Inspiration sometimes comes from the strangest places. In PR and Communications, it’s our job to help our clients tell the stories they want to tell, in a way that their target audiences will be most receptive to receiving and recalling them. It’s capturing their culture, mission, vision, and values, and putting communications strategies through that filter to craft that messaging (which, as experienced PR & Comms people know, is not always what the client wants to say).
The other day, I was chatting with my partner, Jennifer, about a specific client who we’ve really enjoyed working with, and no longer need our services. We’ve made some great friends and built some great relationships there, and it makes me a little sad to think we won’t be working as closely with them anymore.
“But, that’s what our Agency does,” she said. “We’re Mary Poppins. We float in, help them see things from a different perspective, and help them solve their own problems. If we do our jobs right, eventually they don’t need us anymore, and then it’s time for us to float away so we can find someone else who needs our help.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized how right she was.
When Mary Poppins was originally released in 1964, it was so successful and made so much money that it single-handedly financed the land purchase and construction of Walt Disney World in Florida. I saw it for the first time in 1973, at the age of 6, and immediately fell in love with it. I’ve seen it many times since, and enjoyed it just as much (if not a little more) at each subsequent viewing.
And, since Jennifer reminded of Mary Poppins, I have also come to realize that this fun, silly, and emotional movie contains several key lessons that can be easily applied to the bulk of our work in PR and Communications.
(TL/DR – Watch for changes in the wind, be confident, never be afraid to take control, never judge by appearances, be prepared for anything, always measure, be practical, put needs before wants, sometimes it’s going to suck so accept it, and keep emotion out of it).
Be Aware of Changes in the Wind
Near the beginning of the movie, Dick Van Dyke’s character, Burt, is busking for a group of people, when he notices the wind change direction. While others notice it later on, he is the first one to sense the shift in the wind. Shortly after, several prospective nannies are lined up outside the house of the children who are the main characters in the movie (Jane and Michael Banks). All of the nannies are quite suddenly blown away from the front of the house by strong winds, after which Mary Poppins descends from the sky holding her umbrella, gently landing at the front door of the home.
When dealing with any aspect of communications or public relations, it’s essential that you stay up-to-date on the things that are important to your clients, and stay aware of developing situations that may affect them, or their messaging. The best PR professionals are the first to sense “changes in the wind,” based on small details or pieces of information (from any source). Developing the ability to see possible consequences or opportunities before anyone else can save you from major headaches, or achieve huge wins for you, your executives, or your clients.
Be Confident, and Never Be Afraid to Take Control of a Situation
On arriving at the house, Mary Poppins knocks at the door, brushes past the maid and immediately into Mr. Banks’ sitting room. She proceeds to read the list of qualifications from an ad for a new nanny written by the children, but previously torn up and thrown into the fireplace by Mr. Banks. She insists she never provides references because that is “old fashioned,” and continues reading from the list while Mr. Banks stumbles about the room in disbelief, thoroughly puzzled by how she managed to get the list in the first place. In the end, Mary Poppins turns the tables and insists that she will only work for a week as a “trial period,” in essence hiring herself for the position, and walking upstairs to meet the children.
While this is one of the best “assumptive closes” we have ever seen, we aren’t recommending you try this when trying to land a client account! Her confidence and total control over the situation, and her willingness to lead, right out of the gate, are what’s important here. These are essential traits for anyone faced with a crisis communications situation, when your senior management or clients may be focused on the problem and unsure of how to communicate to clients and stakeholders. Above all, Mary Poppins remains calm and level-headed throughout the entire interaction, which is another thing to keep in mind: especially in a crisis, you have to remain calm and level-headed, because chances are everyone else around you won’t be, and that’s when bad decisions are made.
Never Judge Things by Their Appearance (and Be Prepared For Anything)
On being shown her room in the house, Mary Poppins begins to make changes, impossibly pulling a hat stand, large mirror, lamp, and floor plant from her carpet bag. When she first pulls the large mirror from the bag, Michael looks at Jane and says, “But there was nothing in it!” Mary Poppins replies, “Never judge things by their appearance, even carpet bags…I’m sure I never do.”
One of the first things every PR professional has to get used to is the fact that the problem or challenge that needs to be solved is rarely the problem or challenge that is initially described to you (and this goes double for crisis communications). Not only can’t you judge things by their appearance, you can’t even judge them based on what you’re told. It’s essential for you to keep an open mind, put on your sleuth’s hat, and get to the core of the issue so you can develop the right communications strategy. The art is doing so without bruising anyone else’s ego along the way, even if it’s a negative situation you’re dealing with.
Every PR and Comms professional also has their own personal “bag of tricks” they like to pull from. The secret to long-term success is making sure you are always prepared, no matter what happens. Situational awareness, consistent reading and research into your industry (or those of your clients), staying up-to-date on personnel changes, new technologies, and other relevant subjects. Being prepared for everything doesn’t mean you have to know everything, but it does mean you have to know exactly where to go the instant that information is needed to solve a PR problem.
Always Take Measurements, Always Be Practical
Mary Poppins searches through her bag looking for a tape measure, in order to “see how [Michael and Jane] measure up.” Unlike a typical tape measure, this “magic” tape measure tells her the basic personalities of the two children. Michael is “extremely stubborn and suspicious,” while Jane is “rather inclined to giggle, doesn’t put things away.” The children then insist Mary Poppins measure herself, to which the magical tape measure says she is “Practically Perfect in Every Way.”
You can call it taking the temperature, checking the data, or socializing the plan. What matters most is making sure you properly assess the players, the situation, the media, the environment, the strategy, the implementation, the results, or anything else that can be measured or evaluated throughout the PR process. Do it consistently, and make sure you know what the data is telling you, so you can adjust your plan accordingly.
Above all, be practical. Mary Poppins isn’t saying she’s perfect, she’s saying she’s “practically perfect.” Remember, practical means “of or concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory or ideas,” or “likely to succeed or be effective in real circumstances; feasible” (from the Oxford English Dictionary). You want to be perfect in your execution, perfect in getting things done correctly and on-time, perfect in doing what makes the most sense for the circumstances or scenario. Good PR and communications isn’t just about what to say or how to say it, it’s making sure it gets out to those who need to know it in the most effective way possible.
Needs before Wants
The whole reason Mary Poppins ends up at the Banks’ home in the first place is as a result of the “advertisement” created by Jane and Michael for a new Nanny. They paint a picture of the ideal person they would like to help raise and take care of them. Mr. Banks, however, has completely different thoughts on what the ideal nanny should be – firm, respectable, no-nonsense, a “general,” and can run a home with precision, discipline, and rules. What Mr. Banks wants, however, is not what Michael and Jane (and, in fact, their entire family) needs, something that becomes quite apparent by the end of the film.
What your clients, or executives, or stakeholders want is often impractical, unrealistic, or is not what they need to do. One of our clients had an issue which was the result of the illegal actions of a staff member, and at various times wanted to not say anything about the situation, wanted to blame the employee without taking responsibility, or wanted to gloss over it by stating it was an “internal HR matter” they couldn’t discuss. In the end, we were able to get them to take a different approach, which ultimately delivered the result that was best for the company. It took them a while to come around to the fact that what they wanted could only be achieved by doing and saying what was needed.
You Must Take Your Medicine
After playing “inside” sidewalk chalk drawings with Burt and Mary Poppins, the rain washes the drawings away, and Michael and Jane end up soaking wet and back at home. After handing each of the children a spoon prior to dispensing medicine to the children, Jane says, “Do we have to, Mary Poppins?” to which she replies, “Children who get their feet wet must learn to take their medicine.”
Just as in the scenario we described above, clients and stakeholders sometimes have to learn to take their medicine. We had another client who insisted no one be singled out, blamed, or faulted after it was discovered someone at their firm had done something wrong. If someone has done something wrong, and there’s potential impact to that firm’s customers as a result, there’s no escaping the inevitability that blame will land somewhere. It’s never a question of whether or not you take your medicine, you’re going to end up taking it whether you like it or not. it’s a matter of making sure you communicate the facts, accepting responsibility where you must, and providing real assurance that you’re doing everything in your power to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Keep Emotion Out Of It
At the very end of the movie, as Michael and Jane join their father and mother for a walk through town as part of a newly-invigorated and open family, Mary Poppins states, “Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking,” just before she opens her umbrella, and flies off into the clouds, having completed her work in this home.
Everyone gets emotional. The challenge is not being emotional when solving a communications challenge. We’ve had clients shoot down ideas, campaigns or solutions that we invested a lot of time and energy on. Yes, in the beginning, it would upset us a bit, but we eventually learned that any client feedback is an opportunity for a conversation to understand them better, understand their motivations, and get on the same page in terms of strategy. Once we changed our attitude, we found that many of our clients would ultimately come back to our way of thinking, after talking it out and clearing up any misconceptions or misunderstandings. It’s impossible to do if you allow your ego to be bruised, or if you get emotional every time a client rejects an idea.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t appeal to the emotions of your audience, or be passionate about what you do. What it really means is, never let your own personal emotions get in the way of doing what is best to solve the problem – especially when you’re the one facing the media in a crisis situation. We’ve dealt with executives who have been thoroughly trained and prepared for media interviews, only to have them go off-message because they got emotional when the cameras started to roll, or because they decided to tell the story they wanted to tell, and not stick to the plan we created together. That used to frustrate us to no end, but ultimately we learned that as long as we do the best we can to prepare someone, and warn them about unintended consequences should they stray from the message, it’s out of our hands once the interview starts.