25 lessons from 25 years in public relations

Brand Strategy

This year Pushkin PR celebrates 25 years in business. It seems like yesterday that my wife led me by the hand into the deep end of the pool and gave me the encouragement I needed to leave the world of steady paychecks. I’m proud of how much I’ve accomplished and how much Pushkin PR has grown. 

I’ve learned a lot more than 25 lessons in that time. But for the purpose of this blog, here are 25 that really stand out.   

1. Collaboration is cool. 

Like a lot of independent practitioners, I started as a one-man shop in a home office. Flying solo is nice but I enjoy working in teams. I found that collaborating with creative people to deliver quality work is extremely rewarding. It allowed me to be a full-service firm without having to hire employees. Perfect.     

2. Partnerships are profitable.

It doesn’t have to be formal, but partnering with talented specialists that I can rely on, learn from and trust helped me provide clients with an array of services such as video production, web design and graphic design that I could not offer on my own. 

3. Keep it in perspective.

Someone told me when I first started that after five years I would learn to stop panicking if I lost a client. That’s bull. I still freak out. But at least now I know that I will find a new client or clients to replace the lost business, and things may turn out better in the long run. Sometimes things happen for a reason.    

4. Results matter.

If you are not producing results for your clients it won’t matter how great your team is or how cool your office is. It still comes down to delivering what you promise and meeting client expectations.  

5. Respect goes both ways.

From day one I wanted to work with clients that I respected. I need to know that the people I work with are ethical people doing ethical business. What I’ve learned is that it’s just as important for the client to respect my accomplishments and trust my judgment. Without mutual respect the relationship is doomed.  

6. Winning feels good.

You won’t find me spiking the ball or gloating, but I will admit that competing for a client’s business and winning the account feels good. Damn good.  

7. Losing sucks.

There is a reason why most of us hate RFPs. They are a lot of work and when you lose it feels bad. Really bad. 

8. The right office is better than the nicest office.

We’ve all learned during the pandemic that it’s not where you work, it’s your reason for being there. I’ve had several nice offices over the years, including our current location, but working from home feels pretty good and it sure cuts down on the commute. It’s important to like where you work, so make sure whichever way you go that it’s a good fit for your brand and your attitude. 

9. Reputation means everything.

Nothing is more important to the health of your business than your reputation. That’s a lesson that guides every decision I make every day.  

10. Relationships are meant to last.

Whether it’s with our clients, our team, our partners, or the media, public relations depends on long-term relationships. Make sure they are built to last. Base them on honesty, trust and a solid ethical foundation.    

11. Take time off.

Sometimes you need to put the closed sign on the door. Leave the office behind and enjoy some downtime. Unwinding is good, especially for PR pros. We have a tendency to get a little wound up.    

12. It’s OK to say no. 

As a former working musician, I still have a hard time passing up a gig. But learning to say no when your plate is too full is OK.  And if the client relationship is not working, walk away. Firing a client is better than the alternative.  

13. It’s OK to say yes.

Just because your plate is full does not mean you are off the hook if a worthy cause really needs your help. The public relations profession has a responsibility to further the public good. Sometimes a pro bono client is exactly what the doctor ordered.  

14. Delegate.

This is not something you do at a convention. It means trusting your teammates. Make the extra pass. Even if you are the star player you don’t have to take every shot.   

15. Be grateful.

I have so much to be grateful for. Great clients. A talented team. A nice office. A supportive wife. A solid reputation in the Denver public relations community. Getting mentioned in books about Doc Watson and Bill Monroe. 

16. Go the distance.

Sometimes the road is long and winding. Don’t be afraid to make a commitment to your clients, your business, your team members or your partners. There is no instant gratification. Be in it for the long haul.  

17. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.

I knew right away that being my own boss was the right fit for me. I was ready. But the uncertainty is way too scary for some people. Make sure it’s the right fit and the right timing before you dive in.

18. Baseball is a simple game.

This is my favorite line from Bull Durham. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. It’s a good mantra for business owners. Keep it simple and don’t stress over what you can’t control. There is always another game tomorrow.

19. Stand by your brand.

When your name is on the door, your reputation is on the line. What does your personal brand represent? Be ready to communicate it and to stand behind that brand promise. 

20. Take it easy, but take it. 

I’m a pretty easy going guy, but sometimes you need to take a stand and push back. Our job is to provide our clients with the best possible PR counsel, even if they challenge our judgment. Make sure you stand your ground when the situation calls for it. 

21. Never stop learning

Just because you’ve been doing this for a while, don’t think you know everything. I am amazed how much I learn every day from teammates, colleagues and clients. 

22. Never stop practicing

Good musicians never stop practicing no matter how long they’ve been playing. If you don’t keep up your chops you might lose them. 

23. Read all about it

You can’t be a good PR pro without also being a news junkie. Read the paper. Watch the news. Understand the issues that influence your clients’ business. 

24. Every idea is not a great idea

True story. My very first client did marriage counseling. I saw some kids at the park, and one said to the other, “shut up, you’re stupid.” I had an epiphany, and just knew that  would be the perfect title for the client’s relationship workshop. When I showed them the new brochure we designed with that title, they said they were “shocked and disappointed.” Don’t be afraid to fail. Suck it up and get back on the horse. 

25. Roll with the punches.

This one really wraps it up. It should really be lesson 1-25. Life is a series of humorous pitfalls. Your business will always throw you a curve. Be ready to foul it off until you get the pitch you are looking for. Always be ready to roll with the punches.   

25 years ago I took a leap of faith, filled with excitement and trepidation. That’s still how I feel about my business today. I’m excited about the future but a little nervous about the uncertainty. Like a musician that hits the stage not knowing how the crowd will respond, running a business is like washing down a shot of stage fright with a pint of adrenaline. Sometimes it’s hard to swallow but I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.    

Author: Jon Pushkin