Eight Ways PR is Like Sailing

  • PR people, like skippers, tend to have a ‘Mother Nature’ resiliency.

A PR person’s day can be planned with great predictability but each hour, let alone each day, can bring twists, turns and interview requests that become opportunities not to be missed. Whatever Mother Nature may throw your way during a 2-3 hour sail, be prepared. We have not figured out how to control the weather, or every aspect of our day as a PR pro, but we are certainly smart enough to choose wisely where to turn the boat by determining the best tacks (tactics) and gibes (strategy) depending on where we want to go.

  • “In PR you pray and in advertising you pay.”

When you want to get from point A to point B in a sailboat, you pray that on that particular day, during that particular hour the wind is in your favor to sail the fastest and most efficient to get where you need to be and in the time that you need to get there.  You can’t pay the weather gods to turn the breeze on and in our favored direction. Use these elements to your advantage. Calculate creativity.  You don’t have to ‘pay to play’ as an advertiser would.  In PR and in sailing, Mother Nature takes you there. When your story is credible, you make the most of the ride.

  • In PR, like sailing, keep the ‘ship’ steady and the team moving in the right direction.  

When sailing and facing directly into the wind, you go nowhere. It’s called “irons.”  Irons is good when you want to take a break and eat a sandwich. It is bad when you need to be somewhere or make something happen, which is the often the case for PR folks. When running an agency or managing a client’s needs, the wind, and other  forces, need to be on your side to keep your ship running smoothly.  Consider the PR vehicles that carry your important messages to the most influential audiences. The “keel”, or the part underneath the boat that is not always visible, keeps you from sliding sideways. Who is your behind-the-scenes keel that keeps you upright in turbulent times?  The heavy weight, or “ballast,” keeps the boat steady and moving in the most efficient direction. Who is your heavy weight?  The anchor keeps you grounded.  Who is your anchor? Thank these people daily.

  • PR and sailing represent teamwork at its finest.

Most boats over 15’ are best operated, but not required, with a team. Each person, when racing, has his or her role. If you are fortunate the team understands the bigger picture and moves toward the common goals of safety, fun and crossing the finish line first. The PR project or campaign can’t be done alone either. Each part comes together as it develops, executes and measures the results. The boat can go fast because each team member plays a role: time the distance to the start line before the gun goes off; steer in heavy winds; trim sails after tacking; crank sails tighter when needed; and constantly watch for traffic (distractions and obstacles).

  • Managing PR campaigns is like helming a boat.

You may feel at times that you are going slow, if not backwards, in your project.  When the wind is pushing you forward by blowing from behind, it does not mean that you are off course or going to go slower. It simply means that is the direction you must take at that particular moment.. Even though the wind is at your back, you still face forward with your sight (strategy) on the course’s finish. Smart sailors look back to predict wind gusts or velocity increases and take advantage of them to propel ahead of the competition. PR pro’s recognize that taking time to build new relationships, to maintain existing ones and to recalibrate a plan is part of the process for achieving results.

  • Like sailing, PR efforts are intertwined with many forces to achieve success.

There are many people and organizations that influence a campaign, a message or a quote to the news media.  There are also many variables that influence a day of sailing. To sail well, you must consider the weather, the tides, and the traffic on the water, the equipment’s reliability, the boat’s condition, and your team’s skills. In PR, stakeholders like employees, news media, investors, partners, vendors, and the community are at play.  Every time you pitch a story, Tweet, Facebook post, or speak publicly to tell your story, you must consider the nuances of all stakeholders.  What are their needs? Why do they care? Why will they do as a result of your message?

  • To tell a great story, as with sailing, you must always connect the dots.

On the water, the sails are connected to the mast which is connected to the hull that is connected to the tiller and to the hand that steers the boat. That hand is connected to the eyes that are always watching the compass that is connected to the “Windex” at the top of the mast to gauge the wind direction, wind speed and boat speed. Patterns can be anticipated if the weather is checked before leaving the dock. When identifying, building and telling a story, one must connect the dots to make sense, to see opportunities and to leverage them with the most appropriate audiences.  PR pros never miss a chance to tell a good story that could be perceived as elusive by others. We always connect the dots to figure out the best strategy.

  • Like sailing, in PR you have to be curious and creative to accomplish results.  

When sailing, you wonder what Mother Nature will give you that day. Will it be 2, 12 or 22 knots of wind? Sun or clouds?  Clear air or low visibility?  Hot or cold air? In PR, you hope for a perfect storm of your key messages being conveyed at the best times to the most appropriate audiences that hear or influence your call to action. Will your efforts result in one huge hit in the Wall Street Journal or a subtle story in the local paper? Will it take months or just days to secure interest from an editor or blogger to find your story credible? Even if your intended group doesn’t show up to a speech, a panel discussion or a launch event, digitally capture the core messages and identify ways to send them to this audience electronically and through your social networks. When you are hungry, you are curious. And when you are curious you have creative ideas. Connect the dots of those ideas to create great stories that drive customers, investors, the news media and others to help favorably change your business in the next one to three years.

May you find fair winds, fun seas, and satisfied clients in your journey, mate!

Kellee Johnson is principal of The Ballast Group, a boutique PR firm based in Chicago that specializes in medicine and technology. Johnson is an avid sailor and an adjunct professor at DePaul University.

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  • great post! I love the quotes. 

  • You never know where an article like this would resonate.
    For me it reads: Eight Ways Sailing is Like PR – because I’m a sailor, a full
    sailor, Full Sail University graduate in Entertainment Business BS, wandering
    what Mother Nature will give me today. Each section describes an episode like the
    experience built through education at Full Sail, combining curiosity and
    creativity with the wind of unexpected and plenty of room for drift.

    Thank you for the opportunity to place that experience in
    another work frame. I hope you don’t mind, I shared this article with my fellow
    sailors on Full Sail IMK Facebook page.

  • Sara

    Kellee, I agree with your post. Even though I have not sailed a boat before everything you said makes sense. In public relations, you may think you know what will happen that day or that particular journey, but until you actually take off or at the end of your sail, you do now know if the public will take to your message or if your waters will be calm. Now that public relations has invested in social media you do now know when one of your videos or one of your tweets will go viral. Just like you do not know if your sail boat will hit a nice gust of wind to help you get to your final destination a lot quicker as you said earlier in your post. Public relations is very intertwined like a sail boat is, which is why I feel that this post is so related able.

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