The perfectionism paradox

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Rosie Heaton
Rosie Heaton

Completer-finishers‘ are a rare breed in public relations, in my experience.

There are plenty of innovators, disrupters and ideas people, but not enough people getting on and turning the ideas into action.

So I can see why employers would want to hire perfectionists. How could they choose otherwise?

I can also see why wearing your badge of perfectionism could be a good thing for your career.

Rosie Heaton does so in these words in her reflection on her placement year.

‘I’m a perfectionist, and I can’t deny it.  I take great pride in putting out high quality work, and sometimes this means I sweat the small stuff.  I think it’s good to have high standards but you must be careful that you don’t get too hung up on the small stuff.’

Rosie is exceptionally wise and admirable – and these remarks are not intended as a personal criticism. She’s documented the health challenges she’s faced and is all the more impressive as a result.

But she hints at one of the problems of perfectionism. ‘Sometimes I sweat the small stuff’.

I’m proud of my track record as a talent spotter: first as an employer and latterly as an educator. I back myself to identify who’s likely to succeed; I’m sometimes able to nudge them along.

But I have spotted one problem, and it’s the problem of perfectionism.

Some of the most exceptional students I’ve taught were perfectionists. They invariably achieved high grades. A university degree is something that can be perfected. Hard work, attentiveness and organisation usually pay off.

I can think of more than one example of a high-flying first class student moving straight into an excellent graduate role in public relations.

But when I revisit that graduate five or ten years later – they’re no longer working in public relations.

Travel plans and maternity play a part. Life can disrupt the best-laid plans. But there’s something else going on. Perfectionists don’t get on.

Rosie explains it well when she says ‘sometimes I sweat the small stuff’.

Public relations does not operate in a perfect world. There was no need for PR in the Garden of Eden.

Public relations comes about because the world’s an imperfect place. It’s a problem-solving activity that should relish problems. No problem, no PR…

This is something that’s hard to build into the curriculum. Public relations is less about our actions, than about the public’s reaction as Lush has recently discovered.

Perfectionists can find this frustrating. There are no perfect laboratory conditions in which we practise public relations.

Many do the job well. But can anyone claim to do it perfectly?

And if they do, then how much slack is left over when calm public relations advice is most valuable – in a crisis? If we sweat the small stuff, how will we have the energy and calmness to cope with a crisis?

I’m no role model, but when I worked in practice I was routinely fretful and hyperactive about the day to day activities – but oddly calm in a crisis. In retrospect, these were the defining moments.

Rosie is wise. She’s learnt this lesson – from her placement rather than from her classes.