In this interview with Maria Materise, Cision, SDI VP Dan Gregory shares PR insights and advice molded by pivotal experiences in the industry.
Storytelling, while central to PR strategies, is a delicate process. If you don’t understand the individual or group whose story you are telling, your story will sound false.
Dan Gregory, vice president of Susan Davis International, knows the importance of representing your client well and telling their story accurately. In this interview, he shares the difficulties of military communication, the need for successful communication in all industries and how to use movies as a guide for PR.
How did you get your start in PR?
Coming out of college, I was more focused on public speaking and speechwriting than general public relations. Public speaking was more exposed, intimate and immediate in how it connected the communicator and the audience in real time, allowing them to play off each other.
It is also an almost primitive way of communicating compared to most of today’s PR strategies. Yet, it can still be extremely powerful.
I only thought to make the leap to PR when a friend showed me how the strategies and skills of public speaking translated into media interviews. That realization led me to accept a position as a media trainer.
From there, I continued making connections between what originally attracted me to public speaking and the many other elements of public relations that I use today.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned from your first position?
My first position was at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a foreign policy and international security think tank. I was surrounded by extraordinarily intelligent people who earnestly wished to generate ideas that would change the world for the better. It was a side of Washington, DC that I do not think many Americans get to see.
As a communication professional surrounded by policy experts, I wasn’t immediately sure how I could contribute. However, over time, I realized that even the best ideas lived and died by how well they could be communicated.
Every idea needs to be understood, supported, and in most cases, funded. All those ingredients can be met through communications. That’s when I realized that there was a rewarding career opportunity in telling the story of good ideas.
What do you think are the key components of a successful PR strategy?
A successful PR strategy has all the elements of a great movie. It has to be based on a good story – a story that is emotional, memorable and does not run longer than necessary. The story should also be clear and easily understood, so that when people watch it (or hear it or read it), they can accurately repeat it to others.
A PR strategy should also have great characters. These characters must be ones that people can connect with, care about and hope for their success.
Lastly, the strategy needs to leave people feeling good. People naturally desire for things to reach a positive conclusion. In PR, if we are not telling a story with a feel-good ending, we have to tell audiences what they can do to help reach that positive conclusion.
How does your background in military communication help you in your position at Susan Davis International?
Susan Davis International has a long history of award-winning work in the military space, including serving Department of Defense agencies, Veteran Service Organizations and corporations looking to support and market to the military.
My experience in military communication was essential to being able to contribute effectively to these campaigns. The military community has its own language, preferred methods of receiving information and key issues of concern that are largely unknown or misunderstood by most Americans. If a PR campaign does not align with the way that the military speaks, it can quickly lose credibility and trust.
Therefore, our firm ensures our team has the highest levels of experience, understanding and appreciation for the military culture. And while my experience in the Pentagon was enormously instructive, I know I owe those who serve and their families to continue to learn as much as I can about their service.
How do you approach PR for sensitive topics such as those related to the military and veterans?
When I worked for the Army, one of my civilian colleagues in public affairs made a misstep about how she portrayed an issue very sensitive to those serving in uniform. I later overheard an officer angrily venting about the incident, and he kept repeating, “You don’t know what it is like for us. Don’t act like you know what it is like to be one of us. Don’t pretend you’ve been where we have been.”
That moment was completely sobering. His words drove home the tremendous responsibility I had as someone who never served in uniform, speaking and writing on behalf of those who did.
While it is ultimately my job to put myself in the shoes of the person I am representing, the truth that I would never truly know what it was like to be them has since pushed me to be as thorough as possible in understanding the people and the issues about which I communicate. And it has encouraged me to approach much of my work with a great amount of humility.
How has PR changed in recent years?
The PR industry has been challenged by the fact that the rise in the number of communications channels has coincided with a severe case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Even the most disciplined communication professionals can’t help but see a new website, social media platform or app and think, “Why aren’t we on that?” Even if the outlet is not the right fit for a client, it’s easy to feel jealous over all those potential media impressions.
This spread of FOMO has only been made worse by the distortion of what is newsworthy. Smaller newsroom budgets have resulted in more website space being devoted to clickbait, and TV news broadcasts relying on syndicated stories and viral videos.
For PR professionals, this emerging reality means that we can’t only sell the significance of our pitch. We also have to sell the popularity of the potential story, and make it as easy and inexpensive as possible for the media to cover it.
What advice do you have for those looking to begin a career in PR?
For every book you read about public relations, read three more about completely unrelated topics. An expansive knowledge about the world will increase your creativity, allow you to build networks and opportunities for your clients and develop your ability to identify communication opportunities in a greater number of areas.
Rapid Fire Round
1. I always thought I’d be…more involved in politics (don’t read this as a regret).
2. My guiltiest pleasure is…listening to movie scores while writing. “Shawshank Redemption’s” score is responsible for some of my best work.
3. The most interesting thing about me is…If I ever took a sabbatical from PR, I’d like to try my hand at flipping furniture.
4. My daily newspaper of choice is…The Washington Post.
5. My biggest pet peeve is…live tweeting speeches. As soon as you begin tweeting, you stop listening.
6. The thing that gets me up in the morning is…my cat sniffing my face. Oh, and wanting to make the world a better place.