Today is my mother’s birthday. Were she still living, she would have begun reminding me four weeks ago that her birthday was coming up. She also would have dropped subtle hints for gifts such as, “Do you think I’d enjoy an iPad? I think I would. Or something with diamonds.”
As much as she enjoyed receiving gifts, my mother enjoyed giving them more. A child of the great depression, her idea of fun was to see as many boxes with ribbons and bows under the Christmas tree or next to the birthday cake as possible. She would wrap socks individually, just to bump up the visual.
Her advice and counsel, however, are the priceless gifts that keep on giving. (Although as a young child, I didn’t receive advice, so much as edicts. And there was usually an “or else” tucked in there, about which, the consequences were never in doubt.)
All these years later, it turns out many of my mother’s rules also apply to my work in public and media relations. For instance:
1. Be on time. If I was not in the car at the appointed time my mother agreed to drive me somewhere, she left without me. I soon learned that walking several miles into town was not as quick as driving. Especially in Dr. Scholl’s exer-sandals.
- Work application: Arriving late to meetings is disrespectful to your clients and your co-workers. Missing a deadline is a broken promise. Be realistic when setting or agreeing to a deadline so that you’re less likely to miss it. Manage your time.
2. Get to the point. Tap dancing around a request or an explanation—or worse, an excuse—is fine if you’re actually in tap shoes. Otherwise, get to the point. (Or as my mother would say, “Spit it out!” And she didn’t mean the lima beans.)
- Work application: This is another manifestation of respecting others’ time. Don’t leave meandering voice mails. Don’t send long email pitches. Don’t bury the lede.
3. Do your homework. Homework always came before television. And from the Woe is Me file, there was no TiVo, DVR, or even VHS for me. Countless episodes of Medical Center and Room 222 were sacrificed to book reports and math exercises. My mother determined that I would learn to set priorities. (I’m pretty sure if any parents today told their kids “No watching television until your homework is done,” the kids would say, “What’s television?”)
- Work application: About to pitch a new client? Do your homework. About to pitch a reporter? Do your homework. Asked to mitigate a crisis? Do your homework.
4. Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Okay, this admonition was usually followed by, “And don’t sit in your room all day moping about boys.” Beyond my latest unrequited crush, my mother was pointing toward the bigger picture. She was advising me to take the high road. To be discrete with my thoughts and actions. And my smart mouth.
- Work application: Rolling your eyes, sighing, and openly questioning a client or co-worker’s IQ, even in the face of ridiculous expectations, is not the way to go. Flooding an unresponsive reporter’s inbox with “follow ups” explaining email etiquette won’t help. Someone else may be acting unprofessionally, but it will always serve you to take the high road.
5. Don’t lie: Or, in my mother’s words, “Don’t even think about lying to me.” (This may seem contradictory to #4, but it isn’t. Not revealing your inner raging staple thrower isn’t the same as not revealing that you forgot to mail the RFP response that was due yesterday.) It takes every kid a few cycles of crime and punishment to figure out that lying about the crime will result in a far worse punishment than committing the original crime. Politicians and CEOs are slower to learn this.
- Work application: Countless PR crises could be avoided if people told the truth up front. That’s not to say initial truth telling is easy. It often isn’t. But being caught in the cover up is always worse than admitting to the initial infraction.
Now, if only I could find a work application for, “Because I said so….”