7 PR lessons from mentoring a 5th grader

Jessica Levco

Recently I signed up to participate in a mentoring program with the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls in Chicago.

I’ve been matched with a 10-year-old girl whom I see every Saturday. Bright-eyed and curious, Marabel likes soccer, math, and cheese pizza. She also likes holding doors open for people.

Through our Saturday outings, I’ve realized that I learned a lot more from her than she has from me—and a lot of these lessons can be applied to PR or corporate communications. Try these:

Be on time

I pick Marabel up from her neighborhood, every Saturday at 10:45 a.m. One day, I was running about 10 minutes behind schedule.

“Sorry I was late,” I said, as we were walking to the train station.

“That’s OK,” she said. “I just thought you forgot about me.”

Oh, no!

As simple as this sounds, are you paying attention to the clock? If you’re in charge of scheduling your CEO’s town hall meeting, don’t make employees wait to be graced with his or her presence. You can arrive at a party “fashionably late,” but not at a meeting with your clients. Being prompt makes a big difference; it shows people that you care about them and their time.

Before you nominate me for “Worst Mentor of the Year,” just know that I’ve learned my lesson—now, I pick her up at least five minutes early.

Peel bananas upside down

One day, I gave Marabel a banana. She looked at it—then looked at me—and said, “Don’t monkeys eat this?”

She had never eaten a banana. She started peeling it upside down.

(It might surprise you that, as a health care editor, I’m not ranting about desserts and childhood obesity, but I’ll save that for another post.)

Ask yourself: Have you ever peeled a banana upside down? I’ve been alive for 27 years, and it has never occurred to me, not once, in my entire life to peel a banana upside down.

Unfortunately, at the time, I “corrected” Marabel and showed her the way society peels a banana. But when I ate a banana a few days later, I tried it her way (and also the preferred method of monkeys) and found that it’s a lot easier to peel a banana right side up. Sir Isaac Newton’s observation doesn’t apply only to apples, after all.

Here’s the takeaway: Have you ever been in a meeting where a colleague bursts out with a “crazy” idea? Instead of listening to the whole wacky concept, do you just shake your head and say immediately, “No, that’ll never work”? If something seems “wrong” to you without a fair hearing, it could be a sign that you need to try things differently.

This lesson could also be applied to the hiring process: If you’ve got two candidates—both of comparable competencies, but one lacks a traditional PR background—it might be worth giving him or her a chance. You never know what a new perspective could add to your business.

Listen—no, I mean really listen

When you’re hanging out with a 10-year-old, it’s probably a good idea not to talk too much. The same rule can apply when you’re meeting with clients.

Listen to what your clients and co-workers are saying to you. If you talk less and listen more, you’ll gain a better understanding of what they want. Pieces will start to come together for a new campaign, or maybe inspiration will strike for your next viral video.

Don’t forget about specific details, either. One day, we were walking outside, and Marabel stopped and insisted I look at something. I thought she was pointing at a building, but she said, “No, that’s not it.”

A few minutes later, I realized she had pointed at two birds, sitting on a tree branch—directly in front of the building.

Sharpen your math skills

Marabel is really good at doing math. I’m really good at avoiding math. But during our time together, I’ve tried to think of simple, short story problems for her to solve—whether it’s counting train tracks, estimating the time, or figuring out how long ago an artist created a piece of art.

I’m not saying you need to channel Pythagoras, but as a PR pro, you should be comfortable with basic math skills. This will make it easier for you to calculate the ROI of your campaign, not to mention your budget. Don’t let math scare you.

Ask clients what they want

For the first few times that Marabel and I got together, I planned our events. In the beginning, she was shy. I’d ask her what she wanted to do and she’d just say, “I don’t know; what do you want to do?”

Then, one day, she asked if we could go ice skating.

Ask your clients what they’re looking for. Ask whether they have any suggestions as to what you’re doing for them. Let them help guide you—and sometimes, their ideas might even be more fun than what you originally had planned. (We’ll take a rain check on that museum visit.)

Don’t always show them the money

The mentoring program encourages you not to spend money on your mentee. With this theory, the time you spend together is more about the actual time—not the latest activity, tickets to a game, or something else that their parents couldn’t afford to take them to.

Sometimes, it’s tempting to spend money on Marabel because it just seems easier. But we’ve been able to do a lot of activities that haven’t cost us anything: a jazz show, a sleigh ride, and a trip to a stained glass museum.

Are you paying for stuff you don’t want or need? There are lots of free social media elements that you can use—check out Socialmention.com, Hootsuite, Tweetdeck and Tweechat. And summer is just around the corner (read: interns).

Pay attention to people’s comfort

One day it was about 30 degrees, and we were walking outside. Just because I can handle a Chicago winter, it doesn’t mean everybody else can.

As we walked along, Marabel said she was cold. I said that I was, too. But when I glanced over, her eyes were filled with tears. “Let’s walk faster,” I said, and we hurried to the mentor/mentee party, which was indoors.

Ask yourself: Are your clients comfortable? Do they seem nervous about something you’re pitching or a project you’re working on? Don’t just assume everything with them is OK, just because you’re OK.

At the very least, offer hot chocolate.

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