Key communications learnings from Dan Pitt of ONF.

What would you say is the biggest communications challenge you have faced? How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?

I did not even know what I didn’t know. I had little understanding of the need for communications as part of my organization’s overall strategy. How did I overcome it? I listened to Kate Walker with all my eyes and ears. I’m still listening and learning.

When handling delicate topics what are the most important things to keep in mind as a communicator?

The most important thing I try to keep in mind is to preserve my integrity and that of my organization. And that involves not insulting anyone else, not taking things personally, and not giving things personally. It’s also important to be honest about shades of gray. Most stories have two sides, and showing respect for people with whom you disagree makes it easier for you, and others, to find stable middle ground.

What would you consider your greatest communications success in your career?

I hate to call this my success, because the credit goes to colleagues (especially at McGrath/Power). But I felt a great sense of accomplishment, and of doing the right thing, when this task was completed. On roughly 48 hours notice I once decided to invite all our member companies (and by extension their collaborators) to be named in a press release as committing to contributing to something we were announcing. I had known the obvious few candidates but suddenly realized I should not leave anyone out who wanted to be included. To my (pleasant) surprise, we were besieged by several dozen organizations that wanted to be included. The hard part was getting official permission from their legal or PR staffs. Through a miracle of effort, we succeeded in the time frame and the impact of the release was stupendous. Sleep came later.

What experience in your career have you learned the most from?

I always learn the most from screwing up, or at least I remember the most. But let me cite something positive. I once had a chance to honor a colleague, a mentor, actually. It was monumentally difficult, given the competition, and it took me several years. But the evening of the honor stands out as the most fulfilling of my career. What I learned was that, for me, anyway, the greatest success and satisfaction come less from the work you produce than from the relationships you nurture. I felt great about my own difficult accomplishment but not because of me; rather it was because of the effect on my colleague.

What is something about the PR/communications field that you wish you could change and why?

I wish that the consumers of PR and communications exhibited more in-depth, critical thinking and less responding to sound bites and pithy messages. But they don’t so we have to cater to them.

How do you keep up with the changing PR/communications landscape?

I depend utterly on McGrath/Power to tell me what I need to know as things change. I need their expertise to filter and groom the information for me to absorb and act on it.

How do you see the PR/communications field changing in the next five years?

I expect the communication vehicles to continue to evolve with technology. Maybe we’ll actually get beyond Twitter. In the next 10-15 years I think neuroscience will teach us a lot about human cognition that we can use. I don’t think the trend to video is a long-term one because it’s a very slow mechanism for conveying information.

What do you to unwind?

I create puzzles for Will Shortz to use on NPR on Sunday morning.

What is your favorite city and why?

Easy. It’s Sydney. It’s got spectacular scenery, warm-water surfing beaches in the city, wine that is beyond fabulous (and that you can’t get in the U.S.), and über-friendly people who know how to enjoy life and share its joys with you.

If you had a million dollars, what would you do and why?

Well, if I didn’t feel a responsible urge to put all of it into my 401(k) I would allocate 2.5 percent to personal indulgences for me and my family, 7.5 percent to travel over the next two years, 15 percent to a variety of charities, and 75 percent into an endowment the uses for which I would take time to think about. I know. Boring. If you want a different answer, I would use it to visit the close friends we have all over the world and renew relationships that are hard to sustain over time and distance.

– Dan Pitt, Executive Director, Open Networking Foundation