This week marks the largest annual gathering of communicators and PR professionals at PRSA’s Annual Conference in Atlanta. It’s my fifth conference and there’s a lot to cover. There are more than 100 potential keynotes, breakout sessions and expert panels to choose from.
It can be difficult to report it all back, so my tradition is to find a common thread, a narrative that gives us a hint as to where the profession is heading and what trends are around the corner.
This year, the primary message resonating most with me is about taking risks and embracing failure.
This is music to my ears. In a rapidly changing environment, it’s easy to become paralyzed by fear – relying on what we know and avoiding trying new things for fear of the unknown. After all, it’s engrained in us to have a plan, to research the best options and to predict using data. And when you have clients, boards of directors and investors relying on you, it can be scary to think about experimenting.
However, every speaker at this year’s conference had a story to share about their failures and their tough times, and how it made them who they are today. It started on a humorous note with Weather Channel front man Jim Cantore and his self-proclaimed tweet heard round the world – a drunken Twitter post in which he apologized to fans while criticizing the network for deciding to air pre-scheduled programming instead of breaking weather news. Jim is beloved by many because he’s not afraid to show his personality and to poke fun at himself (as anyone who has seen his “thunder snow” montages will know).
The same message rang loud from inspirational and social-minded CEO Daniel Lubetzky of KIND snacks, who once made a mistake in ordering Dead Sea minerals and materials to create soaps, only to find himself living head to toe in boxes in a New York studio apartment with no sales on the horizon.
One of my favorite stories came from Roger Frizzel, Chief Communications Officer at local Miami company Carnival Corporation. Frizzel holds an illustrious communications resume including American Airlines and AT&T. When he was just a young whippersnapper at the telecomm company, he was tasked with making a big splash for the groundbreaking new technology known as ISDN (ha!) and took a big chance by inviting First Lady Barbara Bush to participate in an over the phone demonstration. Bush accepted, unbelievably.
But, when the technology went down in the middle of the interview, surrounded by a swarm of media, Frizzel’s boss didn’t end his career. Instead, he thanked him for taking the chance and making something big happen. This one defining moment has enabled him to continue taking risks throughout his career.
Even the Honorable John Lewis, U.S. Congressman from Georgia and one of our nation’s greatest civil rights leaders, talked about disruption and what he called “getting in the way.” Of course, the incredible risks he took when he marched for voting rights and was beaten on a bridge in Selma, Alabama were for a much greater purpose beyond what most of us can even imagine. But interestingly, he said it was the force of the media that helped dramatize that moment, helped to spread the movement throughout the country and eventually helped get the Voting Rights Act passed just a few weeks later.
It’s cliché to say our job is constantly changing but, well, it is. Many of us are doing a great job trying to keep up. It’s going to take continued trying, and sometimes failing, to help our brands and our clients break out. And it’s going to take courage. I’m glad we have examples like the ones above to follow and organizations like PRSA to help us learn and inspire us to try.