John J. Seng, Founder and Chair of D.C.-based Spectrum, was one of two people to be inducted into PRSA-NCC’s National Capital Public Relations Hall of Fame on Oct. 12 during the Chapter’s 49th Annual Thoth Awards Gala at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (The other inductee is Carmen Marsans.) In advance of his induction, Capitol Communicator interviewed him and our Q&A follows:
John, how has public relations changed in recent years?
In the past five years, I think public relations has seen a marked increase in competition. While there’s always been competition from advertising, marketing communications or direct marketing firms, today it’s a lot more splintered. There are more parties out there now, such as digital firms, who are saying they can help a company or organization communicate more effectively to get the business results they desire.
Because of this shift, I see an opportunity for PR firms and PR practitioners themselves to recognize the importance of distinguishing the profession and discipline of public relations from other approaches. The tools we use for PR are always evolving, but how we define the practice of Public Relations remains the same. It’s still all about an organization’s relationship with its publics. It’s much more than sales, share or likes. Since the dawn of mass media in the 1900s, the strategies have not really fundamentally changed, but our tools have evolved and we’re pushing new frontiers with what PR can do.
Another big change is that there is no longer any lead time before things publish or go live. Everything is breaking or immediate news. Even in consumer magazines, stories can run online in advance of an actual print edition. In this environment, PR partners who can stick with their plan, stay disciplined, persevere, and execute elegantly will be the front-runners.
What skills will it take to be a success in PR in the coming years?
The biggest thing I’m focused on, and that I mentor PR professionals on, is resourcefulness. Your client has a problem that needs to be solved, and the answer can’t be to find out what someone else did and do that. The answer has to stem from finding the best solution to meet the client’s unique business goals and challenges. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention – and there is plenty of room for inventiveness in public relations. And we shouldn’t be afraid to look outside of the category – we can look out at a wide variety of other industries to find ideas and best practices that can help clients.
In addition, PR professionals must be willing to evolve and adapt when it comes to telling a client story cost-effectively. We’ve recently seen a transition in journalism where reporters need to not only report on the story, but also take pictures, shoot video, and record audio when on assignment. If a journalist is going out to do it all, then that ought to be a wake-up call for PR to counsel our clients similarly on efficient solutions – and it’s easier to do this if your teams are not one-trick ponies, but are multi-skilled and resourceful.
What lessons have you learned that you want to share with others?
The first lesson that comes to mind is to follow your instincts. If something isn’t adding up, or even if it is—but your gut is saying check again—then you should check again. The cost of doing it is negligible, 99 times out of 100 everything is fine, but the 100th time you’ll be glad you listened to your inner voice.
Another lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t please everyone all the time. You can’t be satisfied with second-best (or at least I can’t), but you need to be at peace with doing the best you can and the results that reflect that. There is a reality about running a business – have high standards, do your best, and treat everyone fairly. And if you do all that, and if the majority of the time your clients and employees are happy, then that’s pretty darn good. Over Spectrum’s past 21 years, I’m ecstatic that the majority of the time, most of our clients have been extremely happy with what we do. It’s hard to say that for a lot of businesses.
Who are your role models?
My parents were my first role models, because they were always straight shooters. I learned the value of honesty from them, not because they taught it to me, but because that’s how they lived.
Professionally, I owe a lot to mentors such as New York press agent Al Davis, New York film producer Chuck Manno and in working for health care PR guru Ken Rabin here in DC. They taught me that it’s our responsibility as professionals to find the magic in what a client is doing.
Sometimes I think we are like veterinarians. If you have a dog to vaccinate and all it wants to do is bite you, you still have to vaccinate it, because that’s your job. As professional strategic health and science communicators, oftentimes it’s not easy or friendly. But we have to find a way to tell the stories and bring inventiveness to the table in the face of challenges. I’ve learned that the key is to take the time to do your research and start pulling building blocks together – that’s where the storytelling can start to take form.
If you didn’t go into communications, what field would you have gone into?
If I wasn’t in PR, I would have been an auto mechanic. I worked for Sears as a certified front-end alignment and electrical repair technician during college. I figured I knew how to fix cars, so if it didn’t work out in PR or Journalism I could always go back to that. It’s interesting because being a car mechanic involves problem-solving, engaging with customers, and getting your hands dirty – there are some great parallels.
What are the things you like to do when not at work?
When I’m not at work, I enjoy spending time with my wife and family – I’m very proud of both of our kids. One is a fundraiser for a non-profit, and the other is a software engineer. Personally, I enjoy playing electric guitar (classic rock) and free weight lifting with my friends.
Anything else we should know about you?
If I had to do it all over again, I would still go into health and science PR. When you are leading a team of people who are passionate about science, storytelling, and making a difference in people’s lives, that’s incredibly fulfilling and motivating. I think Spectrum and GLOBALHealthPR have made a huge impact over the past 20 years, and it’s rare to get the chance to be a part of something like that.