Tributes to Stephen Hawking are pouring in from around the world.
The famous physicist and author of “A Brief History of Time” died at age 76 in his home in Oxford, England, early Wednesday.
His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it’s not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure. Stephen Hawking, RIP 1942-2018. pic.twitter.com/nAanMySqkt
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) March 14, 2018
As memorials continue on social media to honor him, here are several quotes from Hawking from which PR pros can draw inspiration:
1. “ Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. “
PR pros must be flexible, because communication efforts can shift at the drop of a hat.
An executive or employee might tweet a questionable comment that requires a crisis response, or your pitch might have to wait a day—or even a week—in favor of jumping on a trend or breaking news story. The more you’re willing to adapt, the more opportunities you can capitalize on.
2. “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe—why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
For arguably the most famous physicist on Earth, Stephen Hawking—who died Wednesday in Cambridge at 76 years old—was wrong a lot. He thought, for a while, that black holes destroyed information, which physics says is a no-no. He thought Cygnus X-1, an emitter of X-rays over 6,000 light years away, wouldn’t turn out to be a black hole. (It did.) He thought no one would ever find the Higgs boson, the particle indirectly responsible for the existence of mass in the universe. (Researchers at CERN found it in 2012.)
But Hawking was right a lot, too.
… More than that, he could explain it to the rest of us.
A physicist is a far cry from a PR pro, but communicators can take inspiration from Hawking’s unquenchable thirst for an understanding of the cosmos.
3. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”
Savvy PR pros never stop learning, and know-it-all communicators can trip on their overconfidence (or arrogance). Instead, ask questions and be willing to gain insights from those around you.
You might be your organization’s social media expert or your PRSA chapter’s resident media relations guru, but you don’t know everything—at least not yet.
4. “People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”
For PR pros, relationships are everything. People won’t want to be around if you’re irascible, nor will they be inclined to help you if you’re only taking and not giving.
Strengthen professional relationships by attending networking events, getting to know people and offering insights and assistance when you don’t seek something in return. This can go a long way, especially with stakeholders and journalists.
5. “Next time someone complains that you have made a mistake, tell him that may be a good thing. Because without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.”
PR pros can get too caught up in details. Remember that your efforts don’t have to be perfect; they do have to be effective.
Striving for perfection is admirable, but don’t make a stressful career even worse by dismissing your wins or being inflexible about last-minute changes and setbacks.
6. “I have noticed that even people who claim everything is predetermined—and that we can do nothing to change it—look before they cross the road.”
Though Hawking was talking about free will versus fate, the same observation can apply to crisis communications.
You might not think a tragedy will affect your organization or that you’ll have to scramble in the wake of online backlash, but savvy PR pros have crisis response plans in place just in case. Your self-preservation instincts can help protect your organization’s reputation, so use them to prepare for the worst.
7. “However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
Hawking was probably the best-known scientist in the world. He was a theoretical physicist whose early work on black holes transformed how scientists think about the nature of the universe.
But his fame wasn’t just a result of his research. Hawking, who suffered from a debilitating neurological disease that made it impossible for him to move his limbs or speak, was also a popular public figure and best-selling author. There was even a biopic about his life, The Theory of Everything, that won an Oscar for the actor, Eddie Redmayne, who portrayed Hawking.
It can be easy to focus on your mistakes and shortcomings, but it’s wiser to learn from them and move on, taking that knowledge to strengthen your next campaign, interview or pitch.
What is equally amazing is that he had a career at all. As a graduate student in 1963, he learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neuromuscular wasting disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was given only a few years to live.
The disease reduced his bodily control to the flexing of a finger and voluntary eye movements but left his mental faculties untouched.
He went on to become his generation’s leader in exploring gravity and the properties of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits so deep and dense that not even light can escape them.
Don’t stop dreaming, communicators—and aim high. Even after what seems like your worst setback yet, you have a multitude of opportunities open to you.
Hawking said it best with this advice, which he first gave to his children:
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”