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What Makes a Fellow, a Fellow?

Photo Credit: Tom O’Connell, This is the time of year when senior public relations practitioners are nominated for election to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) College of Fellows. As I begin my 23rd year as a PRSA Fellow (I’m also an International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Fellow), it’s interesting to reflect on the experiences of all those I have coached and mentored over the years, on my way to becoming a Fellow in both organizations. Just about everyone comes to the Fellow’s process with few clues about what a Fellow actually is.

Becoming a Fellow is really all about the footprint left on our profession. There are Fellows who have worked their entire careers in a single market and have left a powerful footprint. There are Fellows who have worked in a single state and have left a significant footprint. There are Fellows who work regionally and nationally and, in the process, have left a meaningful footprint.

A “footprint” is about the quality of practice and the level of influence rather than how many projects done, for whom, or where completed. This is the hardest part of becoming a Fellow. It is such a mindset shift from counting projects and activities, to really understanding personal impact, ideas, behavior and ethics that have helped others to become better practitioners, citizens, public officials, leaders, more honorable advisors, and people of professional substance.

The footprint goes beyond activities within the public relations profession. It is about the impact and influence of the nominee in their vicinity and marketplace; it’s about how nominees use their influence, experience, insights and presence to make change happen – perhaps bringing reality and sensibility, as well as reducing contention and bringing peace to contentious parties. Or, it could be the preservation of core community values and interests.

I think sometimes it’s easy to mistake proficiency or expertise for leadership or impact on others. Those who wish to analyze their careers, to assess their footprint, ultimately go through an interesting and introspective analysis of their lives and work. These are the steps I recommend:

1.     Examine one’s life for the lessons that were shared with others. What did others learn from the nominee?

2.     Reach back and make contact with those whose lives the nominee has affected. What value came from knowing the nominee?

3.     Ask those who have known, worked and benefited from the nominee’s efforts, presence, and insights to answer to five basic questions:

  • What is/are/were the most important things, ideas or concepts that these individuals learned from the nominee?
  • What is/are/were the most interesting things, ideas or concepts learned or remembered?
  • What is/are/were those things these individuals feel they might never have learned if the nominee were absent from their lives. What do they know now that they didn’t know before, that mattered, because they met the nominee, whatever the circumstance?
  • What meaningful questions did the nominee help others to confront, consider or explore that might not have happened had the nominee not been present?
  • How has knowing the nominee changed people’s lives?

These questions matter because once a practitioner becomes a Fellow, all of these impacts and significant impressions on others continue and intensify. It is more than an honor to be elected a Fellow. This election is a public recommitment to helping our profession and our professionals find ways to improve their skills, yes, but also to begin to look at their practices and their practice circumstances from larger and broader social and cultural perspectives.

Becoming a Fellow is about reinterpreting our professional metrics from an entirely different and deeper perspective. It’s about understanding what matters, what is helpful, what is sensible and often what is powerfully simple and true. It is about professional integrity, honesty and having a truly meaningful personal and professional life.

It’s their professional footprint that makes a Fellow, a Fellow.

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