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Edelman

Peri Orbus

PR, Company Culture

The Power of Not Knowing

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Editor’s Note:

Last week Edelman celebrated Founder’s Day, marking 61 years since Dan Edelman opened our doors in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. This occasion seemed the perfect moment to think about the culture of Edelman. The introduction of a statement on our culture was the culmination of a year’s work by colleagues from across the network. Jonathan Klein, CEO of Getty Images (and a one-time client) talked in a recent Sunday New York Times article about fostering culture in a growth organization. Edelman certainly continues to be just such a firm.

It was gratifying to note how many offices across our network celebrated Founder’s Day and our culture. And it has prompted many to think about culture from different angles and experiences. One such example comes from Deanna Tallon, my partner in crime on culture and many activities. She writes in the piece below about the need for culture to help navigate the unchartered waters those of us in communication face every day.

– Matthew Harrington

There’s been a lot of good said on this site and elsewhere about how PR is changing and how those of us in the industry must adapt. As I think about this, I return to the subject of culture. What spirit do people and the organizations they comprise need to embody in an era when reinvention is the new normal? I was surprised to find one answer on a recent kayak trip on the Shenandoah River.

For this story to work, you have to know one thing about me: I’m (putting it mildly) risk-averse. I don’t daydream about bungee jumping. I avoid left turns. I’d gladly put a helmet on my kid 24/7.

So imagine my horror when the serene paddle I thought I was going on turned into seven miles of class three rapids. I didn’t know what we were in for until I’d set off in a single kayak, a friend and guide alongside. (Although in retrospect, there were signs. Why are we the only ones NOT in a big ’ol whitewater raft? And what’s with the severe message in this safety video?)

Five minutes in, I hit a rock and flew out of the kayak. This was at the easiest bend in the river. When I got back in – no easy feat as I heeded the video’s admonition not to put your feet down – I faced the first class three falls. When what was ahead sunk in, I made a decision: I simply will not do this. I back-paddled in a futile fight against the current, dumber than a hamster in a wheel. Mesmerized spectators yelled, “Forward! Paddle forward!” I yelled back where they could go.

Realizing there was no way to beat the river, I went forward. I shut my eyes (not smart) and paddled like hell until I popped like a cork over the falls. The ensuing miles were a long, psychotic rinse cycle: spin, swirl, hurl, repeat. At one point, I abandoned the kayak to swim for shore. At another, I got stuck high on a rock and regaled nearby children and puzzled fly fisherman with expletives I haven’t used since childbirth.

But back to spirit. In spite of myself, I did start to have fun. The turning point was when, after hitting yet another rock, I declared: I am not going to fall out of this @#$%%! boat again!

And I didn’t. Not once. When we approached the last rapid, the guide shrugged hopelessly and said, “All I can tell you on this one is, keep your boat straight.”

I did as I went through a succession of crashing waves that culminated in a wall of water breaking over the boat. Fun! And guess what: that was the hardest part, the bend in the river where most (including George Washington, by the way) capsize.

So, what turned my miserable performance around? There are the usual clichés: I felt the fear and did it anyway… once I believed I’d stay in the boat, I did… I had a friend and guide. (Key!) But it was really important that I didn’t know what was in store. In a world obsessed with knowledge and expertise, there’s incredible power in not knowing something. If we’re honest with ourselves, we never would have embarked upon many of our greatest accomplishments had we known ahead of time what challenges lay in store. But magic happens when those “what did I get into?” moments turn into “maybe we actually can.” When we embrace the fact that we don’t know the answer, we can actually learn something.

To be certain, research is important (to my Edelman Berland friends), and a plan matters (keep your boat straight). But the biggest payoffs occur when we have the spirit and temerity to step into something surprising (PR in paid media anyone?). Just remember, unchartered waters are often choppy, so it pays to bring a guide.

Deanna Tallon is senior adviser to the global chief operating officer.

Image by Colm Walsh.
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