How Do We Become Indispensable?

I just read an article in the Harvard Business Review about how to make yourself indispensable. The author describes an employee that has done a terrific job, done everything right. He applied for a promotion and was stunned when he didn’t get the position. It went to someone else. He asks, “What did I do wrong?” and his boss says, “Nothing, you’re doing a great job.”

The author argues that it’s much easier to improve your performance (and your position in the corporate world) if you haven’t been doing so well, but much harder when you’ve been doing a great job. He concludes that incremental
improvements don’t help as much as developing other, complementary strengths. For example, an engineer who indisputably does a wonderful job for the company would gain a lot less by becoming an even better engineer than by improving a skill such as writing or people management.

The article stimulated a lot of comments and debate. How do you make yourself indispensable: by keeping on top of the
ever-changing needs and wants of your bosses, and then working to meet those needs? Or by determining how you could become more valuable, based just on your own strengths?

This led me to think about how public relations practitioners can be perceived as indispensable by their clients or, in the case of internal PR staff, by the top management of their companies. There’s nothing more frustrating than losing a client, or not winning a client, due to a decision not to have an external PR firm because top management feels that PR isn’t a high enough priority. In these situations, when we are considered dispensable, the marketing department or the internal communications staff may disagree, but they’re overruled.

So how do we, as PR practitioners, make ourselves indispensable? Unfortunately, just as explained in the HBR article, simply doing a great job isn’t enough. The answer isn’t to provide even better results. If what we do is really that valuable to a corporation, then the onus is on us to make senior management understand that we are, indeed, indispensable.

It helps if we set measurable goals in the beginning of a project or a year and then actually do the measurement. However, this is a lot easier said than done, and a lot of attention has to be paid to what kinds of goals are set as well as how they are measured. Otherwise, who’s to say, for example, that it was the PR, not some improvement in the product or services, the sales methods or the distribution methods, that helped sell more?

It’s very hard to measure the impact of PR in isolation from other factors. It’s crucial to agree on goals that we can, without doubt, take credit for reaching.  Often even if we can suggest appropriate, measurable goals, our clients don’t have the budget to spend on measurement.

In my most cynical mood, I’d say that very often it’s the people who have to be indispensable in order to sell senior management on PR, not the actual contribution PR makes. The most successful people in the PR industry (as everywhere) are those who have strong personal charisma as well as the ability to cozy up to the decision-makers in an organization and win them over. Sometimes indispensable means a bond of dependency.  That kind of relationship trumps PR results every time.

I wish I had the answers to how we can make PR indispensable. Maybe you do. I’d like to hear what you think about this.

Lucy Siegel

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