Becoming one of those shrewd public relations players whose firms rank high on O'Dwyer's iconic list of agencies is, it turns out, a lot like getting admitted into Harvard Business School.
Melissa Horn demonstrates that in her interview with Dee Leopold in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Heading up the admission process at HBS, Leopold gives the green light to only 12% of the applicants. Roughly that's about the percentage who make a brandname for themselves in public relations.
Horn's interview with Leopold is a stunner. In essence, the only way to beat the system is to not try to beat the system. No one gets in because he or she decoded what was the secret formula. That's about how it is with the stars in public relations. Their game is unique.
Leopold outs the reality that the personal essay is not the most important factor. It might not even be that important at all. So much for all the money some applicants are paying to professional services to put together those essays. On Craigslist there are ads for those assignments, especially for ghostwriting personal statements for international students. The money is great. Leopold dings those kinds as "overcrafted." When the public relations leader becomes ossified, that is his or her client work is overcrafted, that's the end. Everyone in the field can spot it happening. Soon enough clients do also and leave.
What also stands out as a negative is not being authentic in presenting one's professional self. For example, when there's the space to describe three accomplishments, those too eager to win assume the way to go is to follow some template they believe or have been told exists. They don't transmit the essence of who they are, how they approach challenges, and how they frame success. Public relations heavyweights are right out there.
Another baddie is to ask for recommendations from big names who really don't know them. That becomes obvious when the person writing the recommendation isn't concrete about issues such as providing feedback. Enduring presences in public relations value the big names but don't overplay that hand.
Another common feature for both is extreme emotional intelligence. Leopold was impressed by an applicant who, right before his interview at the Harvard Club, was gracious to a mother and daughter who were oblivious to his situation, delaying him. The shrewdest in public relations are the most socially astute.
The good news is that in public relations and in applying to HBS, we can start all over again. Sometimes the second try is the charm.