Seth Linden
Seth Linden

When I left the journalism world a dozen years ago, my wife and I immediately hit I-95 North to begin our life in New York.

Somewhere in Maryland, I stopped at a gas station, and the attendant behind the register asked me what I did for a living.

Trying my new role on for size — with both pride and nervousness — I replied, “I’m in public relations.” With a half-second pause, the attendant said, “I hate the public.”

And so, my auspicious introduction to PR began.

Little did I know then, that beyond publicity, the term “public relations” would have many meanings: content creation, crisis communications, brand development, digital media and messaging, to name a few. And what I especially didn’t realize is that “public” is just a fancy word for people.

Public relations is truly a people business. A skilled public relations professional can end up wearing many hats: serving as a business advisor, life coach and trusted confidant.

For those thinking about entering the field or trying to advance their career, I offer this overused, yet truly important advice: be a “real” people person.

Someday, you may get a call and be asked, “What do you think we should do if we hire a key executive who has serious reputational issues?” You’ll have to balance the business need for the new hire, versus any potentially negative media coverage about that executive appointment.

You could be riding in the back seat of a Town Car with a Fortune 500 CEO returning from CNBC’s studios. She will ask, “What could I have done better in that “Squawk Box” appearance?” On the spot, you’ll need to provide a substantive answer with an authoritative yet diplomatic tone and respond with something to the effect of: “Your appearance overall was excellent, and the anchors were very engaged. I do think you could have talked a little more about the company’s growth strategy and positive outlook for the rest of the year.”

To sum it up in one line: You need to be able to read the room and be empathetic and attuned to the people you encounter.

While in a client meeting, ask yourself, “Does the executive team seem to get along? Does the CEO seem honorable? Is the CMO receiving the proper level of respect for his/her ideas? Are there insecurities being displayed through overly confident speech and manner by the COO?”

When a CEO goes out to discuss earnings, new hires, job cuts or even the opening of a new office, there are very real emotional dynamics behind each of those “media events.” A CEO may feel under tremendous pressure, which will affect his delivery of the information. Another executive may feel that she is an inadequate speaker, even on a good day. These same people may be dealing with personal issues that can be a distraction and affect their mood and outlook. A good public relations executive will not only be attuned to these dynamics, but should be prepared to get deeply involved in managing around those issues.

I opened in Maryland, so will close with a story that ends farther south. I had the privilege of working with a C-level executive from the South who had risen to a very prominent position within his company. As we were getting to know each other at our initial presentation coaching session, he turned and asked, “Does my accent sound funny?”

I assured him his southern accent did nothing of the sort. In fact, it gave him an air of charm and added likeability. He took the perspective to heart and felt much better. He went on to become a much more effective presenter. We connected at a sincere, respectful and yes, personal level.

No matter how data-driven we become, no matter how algorithmic and “social” PR may become in the future, we quite obviously will always need to deal with people.

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Seth Linden has been president and partner of Dukas Linden Public Relations since 2014. He’s a former broadcast journalist who covered Capitol Hill for two NBC affiliates.