PR wisdom from Capitol Hill

Matt Whitlock gives a “thumbs up” while talking about the exciting field of public relations in a presentation to BYU students on Oct. 13, 2016. (Source: Calvin Petersen)

Matt Whitlock gives a “thumbs up” while talking about the exciting field of public relations in a presentation to BYU students on Oct. 13, 2016. (Source: Calvin Petersen)

Former BYU graduate Matt Whitlock, now press secretary for Senator Orrin Hatch, returns to BYU with wisdom for PRSSA students about developing qualities that make marketable PR professionals. Whitlock shared three characteristics for success: the ability to write well, the determination to make the most out of opportunities, and a willingness to work when “off the clock.”

The importance of writing well

When I asked Matt Whitlock what the most valuable skill he learned in college was, he said, “Writing! Everywhere you go, people want good writers. Do everything you can while you have access to tools here to become a great writer. Be an annoying grammarian.”

Whitlock would undoubtedly agree with Greg Miller, Senior Strategist for Marketcom PR, who said, “As professional communicators, PR people are required to develop content that is accurate and compelling on behalf of companies and organizations. In fact, the ability to be a good writer is arguably the most important skill needed to be a great PR professional.”

Matt Whitlock stands in front of the U.S. Capitol Dome restoration project. Whitlock is working on Capitol Hill for his second time. (Image retrieved Oct. 18, 2016 from Twitter.)

Matt Whitlock stands in front of the U.S. Capitol Dome restoration project. Whitlock is working on Capitol Hill for his second time. (Image retrieved Oct. 18, 2016 from Twitter.)

Whitlock’s skill as a writer earned him a spot on the 2016 Republican National Convention speech-writing staff. At the convention he collaborated with politicians that were sometimes a challenge to work with, given their strong views and personalities. Because of Whitlock’s writing abilities, he gained their trust and helped many of them rewrite and improve their speeches. “A lot of times, when you gain someone’s trust you can deliver neat things,” Whitlock said. Whether you’re a PR student wanting to enter the field or a seasoned PR professional, being able to write well and improve your writing will open up opportunities for you and the companies you work for.

Making the most out of opportunities

“Different experiences and different things can lead you to PR,” said Whitlock before recounting the story of his own career in public relations. Soon after graduating from BYU with a degree in English, Whitlock was preparing to attend his first semester in law school. He decided to work on Capitol Hill for a few months before school began. Whitlock quickly landed a job driving for a U.S. senator.

One night at 2 a.m., while waiting for the senator’s delayed flight to come in, Whitlock’s eyes fell on a stack of paper on the seat next to him. It was a speech written for the senator that Whitlock had been asked to deliver. Curiosity lead him to read through the speech. His writing instincts, honed after years of college, told him that the writing was simply awful.

When the senator finally arrived and they began to pull away from the terminal, Whitlock worked up the courage to ask the senator how he felt about the writing that was being done for him. The senator confessed that his staff was inexperienced with speechwriting.

Whitlock saw an opportunity and didn’t hesitate to act. He mentioned his own experience as a writer and offered his services. Making the most out of that opportunity led to Whitlock being hired on as a full-time writer for the senator. Anybody pursuing a career in PR would be wise to develop the ability to recognize opportunities and be determined to make the most out of them. It worked for Matt Whitlock; it can work for you.

Willing to work while “off the clock”

Makena Bauss, BYU PRSSA Vice President of Finance, asks Matt Whitlock a question after his presentation. (Source: Calvin Petersen)

Makena Bauss, BYU PRSSA Vice President of Finance, asks Matt Whitlock a question after his presentation. (Source: Calvin Petersen)

Whitlock told us that his position as press secretary for Senator Hatch is a 24-hour job. “You’ll find that with a lot of PR jobs,” he said. Whitlock is an enthusiastic example of round-the-clock commitment to public relations.

On June 3, 2016, Matt Whitlock was on his way to Arches National Park in southern Utah. While on the road close to midnight, he received a phone message alerting him about the passing of “The Greatest” heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Little known to those outside of Senator Orrin Hatch’s circle, the Senator and Ali had been close friends.

Whitlock immediately knew that he needed to get a statement from the senator and share the information with the public. He pulled over in his car and there, on the side of the road in the dark Utah desert, issued a press release. The next morning, news of Senator Hatch and Muhammad Ali’s friendship was all over the news. Whitlock was even quoted in one of the articles by Provo, Utah’s Daily Herald. Whitlock confided in us that when Senator Hatch spoke a few days later at Ali’s funeral live on ESPN he thought, “Senator Hatch is on ESPN. I did it!”

Even when it isn’t convenient, if we as PR professionals are willing to work at a moment’s notice, we will find great success in our industry. Real life happens in real-time, after all.

“Everyone now is looking for something that sets you apart,” Whitlock reminded us. The characteristics of writing well, taking advantage of opportunities and willingly working beyond what’s required are qualities that can set you apart from others. Not only will these attributes set you apart, but they will increase your capacity to help others and find satisfaction in your career. “One thing about PR,” Whitlock concluded, “is that you feel like you’re doing good things.”

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