Five important PR lessons I learned in grade school

The author's fifth grade photo.

The author’s fifth grade photo.

It all started with a box of crayons, a playground accident and a wicked game of dodgeball. See how five lessons learned in elementary school can make you a better PR professional today.

1. Sit with the kid who colors outside the lines.
There was a boy in my first grade class who wouldn’t limit his coloring to the lines on the paper. Our teacher would tell us to color the dog brown, and he would use some brown, but he would also add patterns, bright pops of color and scenery around the dog. He’d quietly whisper the dog’s back story to all of us at the table, and we’d throw in our own ideas that he’d work into the picture.

The PR lesson:
Surround yourself with creative and collaborative people. They can turn a run-of-the-mill project into something great.

2. The first thing you do is help and comfort the hurt people.
We all stood in silence when we saw Jeff beneath the swing. His face was bloody, his broken bone jutted from his arm, and he was crying. Some of us began to cry, too. I remember our teacher got down on the ground with Jeff and began to stroke his hair while she told him he would be okay. Another teacher calmly took us back to our classroom. She listened to our fears and hugged those of us who needed it. The teachers didn’t yell. They didn’t demand to know what happened. They just took care of us.

 The PR lesson:
During a crisis, people come first. Always. Our role as PR professionals is to first do everything we can to make sure people are safe from harm and then tackle the situation. Our first comments should always be those of concern and compassion for anyone who was been hurt, and our actions should center on making sure it never happens again.

3. You will see these people again. And again.

The first day of school always brought shrieks and groans. There were shrieks of joy when you saw a friend walk through the classroom door, and there were groans when the kid who picked on you came in. You learned to how to deal with the groan-causers because you knew you would keep crossing paths with these people for at least 12 years of your life. Sometimes dealing with them meant simply being civil when you saw them, sometimes it meant standing up for yourself, and sometimes it meant just biding your time until the school year ended.

The PR lesson:
The PR industry works the same way. All of us run in intersecting circles, and eventually we end up crossing paths with both beloved and cringe-worthy former colleagues. Relationships with beloved former colleagues are valuable for networking and support. Relationships with the cringe-worthy can be difficult, but I believe the grade school lesson still applies; however, standing up for yourself can no longer involve a well placed punch to the bully’s chin. Be professional, civil and assertive. And don’t endorse them on LinkedIn.

4. Criticism kills motivation and trust.

My fifth grade teacher was just plain mean. She offered very little praise and ridiculed us in front of the entire class when we made mistakes. She may have thought her criticism would motivate us and make us tough, but it didn’t work. It shut us down, and we stopped trying. The ironic part of this story? We were in the gifted and talented class.

PR Lesson: A good PR leader, like a good teacher, knows that criticism should be done privately and compliments should be shared publicly. Constructive criticism can help build people up when you give them the support and tools they need to make improvements. Meaningful compliments show that you recognize their value and it builds relationships. Dr. Raj Raghunathan, a writer for Psychology Today, explained, “When you offer genuine praise to others, you don’t just make them feel good, but you also gain their trust.”  It’s important to remember that trust is the very core of good public relations, and we must first be able to trust those around us before others can trust us.

5. Never underestimate the little guy.

Brian was the smallest guy in my fourth grade class. During a dodgeball game, some bigger boys decided to gang up on him. They lobbed their balls as hard and as fast as they could at him, but Brian could bob, weave and dive. No one could hit him. When their arms got tired, Brian launched his attack. His small arm was mighty, and his aim was precise. He nailed each one of them with a loud WHOMP of the red rubber ball. We cheered for his victory. The bigger boys nursed bruises for weeks.

The PR lesson: Bigger is not necessarily better. Brian’s lesson demonstrates that big and awesome things can come out of small packages. A big agency or a high-powered name doesn’t always translate into PR success for your organization. Take a serious look at solo practitioners. There are many of them out there who can rival the work done by big agencies and big names, and they do it at a fraction of the cost.

About the Author
Kim Helminski Keller is an adjunct faculty member of the University of Memphis’ Department of Journalism. She also works as a public relations practitioner in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. You can reach her via the Contact menu.

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