5 PR Lessons from Ben Franklin

July 9, 2009 at 7:00 am (PR Musings) (, , , , , )

Over Christmas last year, I finished a 500-page tome on Ben Franklin, which I loved. Our fascination with him is timeless. As is usually the case, my pragmatic mind is always thinking of what I can take from my readings and apply to real life, so I couldn’t help thinking that so much of Franklin’s best habits were absolutely applicable to my work in PR.

Sure, he had his faults, but the guy accomplished multiple lifetimes’ worth of achievements over the course of his 84-year life. Beyond working behind the scenes on the Declaration of Independence,  the French Treaty and Britain Treaty, all of which were integral to our success on the American Revolution, his early days had a lot of exciting discoveries. Community leader who formed the first local militia, firehouses, police force and lending library. One of the first media barons, using the printing press repeatedly over the course of his life to trumpet his causes and that of others. World-renowned scientist who conducted numerous experiments over his lifetime, cornering electricity being one of them.

So what can we learn from Franklin’s method of practice?

1. Practice makes perfect: Wash, rinse, repeat until you get it.

Franklin is known as one of the best writers of all time. What many don’t know is that he practiced hours and hours in order to hone his craft. He would make outlines from his favorite articles, put away the original text, and use the outline to write his own version of the article. Then he would compare the two side-by-side and critique his writing to improve it. The point is, he just kept writing and writing and consistently worked to become better. And he never stopped. In PR, you do the same. You keep making calls, writing pitches, networking in the flesh, and honing those skills indefinitely because you can always get better. 

2. Be an agent of action.

While Franklin was a great thinker, he was a doer first and foremost, and that was why he was the best practiced and most accomplished American of his day. When he had an idea, was alerted to anything that he wanted to comment on, his turnaround time was impressive. Oftentimes he would write up something for his printing press within a matter of hours after figuring out his next step.  It’s easy to read, theorize, and come up with strategies around your next steps, but without action it’s useless. Don’t fall victim to someday syndrome. Going forth and making mistakes is better than sitting still and letting the world pass you by.

3. Know your audience.

Franklin was well known for his sly way of presenting his case in a way that supported the recipients’ best interests as well as his own. His juggling of the French and British while negotiating the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War is legendary and has been called one of the smoothest diplomatic maneuvers of our entire history.  While living with the French for many years, he integrated himself into the French culture and endeared himself to the French however he could. Wearing a coonskin cap to fashion himself as the quintessential backwoods American. Selling American flags as a souvenir to the French to raise money for the war. Appealing to France’s ideological sensibilities to rally them to America’s cause. Using France’s enmity with Britain to present an alliance with America as a smart political move.

4. Always prepare to present your best.

Franklin always came well prepared – he was known to bring notes to all his meetings AND record the conversation after when it was fresh in his mind. One of the biggest complaints about PR is that we don’t do our research. We don’t think ahead. We’re lazy, incompetent flacks just looking to get a “quick hit.” Let’s change that!

5. Improve your bedside manner and know how to schmooze.

Franklin was the king of networking. While he had quite a few enemies, they were greatly outnumbered by his many friends and allies. Also, while he knew a plethora of very important people, his less famous friends in various places were often the ones that helped him to best exert his influence. Franklin hated pompousness and enjoyed meeting anyone with good ethics and an engaging love of intellectualism like himself. Too many PR people do not know how to do this! Improve your bedside manner and don’t get so caught up in who’s important or benefits your own selfish interests.

I encourage you to check out Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. It’s a great read that will inspire you, no matter what profession you work in.

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