As the 10th anniversary of the untimely death of Hunter S. Thompson nears, I am reminded of some lessons he taught me early in my career that still resonate today, decades and several careers later.
These lessons were shared sitting at the bar when I was a cub reporter in Aspen. I was full of ideals and not very much experience, professional or otherwise. The gonzo journalist was solidified as nationally known author and political-social commentator who was still healthy, prolific and years away from ultimately giving in to his demons on Feb. 20, 2005.
During one of our conversations at the unofficial office (the bar next to the newspaper offices) I lamented about being the lowest man on the totem pole. He took immediate umbrage, and said that’s exactly where I should be. People will still trust you, and give you the best stories. You are not too jaded, will actively listen to them and not draw conclusions, he said.
It was true. To this day, my best stories and conversations were the ones I got as a rookie reporter.
Thompson’s lessons still apply today, even after trading in my reporter hat for the world of PR. Here are a few:
You work for your audience, not your boss. As a reporter, this was especially true. The best stories are the ones that relate to readers or your customers, not executives or special interests. For the PR industry, remember that while we work for our clients, we will be more successful when we focus on the audience (our customers) when we pitch relevant stories and crisp content.
Stay in touch. The higher you move up in the corporate world, the further you are from the best stories and creativity. While moving up the ladder may be a natural desire and goal, people should make an effort get their hands dirty with the day-to-day client work, and think of ideas that aren’t tied to spreadsheets or bonuses.
Fight convention. This is where Thompson excelled. He never took the party line, and if he did, it was because that’s where his true beliefs were. It gets back to following what you believe or what you know, not what is expected or safe. Your audience, and hopefully your client, will appreciate the approach.
Embrace what you are good at. Thompson told me that his lifestyle didn’t work for everyone, but it sure did work for him. He had an enormous tolerance, and he excelled at living up to his reputation. And he parlayed that into his stories. While the thread is harder follow in the world of PR, the lesson, I think, is to recognize your strengths and capitalize on them.
On the wall in my home office, I have a letter from Thompson congratulating me on an article I wrote that held public officials accountable. The key phrase in his letter was “No Pasaran,” a term that comes from the Spanish Civil War meaning “they shall not pass.”
A lifetime removed from those talks, I still remind myself in meetings to listen, understand and focus on building relationships through honesty and integrity. And to push back when needed.
Gil Rudawsky is Vice President at Denver-based GroundFloor Media, which specializes in public relations, social media, digital and creative services and crisis and issues management. He can be reached at 303-865-8155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.