My speech to the Bachelor of Public Relations graduating class of 2017

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I have had the privilege of teaching into the Bachelor of Public Relations program at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario these last six years. It has been a terrific way to share some of what I learned over the last 30 years and to learn from the many students I have met.

Last week, we held a special dinner to honour our class of 2017. Given that I served as the Program Coordinator for the last four years, I got to deliver a short speech to the class. The speech seems to have been well received and a few people suggested I post the text to my blog. It’s topical – essentially what we have learned about PR from President Trump in the United States. Here, then, are the words I shared with the class of 2017:

Writing a speech to a class of graduating Bachelor of Public Relations students in 2017 is a particular challenge. This year – 2017 – has witnessed some of the most bizarre and negative examples of public relations practice since the profession was born. This has been a year when admitting to being a PR professional has perhaps been tougher than it ever has been. So how do you write a speech to a class of students who have spent the last four years preparing to enter that very profession?

How can I convince you that your chosen profession will bring you opportunities to change your community, your country and your world for the better when everyone is talking about a campaign that seems determined to do anything but?

How can I get you excited at the prospect of using words and images to draw people together when what is perhaps the highest-profile PR campaign ever is doing exactly the opposite?

The campaign I’m talking about, of course, is Donald Trump’s race for the White House and his first ten months on the job.

It has been a prolonged effort to undermine the credibility of the news media instead of building effective relations with the news media.

It has been a sustained effort to divide the country, between Trump supporters and all the others, rather than a campaign to unite and rally people together.

More than anything else, it has been a campaign to denigrate, ridicule, insult and offend any group or individual that doesn’t share the President’s view of the country and the world. There is no effort to create links or engage in dialogue because there is no interest in links and dialogue – no perceived need for the effort. In terms of the goals of this campaign and the overall strategy behind it, I think it may well stand as one of the lowest moments in PR history.

The Trump campaign is also – and maybe this is a good thing – a campaign that has been filled with errors, poor planning and terrible execution. So perhaps, on this level, there is something positive we can take away from it all.

The Trump campaign has taught us the importance of consistency. If you take a stand on an issue on Tuesday morning, you should articulate the same stand on Wednesday and even Thursday of the very same week. Consistency shows people that the message you are sending is grounded and is something you truly believe. People like to know that you stand by the messages you send.

The Trump campaign has also taught us that being a media spokesperson is a tough and important job. It should be filled by experienced professionals who know that everything they say and do could reflect back on the organization they represent. It takes discipline and quick thinking. Choosing a media spokesperson is a key decision and having three of them in your first 10 months is not a good way to build strong relations with reporters.

The Trump campaign has taught us that words – short collections of letters in a particular order – matter. Simple, one-syllable words like, “on both sides” can make all the difference in a day when you release hundreds or thousands of words. Three little words can hurt people, can turn allies against you and can undo all of the efforts you have put into communication over the past 10 months.

More than anything, the Trump campaign has shown us that there are – thank goodness – limits to how far you can go with a divide and conquer strategy in public relations. There’s no doubt that finding a common enemy – a shared menace – and telling your audience that this menace is a threat to them will rally that audience around you. It’s an old rhetorical technique and it has helped to shape human history. But it has limits. At some point, reality gets in the way. At some point, people get tired of being scared. At some point, you run out of menaces to warn people about.

So… as you go forward and start your public relations careers, I sincerely hope all of you will remember the Trump campaign and will draw important lessons from it.

I sincerely hope you will always counsel your clients to be consistent in what they say and what they do. Think hard, make up your mind, and stick with it as you move forward.

I sincerely hope that you will always remember how important a role being a media spokesperson is. Whether you yourself play the role or whether you coach an executive who does, I hope you will always aim for discipline and quick thinking.

I hope you will also remember the power of words to unite and to divide people. Words create peace and understanding. They also start wars. So be the person in the organization who insists on choosing words carefully.

Finally, I hope you focus your efforts as a PR professional on forging bonds between people, not on dividing them. Look for allies and opportunities rather than menaces and threats. Create campaigns that inspire instead of campaigns that cause anxiety and anger.

If you commit now to running your career in this way, I predict great things will happen to you. The Trump campaign is tough to watch, even from across the border. People will tire. They will start to look for something else – something more positive and inspiring. Be the PR professional who offers that to them.

Thanks to all of you and the very best of luck on this next part of your journey.




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