The reality behind “it’s who you know, not what you know”

Long have people referred to one’s “little black book”, not least within the PR industry. The idea that the more contacts it holds the more successful, influential and desirable an individual may be.

“It’s who you know – not what you know” is a saying we’ve all heard, often from the mouth of someone lofty at the start of a PR career, and it somewhat holds true.

Knowing someone who can get in you in the door for an interview at your first job, knowing a journalist that might be more agreeable to listening to your pitch, a banker or adviser that refers you for a deal or head of communications that asks you to pitch for their business. The thicker and more nurtured your “little black book”, the better chance you have of succeeding.

However, in today’s environment it’s no longer enough. We’re beyond the days of long lunches three times a week and where a relationship as good drinking buddies is enough to secure you a mandate. This is an exaggeration of course, but not a huge one.

From an agency standpoint, the evolution of the communications industry has resulted in increasing competition for a differentiated approach, seeing PR firms who have not evolved to provide a truly integrated offering for clients being left behind.

PR is no longer just about media relations but a whole range of different specialisms targeting various stakeholder groups. Clients will often look for advice on their own business strategy and growth plans, their level of crisis preparedness, product development and many more areas outside of what is considered the ‘scope of work’. Critically, this means as PR professionals we are judged more and more on our ability to anticipate our clients’ needs often before they do.

In reality, this requires a much deeper understanding of the markets our clients operate in geographically, as well as the sectors they exist in. What are the issues affecting them and their peers? Who is the competition? Why should our client have a view on something? How will macro-economic and market events affect them?

While once it was “who you know” that got you through the door – into a job, considered for a pitch, onto a deal – nowadays “what you know” is as important if not more so in being able to keep you there and differentiate you from your peers and competition.

At its core, the PR profession is that of a consultancy. As such our clients not only buy our time, but crucially they buy our judgement. To make sure our advice is worth selling, we must ensure that we work on the basis that to succeed “it’s who you know AND what you know”.

Written by James Madsen, Director

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