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Book Smart vs. Street Smart: What I’ve Learned about PR Outside the Classroom

26 Jun

Qualified specialist

While I was earning my degrees in public relations and communication from Penn State University, I was already putting these skills into practice for some of my first clients. It’s amazing to look back and realize that real businesses put their trust in a young student who had really just “book smart” PR skills, and little to no real-life application. What’s even more amazing, is some of these very first clients continue to work with me to this day.

Now, I have matched and well exceed the length of that college education with “street smart” PR experience. Over the last six years, I continue to place a high value on forever educating myself on the latest trends and techniques in the public relations field. This just happens to come in a different form than a brick-and-mortar classroom. From networking groups and industry associations, to simply staying up to date on the news, it takes dedication and a hunger to learn, not just degrees upon degrees, to fine tune your PR skills.

Here are the key public relations skills I’ve gained since leaving the classroom and entering the real world, and I would consider all of these to be critical to the success of my PR consulting business!

Prospecting and Qualifying Clients

Early in my business, I would take on pretty much any client who came my way. I kind of had to. I have no idea how to prospect or qualify these contacts to ensure they would be a good fit for my business. This wasn’t something I was taught in my PR classes. I learned how to develop goals and tactics for clients, once I had them, but I wasn’t taught the important early steps like first matching a client’s needs with my services.

I’ve become very “street smart” with qualifying leads. I don’t immediately commit to a meeting or even a phone call until I’ve done a bit of homework and asked some essential questions. This has saved me a lot of billable work hours, and has afforded me a few more afternoon naps.

Growing Long-Term Relationships

Another valuable skill not found in textbooks is the ability to turn one-time projects into quarterly or annual retainers. This has become my bread and butter. Just about every single client that has started off with a small or finite project (website content, monthly blogs, media training session) has come back to then sign on with an ongoing contract worth sometimes 10x more per month than that first contract. The key to setting yourself up for residual business with a client is handling that initial project, no matter how small, with the same passion and dedication you would handle your biggest annual retainer. Often a client is testing you to see if you’re a good fit for a long-term relationship. Don’t fail this test!

Effectively Managing Payments

In the first half of 2017 alone, I’ve billed 25+ clients, many on a monthly or quarterly basis. That’s a lot of invoices to manage! My (oddly reluctant) switch to using QuickBooks couldn’t have come at a better time. Rather than relying on a spreadsheet, or worse, a post-it note on my computer, I diligently log everything into QuickBooks. Invoicing is still a process I must make time to do, but it’s a much more streamlined one. I can see what clients owe me money at any time and how many days has passed since issuing the invoice. My husband jokes I could be a bounty hunter in my next life. And to my tax attorney, you’re welcome in advance!

Monetizing “Scope Creep”

This skill ties back to “growing long-term relationships.” It’s a good thing my clients often come to me for more work! However, it can go south when these clients don’t realize the additional work requires additional time and needs to be billed as such. Fresh out of college, I lacked the business savvy to monetize the “scope creep” of a project. I would bill it as “good will” and do the work without earning an extra cent. I still believe in some good will favors, but I only have a certain amount of good will to pour into any given client.

Rather, I am quick to show my interest in taking on this additional work for a client and let them know upfront that I would be happy to give them a proposal for that additional work. This softly reminds them that the work they’re asking to have completed is outside their current contact. I can do it, but for a fee. I have not once had a bad reaction. Clients often respond “Oh of course, I want to pay you for your additional work.” I’m so glad I’m not still losing money on all that good will I was throwing around!

Knowing When to Let Go

Knowing when to cut ties with a client that is no longer a good fit for your business was never covered in any of my PR textbooks, that’s for sure! This is a skill I am still learning along that way, and unfortunately it still remains a pretty steep learning curve. Because of my ability to prospect and qualify clients, I have reduced the need to let a client go, but it has and still will happen from time to time.

What I’ve learned is, make it about you, not them. Don’t focus on their shortcomings, as tempting as it may be, but rather focus on why your business isn’t in a position to best serve them. Be upfront, keep it short and do it early! Those are my pearls of wisdom.

Having Confidence in a Unique Vision

Lastly, the ability to believe in yourself and not compare your journey against someone else’s is something I 100% had to learn outside of the classroom. This applies to both business and life. I am passionate about being a PR consultant. I don’t want a big firm with lots of employees and overhead. I want the complete freedom and flexibility to take on all of my own clients, team up with power partners when I need it, or run a completely lean operation when I don’t. I want to take unlimited vacation days and hit the gym at 2 in the afternoon, if I want!

I like that no client or colleague owns my time completely. I have a unique business model to which many cannot relate. It’s taken time for me to confidently say “I’m a professional public relations consultant” without feeling the need to hide behind a fictitious and irrelevant title like “CEO” or “Principal” to make it sound like a run a big firm. After all, I advocate for my clients to be transparent and genuine; it’s important I am too.

In your career, how would you compare your book smarts to your street smarts? Which do you value more? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment!

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6 responses to “Book Smart vs. Street Smart: What I’ve Learned about PR Outside the Classroom

  1. terryshen

    June 26, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    Solid advises, Shirley. Particularly regarding the scope creep and let go of client, they are definitely something you can’t learn in a classroom. I would say that book smarts gives one a start, but it is the street smarts that builds a business. In your case, Shirley, that shines through. Thanks for sharing.

     
    • Stephanie Shirley

      June 27, 2017 at 7:44 am

      Thank you for the comment! I’m glad you can relate to this blog. I find it interesting that some colleges offer a major in entrepreneurship. This in particular is something I think is more of a personality type as well as something you learn outside a classroom. But to each their own!

       
  2. Sla Pop

    June 28, 2017 at 7:14 am

    What about my removed comment, my dear Ms, Shirley?

     
    • Stephanie Shirley

      June 28, 2017 at 8:48 am

      Kindly resubmit your comment. I did not see it come through or it may have got caught in spam. Please note: only constructive and relevant comments will be posted.

       
  3. Sla Pop

    June 30, 2017 at 12:08 am

    It was concerning this subject described by you: “Knowing when to cut ties with a client that is no longer a good fit for your business”. It is followed by this advice: ” Don’t focus on their shortcomings, as tempting as it may be, but rather focus on why your business isn’t in a position to best serve them. Be upfront, keep it short and do it early! Those are my pearls of wisdom.”

    It sounds very cynical/egoistic. What is wrong in telling for rejected clients seen from your different perspective (it gives clarity/objectivity of seeing their businesses what they miss) about their problems. It may help them a lot if they are opened for critical remarks. Yes, you spend an extra not paid time, but it may boost your energy as other factors. WHY?

    Look at this quote: “The Bible, the Torah, and the Quran all encourage helping others. Today, scientists are also looking for biological evidence for why it’s better to give than receive. For example, some scientists believe that giving to or helping others helps to relieve stress in the body and is therefore beneficial to your health.”

    Does it ring with your Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Yoga …. systems of values?

     
    • Stephanie Shirley

      June 30, 2017 at 7:20 am

      Thank you for sharing your comment; however, I think I may be a bit confused. You’re saying it’s cynical to tell a rejected client that your business isn’t in the best position to serve them (as the reason for why you can’t do business). But instead you’d prefer to directly criticize the rejected client by telling them about their problems. The latter sounds like the harsher option, but maybe that’s just me.

      While you acknowledge that this will require extra (unpaid) time and energy to accomplish, you may be underestimating just how much time and energy it will really take away from you and your other clients. For these reasons, I stick by my philosophy to keep things simple and upfront when you need to cut ties with a client. I don’t prefer to point fingers at their problems being the source of the severed relationship (even if they are). This could cause far more hurt and anger in the long-run, plus it consumes time and produces negative energy. Additionally, there’s always the chance you will run into this client again, or maybe they will make improvements to their problems and again seek to work with you. I like to keep doors (and minds) open and minimize harm to others. So to your final question, yes this does align with my systems of values.

      Cheers!

       

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