Strengthen your career through flexibility

As a professor and 20-year practitioner of public relations, I have observed (and taught) countless training sessions and lessons. These usually focus on the functions required to do the job each day – writing, media relations, research, crisis communications or social media strategy. Yes, these are essential foundation elements of our career and we can’t serve our clients (internal and external) well if we don’t master these skills.


But in the past few weeks, my students and I have faced a number of challenges that required a different competency: flexibility. Let me give you a few examples:

  • Lights out: At 5 p.m. on a Thursday, we started setting up for an event that started at 6:30. Plenty of time, right? However, at 5 p.m., sunshine shone through the abundant windows into our event space so we didn’t even think about turning on the lights. Big mistake. When the sun set around 6 (and boy, did it fade quickly), the room turned dark. We turned on the overhead lights, but they blew a fuse. That was not on my contingency plan. While we turned to the maintenance team for help, we also had to put plan b into action. I set some students off with a credit card to the nearest store to buy some flameless candles to put on the tables for a “cozy” effect. Thankfully, with a replaced fuse, we had overhead lights by 6:25, and could call the students back from the store. But keeping a calm head and quickly adapting kept the client at ease.
  • Posting problems: A client’s Facebook promotion was not going as planned. A simple contest asking for photo submissions yielded very little engagement. Through deeper probing, we found out there was a lot of activity happening, but people just weren’t posting it on Facebook – it wasn’t the audience’s preferred channel. So the account team adapted to this problem, grabbed a camera, and captured their own pics to post on the brand’s Facebook wall. While not as ideal as customer submissions, this still showed the larger fan base what was happening at the client site. Plus, it gave the brand more assets to repost on the “other” social media channel with the hopes of engaging potential customers for the future.
  • No direction: A client was so focused on the business, she had a hard time articulating a focus for the PRLab team. This could have ended badly, with an endless downward spiral of frustration, passive-aggressive emails, and lackluster results. However, the team turned the conversation from “What do you want us to do?” to “Here’s what we will do for you.” This approach allowed the client to react to our ideas, and ultimately keep the engagement moving forward in a positive path.

In all three of these scenarios, we didn’t rely on hard, factual lessons to proceed. Instead, it was the ability to adapt to challenges with calm, level-headed flexibility. Unlike rules and facts, teaching flexibility can be hard. But here’s how I teach and practice this skill.

  1. I work in challenging scenarios in class. Through simulations and curve balls, I can get my students (and me) thinking on our feet and coming up with solutions on the fly.
  2. I like to throw myself a challenge every now and again. Sometimes, I decide to make dinner with whatever ingredients I can find in the freezer (instead of planning a complete, balanced meal, a big deal in my family of five).
  3. I keep my senses awake by driving a new route to work- forcing myself to look around, observe traffic patterns and road conditions. This has the added benefit of giving me more options if traffic is snarling up my commute.

By folding in opportunities to practice flexibility, my students and I exercise this skill, like a muscle. And when situations become hectic or challenging, that flexibility muscle is ready to flex and save the day, as my students have proven over these past few weeks. So while we may not think about it as a learned subject, flexibility is certainly one of the most important skills in my PR toolbox. What other soft skills do you value?

This post was contributed by Amy Shanler, honorary past president, and associate professor of public relations at Boston University College of Communication and PRLab director

Twitter: @amyshanler