Why personal PR matters in the professional services sector
Warren Buffet’s famous saying, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”, has been rolled out almost ad nauseum over the past decade by public relations firms. It may be tired but it’s true – it’s essential to have an effective communications strategy.
At a corporate level, professional service firms tend to heed this advice, having learnt the hard way that technical expertise isn’t the only ingredient to ensure survival in a cut-throat world. From the implosion of accounting giant Arthur Anderson’s financial reputation as a result of its negligent auditing of U.S. energy firm Enron, to the public shaming of law firms’ perceived lack of action on sexual harassment post #MeToo, it’s become all too clear that agile messaging must be a key component of their business strategy.
However, individual high-flying accountants and lawyers have so far been less willing to embrace PR for themselves. Undoubtedly, perceptions of cost and time efficiency play a role in this reticence. A partner at a Big Four accounting firm may well ask themselves why they personally need PR when surely all that matters is their client-handling and financial skills?
The reality is far more nuanced than they perhaps realise. Certainly, knowledge is crucial for professional service career advancement – but so is the ability to demonstrate that knowledge. The Big Four partner seeking to move up to global sector leader or transition to a senior job in-house will have their print and online presence closely scrutinised. Have they been commenting on major recent financial stories? Have they been attending industry events? Is their social media presence current and prominent? Concerns you wouldn’t typically expect professional service high-fliers to be evaluated on, but, as they climb up the ladder and become ever more public facing, their profile must meet the expectations of the job. If not, they won’t get the role – no matter how technically competent they are.
PR-ing the professional
As with public relations more broadly, the activity required to raise the profile of a professional service leader will depend on their sector, risk appetite and current media standing. There is one constant, though: thought leadership – a programme of activities designed to build the personal profile of the professional in a specific field.
There’s two sides to thought leadership. The proactive: landing new opportunities, such as comments in relevant trade media which will be read by peers and seniors (Accountancy World et al. for accountants; the Lawyer and the like for lawyers). The key is highlighting the professional’s expertise and becoming a go-to for their specialism in what is a broad and crowded sector – be it Islamic accounting or Monegasque law.
From here, press activity can move to more ambitious plains: pieces in national papers, speaking slots at major trade events and even airtime on national radio and television. Since you’re dealing with the public at this stage, technical details matter less than the broad message – what’s the big idea the professional is pushing? Media training can help enormously here since a smooth television or radio interview may catch the attention of producers elsewhere and potentially create a virtuous circle of media invitations.
The reactive angle is more defensive. It could range from responding to inbound requests for expert commentary on wider industry news, to offering counsel on sensitive issues that impact their professional standing (such as the collapse of a former employer).
The right personal PR over a sustained period can support a professional’s career at the highest level. It can help them stand out from a crowded field, give them an extra string to their bow (how much more valuable is a managing partner who can confidently do a TV interview and perfectly represent the values of the firm than one who can’t?) and build them a powerful personal brand which could be particularly useful if they ever decide to set up their own company.
With over a decade of experience raising the personal profile of some of business’s biggest names – from James Reed of Reed Recruitment to Duncan Bannatyne – we’ve got an award-winning team which can help you navigate a rapidly evolving professional world.