EQ is the new IQ: The vital role of emotional intelligence in public relations
March 31, 2011
Most PR professionals have heard the story: A bright new hire comes to the organization. His résumé is flawless. He has a demonstrated track record of success in the profession. He’s a thought leader. Then, within months, he’s gone.
Why? Too often, the quick departure may come down to a simple, yet crucial factor — the individual didn’t have the emotional intelligence necessary to succeed in the role.
What is emotional intelligence? Simply put, it’s the ability to be attuned to the people around us — to consider their emotions, and our own, as we make decisions and navigate through our organizations. Our EQ is our measure of that emotional intelligence.
When it comes to making a public statement or working with a client or customer, failure to use good emotional judgments may have even more power to derail our careers than technical errors or lack of experience. In fact, in his 1996 book, “Working with Emotional Intelligence,” Daniel Goleman (who pioneered much of the work on this subject) cited the results of a Hay McBer study of star performers at 40 companies, which found that “emotional competencies were twice as important in contributing to excellence as were pure intellect and expertise.”
Learning about EQ
Why is emotional intelligence such a vital trait for PR professionals? For starters, a healthy dose of EQ better equips practitioners for our unique roles as counselors.
“Emotional intelligence is essentially gravitas — steadiness of emotions,” says George Jamison, a principal and head of the corporate communications and investor relations practice at executive search firm SpencerStuart. “Communications professionals are coming into jobs where there is a lot of scrutiny, a lot of pressure. The expectations have increased, and EQ is part of that. [They] are expected to deal with adverse situations and keep their cool.”
Another reason why EQ is so critical for practitioners is because we interface so frequently — and so intensively — with people. And when it comes to people, all communications exchanges are, to some extent, emotional ones.
“There are many [PR professionals] who are highly skilled at what they do, but not many have high emotional quotients,” says Dennis Spring, president of New York-based PR recruiting firm Spring Associates, Inc. “Whatever your business is, you’re surrounded by people, and somehow we’ve gotten away from that. We have to remember that PR is not about social media, it’s about people, and how we all fit, integrate, and react.”
EQ is such a critical component of our profession because we are so frequently the “brand voice” for our organizations.
“PR people don’t get an emotional intelligence pass. It’s tough to get away with being emotionally unaware when you are representing your client’s brand,” says Amanda Kowal Kenyon, senior vice president and director of organizational development at Ketchum Public Relations in New York. “Communicating is inherently a relational activity — we need to have that awareness even more than other professionals.”
Exploring the EQ – PR gap
Developing and using EQ can be challenging for PR professionals. Here’s why:
- Intense scrutiny and increased pressure to measure results. PR activity is under scrutiny, with management demanding quicker, more compelling measurement of results.
“When you are under budget pressure, constantly worried about ROI and being asked to take a cut in your resources, it can hurt your self-confidence and make it difficult to stay properly attuned to your own emotional conduct and the emotional signals of other people,” Jamison says. “It’s harder to be steady when the fundamental value of what you do is under question.”
- External focus at the expense of internal focus. Some of the biggest lapses in emotional intelligence occur internally, in our relationships with our own co-workers and employees. In a sense, we fall into the same trap that we sometimes fall into with members of our own family — we might say things to them that we wouldn’t dream of saying to other people. Kowal Kenyon notes, “Sometimes it can become so exhausting to treat clients and customers well that it becomes more OK to treat everyone else badly.”
Enhancing our emotional intelligence
The good news is that PR professionals can study, practice and improve their emotional intelligence — just like other skill sets.
- Hear the words, watch the signs. Spring observes that to be successful in public relations, “ your ears have to hear the words, and your eyes have to watch the signs.” If you talk to someone long enough, and if you are listening and watching for body language, then you can learn what they feel.
This is true for PR practitioners at all levels. Every successful PR executive is in tune with their complete environment. In the end, this is what makes them succeed.
“As PR executives move up the ladder, they often move further away from the core PR skills they were hired to provide,” Spring says. “They go into management. But what are you managing? You’re managing people.”
- Understand your corporate culture. In developing emotional intelligence, Jamison says that it’s essential to know what the culture seeks, what the culture rewards and what it will not tolerate.
One practitioner, new on a job, spent months putting together a PR strategy for his organization but resisted requests from the CEO to assist with executive speechwriting. His excuse was that such activities would take him away from the job he had been hired to do.
At the end of a few months, however, he had lost the CEO’s confidence — and realized for the first time that executive speechwriting was what he had been hired to do. If he had read the CEO’s emotional signals more astutely, then he might have avoided losing his job.
- Consider the feelings of others. Often when we are new to a job or an organization, we care what people think, but don’t stop to consider how people feel — about our arrival, our personal style, whether we are competing with them and how the clients or customers feel about us, says Kowal Kenyon.
As a result, we may make the mistake of reacting intellectually rather than attending to their emotions. This can result in what Kowal Kenyon calls “organ rejection” by the company.
Step out from behind the computer and the phone. Emotional intelligence requires a deep understanding of the people we work with and what they need from us. If all our conversations take place through email, text or even by phone, then we’ll never fully gain that understanding.
People are generally too stressed, busy or guarded to reveal themselves through electronic media, Spring says. Do what you need to do to get in front of people.
- Invite feedback. The best insight we have into our own emotional intelligence is the input of other people. As Kowal Kenyon puts it, “All feedback is a gift.” That’s why it’s so important for PR people to sometimes let go of our pride and our determination to put the best possible face on every situation — and demand a frank, honest response.
Whether that feedback is bad or good, we should seek it out, accept it graciously and ask for more information when needed. When a manager compliments your work, Kowal Kenyon advises that you respond, “What specifically did you appreciate about my performance?”
Understanding the EQ – PR advantage
If all of this seems like a challenge, then remember that PR professionals have some natural advantages when it comes to developing and using emotional intelligence. Because we work with so many stakeholder groups — the media, community members, customers, employees — we are continuously exposed to a variety of viewpoints. Our breadth of perspective differentiates public relations from other organizational functions and provides great value to management.
“Bring those perspectives back into the company. Share with your management team a book you think they should read. Have the self-confidence — in whatever way works in your culture — to communicate what you are learning,” Jamison says. “Be passionate about what you do and the places that you circulate, and share that. People will come to respect and value it.”
Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR, is an associate professor of public relations at Brigham Young University. She has also held communications management positions at various Fortune 500 companies.
Email: susan_walton at byu.edu