style of Chicago PR, it’s really the “Style of Chicago PR People.”

Did you see the WSJ article on Dick Wolf, the producer of “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago PD” and now “Chicago Med”? He says “Chicago embodies unapologetic, old-fashioned values of right and wrong and how you should act.” NBC’s promotional copy says: Chicago is a “city of heroes”—it’s defined by “the people who protect, serve and heal.” For all kinds of reasons, it seems Mr. Wolf’s next series should be: “Chicago… PR”!

People around the country refer to the very strong “PR network” here. It’s more than that… it’s a community. Like the many communities—even neighborhoods—that make Chicago famous, we have a “community” of public relations professionals. I have experienced it since my first days here and have benefited from it ever since.

For years, I have had a tendency to create LISTS. In my 20s I called them “some things to consider.” In my 40s, I referred to them as “some recommendations from Rich.” In my 60s, I call them “Rich’s Rules.”

So, here are my “Rules for being a Chicago-style PR person”. Remember, you can break rules if you make them! (Some of these are a bit aspirational for me!)

First, we are Prepared. We know our stuff. Sophisticated intellectuality or just simple curiosity drive a desire to learn all we can about anything that can influence the communications situation. We ask questions. Importantly, we listen to the answers.

We use the “what if” approach to ensuring comprehensive preparation. But I also hear: Why not? Yes, and… Then what? So what?! What about…? What’s next? And, of course, there’s the Chicago What the…?

We leverage Big Data. We identify the nuggets of truth to develop both strategy and creativity. We stay ahead of the trends—and even start trends! (By the way, check out the editor of Fast Company’s 20 key predictions in the current issue.)

Second, we have Confidence. Our talents help develop a sense of assuredness—even courage. Yeah, a little ego doesn’t hurt. In his book on “leadership,” the coach of Manchester United says he wants players with egos because they not only like to win and want to win, they “must win.” Chicagoans do like to win.

Third, we have Character. Our work is informed by the desire to “do the right thing.” There are high levels of honesty, trustworthiness, empathy. My first job at Golin was managing the McDonald’s All American High School Basketball program. Legendary Coach John Wooden, a man with great character, was our advisor. He coached his players to: “Be more concerned about your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

Abraham Lincoln, my favorite president, advised: “Character is like a tree and reputation is like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

As we know, someone will be tweeting about the “real thing” sooner or later. It’s no wonder “corporate character” and “essential authenticity” is at the center of current work in corporate communications.

Fourth, we are Team Players. We know our role and have an appreciation for the roles of everyone else. We collaborate, convene, facilitate and aren’t afraid to lead any team we’re on. We understand that sharing what we know helps the entire team perform at a higher level. Anthropologists call this “cultural ratcheting.” Public relations people call it “coaching” and “mentoring.”

Fifth is Working Hard. We demonstrate the Midwest Work Ethic. Have you heard the expression “Rage to Master”? It describes the obsessive desire to work hard for a purpose. We have a “rage to solve problems.” Passion for the profession encourages hard, hands-on, smart work to get the right job done right.

Of course, no one in Chicago questions that a work/life balance results in a more productive workforce. So our work ethic is influenced by a Play Ethic.

Sixth, we Take Action. We are impatient if there isn’t a plan of action. We aren’t guilty of analysis paralysis. We trust our instincts. We know when we are right. We take risks. Big Data is important, but so is Big Bias for Action.

Seventh, we Want Results. We are committed to deliver the desired outcomes. There is an intense priority among Chicago practitioners to prove the “return on investment” of our work.

Delivering results at Porter Novelli, for example, is historically based on creating actual social change. Very motivating. Quantifiable results are factored in to every recommendation.

Eighth, we Value Innovation. On the list of things I have learned from Al Golin, the importance of a Big Idea is at the top. Chicagoans deliver on the expectation that we are the source of new, disruptive thinking. The City grew up on the concept of Daniel Burnham’s “Make big plans,” since “Little plans, have no magic…”!

Think of the current “magic” in our business: “content mania;” social media; PR migrating to a variety of disciplines/services; the resulting shift in talent and organizational structures; mobile everything; as the editor of Fortune wrote recently, we all work for tech companies now; and the Oxford Dictionary announces the new “word” of the year is a smiley face with tears!

That’s innovation!

An article from Scientific American Mind on creativity reads, “The more you rub shoulders with neighbors,” the better chance you have to be innovative. And, I love this: “It’s not how smart you are, it’s how well connected you are.”

No wonder so many “Big Ideas” come from the super-connected Chicago PR people!

Ninth is we Become Indispensable. Talent and commitment to do “whatever it takes” ensure we are a critical asset to our colleagues, the management team, the client.

While at Fleishman, I experienced the respect and even reliance clients had for their account teams. It inspired a list of “Rich’s Rules” on 10 ways to increase your Indispensability Quotient.” Yes, another “IQ.” There are 11 items on the list because one is “Exceed expectations!”

Finally, tenth is Give Back. The mentoring that goes on in our public relations community is a great example. Betsy Plank, a true Chicago Senior Leader hero, reminded us: “You are never too young—or too old–to mentor or to be mentored by others.”

We have all counseled corporations on ways to invest resources to support a variety of causes. We excel at CSR… but also “PSR”: personal social responsibility. We are role models in “giving back” to organizations and issues that are important to us personally.

You know, research indicates people who volunteer to serve others live longer!

So, those are 10 “Rules” on the “style of Chicago public relations people.”

We are always prepared so act with confidence. Our character sets a standard. We are considered a “most valuable player” on every team. We work hard and take the actions that deliver results. We are committed to innovation that creates surprises and impact. It makes us indispensable. And, importantly, we give back to practice what we preach.

It’s why I love public relations… especially in Chicago!

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