In October I attended the 2023 PRSA International Conference in Nashville, three years after my plans to attend the 2020 conference were derailed by the pandemic. It was great to be in-person, meet communications professionals from around the country (and world!) and really immerse myself in the conference experience. As always, the event was full of thought-provoking sessions, inspirational speakers and opportunities to learn from one another.

Here are my top five learnings from the conference:

  • Variety is the key to success. New York Times best-selling author David Epstein kicked off the conference with the opening keynote, speaking about the secret to success in any domain. Through his research, David found that the best predictor of success is variety, or accumulation of a toolkit. For PR professionals, that means staying curious and continuing to learn new skills and industries, rather than simply specializing in one skillset or industry. Being a “generalist” allows PR professionals to be connectors of information across an organization, ensures that information doesn’t only move upwards and creates a larger understanding of our/our clients’ organizations, so we can identify ways that PR and communications can help reach business goals and solve broader business challenges.
  • ‘Ask+ assert’ will help you become a trusted advisor. Whether you’re just starting to work with company decision makers or need to build a relationship quickly with a new executive, earning trust is the key to earning their ear and making an impact. According to Josh Reynolds, founder of Rob Roy Consulting, establishing yourself as a trusted advisor requires you to demonstrate your credibility, reliability and honesty. One way to achieve that is through the ‘ask + assert’ technique. Rather than jumping straight into the conversation with what you think and/or want, suspend your agenda and first ask a question. Not only does this help the decision maker open up, but it allows you to discover their issues, explore their perspective, identify blind spots and verify your understanding of the situation. Armed with that information, then assert your position, which could be offering counsel and solutions, sharing new insights or your perspective or framing of the challenge.
  • Be a doctor, not the wait staff. Mark Riggs, CEO of Pemberton, led a fascinating session about ‘The 10 Things PR Never Taught Me About Business,’ helping attendees understand the importance of learning the business side of our jobs. One of his points was that we shouldn’t just blindly listen to what the client or executive says, we need to identify the business challenge and then work from there. To do that, as communicators we need to have clarity of mission — understand what our/our client’s business does, why and how it makes money. Once we have that understanding, we must keep bringing on-strategy ideas, to meet not just the opportunities and challenges that we’re tasked with, but to address broader business opportunities and challenges.
  • It’s all about the idea. Jake Meth, founder of Opinioned and former commentary editor at Fortune Magazine, shared that most op-eds fail – and it’s because they aren’t based on a good idea. Too many op-eds have stale ideas, ones that don’t make editors take notice. He encouraged communicators to (politely) push back if approached by a subject matter expert with an idea that won’t lend itself to a strong op-ed. If that doesn’t work, help the author find a unique perspective or provide a biased opinion that a reporter wouldn’t be allowed to share themselves. Consider this: the commentary editor is just as much your client as your SME; if you aren’t serving the editor and their readers, then you aren’t serving your SME either, because your op-ed won’t get placed. And remember, the SME may be an expert on the op-ed topic, but you’re the media expert.
  • Talk less, ask more. One of 11 tips to be a more effective leader from Ken Jacobs (owner and principal of Jacobs Consulting and Executive Coaching) is to engage employees’ minds by talking less and asking more questions. If you want employees to take action, you must engage their brains through collaboration, creativity and passion. Asking open ended questions, like “What do you recommend?” or “What’s your next step,” rather than saying “this is what I want you to do,” will get employees to buy in to the process and work, helping them develop the skills needed to grow and become stronger communicators – while feeling heard and supported.