There are things in life that inspire you. It can be a person, a book, a teacher, a moment. You never really know what might inspire you, and how. A few weeks ago, I was thinking about just that. what inspires me, what drives me to be a better person and a better professional. And the list was long. And of course my family and my upbringing and my education and my friends have a lot to do with it. But in every aspect of my life, I feel bettered by having watched the epic television series, The West Wing (by Aaron Sorkin). And as a treat for you and me, I decided to write up the different PR lessons The West Wing has taught me, and can teach you.
(Contains spoilers to seasons 1-4 of The West Wing. Continue at your own risk.)
1. Even the best writers get writers block
Writing is awesome. Especially if you’re good at it, and if you work in PR hopefully you are. But sometimes, there are deadlines, and things need to get written but you can’t think of a single thing to write about. This is quite a terrible feeling when your job is to write. This is what Toby and Sam are going through in episode eight of season one, when they are working on a speech for the president. It’s painful, as we all know. However, painful doesn’t make it go away. So if you’re writing and you’ve been staring at a blank document for over an hour, try throwing some ideas around with a colleague or friend. They’ve been down there before, and might know the way out.
2. Done? MOVE ON
Go for an outreach that didn’t get written up? That happens, a lot. What’s important is to learn from your mistakes, and not dwell on them. If one idea didn’t work, do some more research and think of a new and different angle that might make the story you’re trying to tell more interesting. Take a cue from President Bartlet, put it behind you, and start working on what’s next.
3. Every day is game day in PR
In PR, much like politics, there isn’t really downtime. While we arent in the office 24/7, we do need to be available to both the press and our clients as close to 24/7 as possible. You can never know when a crisis might hit, or when a reporter could have an urgent question for you. In season two, Josh Lyman (White House Deputy Chief of Staff) learns this the hard way when he comes in to the office, very hungover, after a friend’s bachelor party, most definitely not ready to work. So if you’re planning a weekend long rager in which you may or may not forget your own name, it’s probably best if you ask a colleague to cover for you, and make sure they have all the information they need in order to deal with any issue that could come up.
4. Hire People who will challenge you
It’s very easy to fall into patterns of things we did once that worked. The harder thing is to evolve, and think of new ways to achieve goals. A great way of doing this is hiring people who have a different mindset than you, who can challenge you on a daily basis. In season two, the fictional Bartlet administration hired a talented Republican, Ainsley Hayes as a consultant after she skillfully out-argues a White House staff member during a televised debate, because the president likes “smart people who disagree with him”. Hiring talented employees with a variety of worldviews is a great way to encourage creative thinking and ensure a fruitful work environment.
5. Have respect for journalists jobs and their time
In season one, episode 15, Josh Lyman thinks he can replace CJ (the White House Press Secretary) in briefing the press. He fails in the most glorious of ways. In PR, we are heavily dependant on the press by definition. Writers are usually very well versed in their respective fields, and are experts in what they write about. In short – they know their sh*t. So you need to be on top of yours. Do not underestimate writers, and don’t be cocky. Do your research, make sure what you’re saying is both valuable and accurate (If you say somthing is the “first ever X” you better be damn sure it really is the first. THEY WILL CHECK). Give them something new and exciting to write about that is within their fields of interest. Not only will that produce better results, it will also help you build long term reciprocal relationships, and nothing is more valuable in PR than a great relationship with a great writer.
Not to mention, if you screw up, not only will you piss off the writers, your client will be pretty peeved too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3sj-TSbWjs
6. Learn how to speak truth to power
In season four, the staff tests Will Bailey, a new addition to the staff, to see if he is able to speak truth to power. In this case, it’s the President of the United States – so pretty powerful. He disagrees with the president on a point in his speech, but at first is hesitant to say so in front of him. If you were hired to handle PR efforts for an individual or company, YOU are the person they rely on for all of their PR needs. Therefore, if your client has an idea for messaging you think won’t work with the press, you have to honest and direct, and let them know. If the terrible idea tanks and you say nothing, they will blame you, and they will be right in doing so. You were hired to produce PR results, not be be a yes man/woman. If you disagree, that’s fine. You can try both ways, or find a middle ground. But always make sure to voice your professional opinion. Just imagine there is someone working in the White House who needs to tell the president he made a mistake, so you can definitely tell the CEO of the company you’re doing PR for.
7. Remember, Time zones are a thing
Time zones are a bitch. Josh and Toby learned that the hard way in this scene from season four of the show. If you work for an international PR firm, you probably have to deal with clients and writers in a several different time zones. Make sure to remember the time differences when scheduling meetings, embargoes, and interviews. You don’t want to be the one responsible for an interview falling through because you forgot it’s 4:00 AM where the writer comes from (easy tip: make sure to select a time zone when setting calendar invites, that way they will automatically appear in local time in everyone’s calendars).
8. If you have a big win, Celebrate!
Preferably with the finest muffins and bagels in all the land. You deserve it.
You may laugh, but I truly believe the West Wing has made me a better person and better at my job. Let me know in the comments if you have any interesting sources of inspiration. And if you haven’t yet – watch The West Wing! You can thank me later.