Playing Chicken with a Positioning Strategy: Stress Busting Tips for PR Pros
By Adele Cehrs, Founder, Epic PR Group
Tight deadlines, demanding clients, investigative journalists and now online brand bashers, it’s no wonder PR is deemed one of the most stressful careers, according to an annual study conducted by CareerCast. This cut-throat and competitive field keeps stress at high-levels on a daily basis. So how do you handle that stress? We asked Dr. Stephen Forssell, professor of psychology at George Washington University to weigh-in (his tips are at the bottom of this article).
Because PR professionals are largely judged on the last significant win we secure for our clients, our level of success or failure is directly related to the last media interview, byline article or speaking opportunity. And, we all know how their memory of their last hit seems to fade rather quickly, adding significant pressure to constantly deliver results.
The kicker is, no matter how good we are at pitching or who we are connected to, the fate of the client’s success is largely in the hands of journalists who make the final decisions – adding yet another layer or lack of control and stress.
As a PR firm that specializes in crisis communications – we are a special breed of adrenaline junkies, who actually enjoy working under extreme duress. However, as the old saying goes, the only sure thing in life is death and taxes; in PR, the only sure thing is your brand will experience a crisis, especially given the heightened scrutiny brands are experiencing online and off, given the demand for news 24/7.
To boot, investigative journalism is at an all-time high. A company is no longer scrutinized on its performance or stock price alone. Media analyze how a company interacts on social media, how they respond or not respond to customer complaints and even factor in an executive’s political and religious beliefs.
It’s no wonder the industry lost a veteran PR professional with 29 years of experience to a heart attack, as he was handling Chick-fil-A’s PR firestorm that erupted over the CEO’s anti-gay marriage stance.
All eyes were on Chick-fil-A when the fast-food company’s president Dan Cathy said earlier this month that Chick-fil-A was “guilty as charged” in its support of the “biblical definition of the family.” This statement caused an uproar inciting vitriol attacks online and off, while gay rights advocates called for patrons to boycott of the chain.
In response, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee created a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, which garnered support from 630,000 patrons who were not in favor of same-sex marriage.
While most PR professionals are thankful they are not handling Chick-fil-A’s PR right now, the truth of the matter is if you work in PR, you will be managing a crisis and media backlash at some point during your career. Stress comes with the territory. It’s the hand we’ve been dealt and the career we chose. But there are ways to better handle stress and I’m not talking about a stiff martini.
We asked friend and psychologist Steve Forssell to help us better understand stress and tips to better manage it. His take:
Stress: The medical definition
The role of stress is to activate the body’s natural defense systems to ward off whatever the current threat is. When faced with immediate danger, it activates the “fight or flight” or sympathetic nervous system. This diverts energy away from day-to-day bodily functions.
In the long term though, when sustained over time, stress taxes the ability of the immune system to fight off infection, increasing risk of infection and disease, and making it harder to, for instance, fight off the common cold or recover from injury or other ailment. Sustained stress also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, a.k.a heart disease for the same reasons.
Tips to manage stress
So what to do to prevent this? Dr. Forssell has some helpful recommendations including:
- One thing is to know if you are at risk and are predisposed to cardiovascular disease. Getting regular check-ups, including cardiovascular health screenings, is important.
- Beyond that, practicing stress reduction techniques can help. Persons undergoing intense stress over a short period of time can reduce immediate acute stress through relaxation exercises such as controlled breathing, meditation, and other physiological interventions. They are quite simple and involve very basic body steps; for example, stopping what you are doing, laying down, closing your eyes, taking deep breaths, slowly exhaling, and focusing attention on more peaceful non stressful imagery. Also tensing and relaxing your extremities (hands, forearms, feet, legs, etc.) can also reduce the stressors on the body that may be contributing factors to heart events.
- The mental approach is also important. When faced with immediate stressful events, accessing a support network (family and friends) can create a sense of security thus reducing risk. Positive self-talk (i.e., “this is nothing I can’t handle”; “a year from now this will be a distant memory”) can also help.
Unfortunately, many people who “live for the thrill” or are what we call “sensation seekers” that seem to thrive on pressure deliberately place themselves in harm’s way, so to speak. These people may be the least likely to be practiced at stress reduction techniques. Perhaps PR people are of this ilk and are glutens for punishment? Probably so, but we need to consider the dangers and do what we can to keep stress at bay.
Overall approaches to coping with stress can vary. Generally speaking, problem-focused approaches that are aimed at finding a solution to a problem are most helpful when a solution is probable. Emotion-focused coping that centers on one’s feelings about the stressful event are better when there is no “solution” readily available (i.e. in the case of terminal illness).
There are quite varied individual differences in the ability to cope with acute stressful events. Generally speaking, natural optimists fare better than pessimists. However, by adopting the optimist’s self-talk and reframing negative events in a more positive light, anyone can benefit.
Of course, when faced with any severe traumatic or stressful event, one is best served by seeking out professional help where available.
Anyone experiencing cardiovascular event symptoms such as tightness in the chest, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, numbness on the left arm or torso, should get medical attention immediately. Psychological help is also recommended in cases of sustained stressful events, changes in mood, and eating and sleeping patterns.
In sum, stress can have serious long-term health implications. As PR professionals, we need to keep it in check and remember at the end of the day, our health is what matters.
The moral of this story is take care of yourself, try some of these relaxation tips and consider outsourcing your crisis communications efforts when you are in over your head. At the very least, have assess your weaknesses and have a crisis plan in place that is up-to-date and includes how to handle traditional media issues as well as potential threats on social media.
Adele Cehrs is the founder of Epic PR Group a boutique agency that focuses on crisis communications. Epic offers a free online assessment called the PR Heat Index that can help determine if you’re company is ready to handle a crisis. For more information visit: www.prheatindex.com.