If your vision of PR success is blurry . . .

If work – and even life – still feel like a grind . . .

If you want to be done climbing and arrive already . . .

If the big dreams you started out with are starting to get blurry . . .

. . . I hope the experience I’m about to share with you can give you some inspiration.

Last week in San Francisco I was locked in and not paying attention to my surroundings. It had been a busy month with work and travel and live trainings. As my Uber neared my destination, I was running through my usual mental checklist, visualizing the LinkedIn photos of the people I’d be training, wondering if I’d missed anything in my prep.

So fortunately when I got out of the car I looked up for a second, otherwise I would have missed it.

When I saw that blue logo on the Salesforce Tower, I was suddenly transported back to the fall of 2009.

That’s when I read Behind the Cloud, which had been recommended to me as a playbook for disrupting an entire industry with creative public relations tactics.

Salesforce founder Marc Benioff recounted the publicity stunts, media events and key interviews that took his company from a rented apartment to one of the biggest software companies in the world.

I read it like a thriller, nerding out over the strategies and tactics he and his team deployed and how journalists responded. Over the next couple years I often shared some of my key takeaways from the book with my consulting clients.

Marc Benioff was like a PR hero to me.

And now I was about to walk into his headquarters, the tallest building in San Francisco, and train 40 members of his global corporate comms team.

Standing there on the sunny sidewalk on Mission Street, I took a moment to reflect on what the 2009 version of Michael Smart would have thought about this.

Back when I was reading that book, we were in the teeth of the Great Recession. I had just moved my family into a new home, but had to take out a line of credit on our previous home to cover the new down payment. Normally that would have felt irresponsible to me, but it was just a bridge to cover the few weeks until I got a big paycheck for the major project I had completed for a PR training company a few months before.

And then the CEO of that company – one of the well-known stalwarts in our industry – called with sincere sadness in his voice. “I’m so sorry, Michael,” he said. “We’ve declared bankruptcy – I can’t pay you.”

I was in shock. The idea of fighting it never crossed my mind. I thanked him for the courtesy of telling me himself, then hung up the phone and went to work. One gig led to another, with companies of increasing size.

To the point that 15 years later, getting an email from corp comm leaders at Salesforce seemed almost like business as usual.

I’m so glad seeing that logo jarred me out of that thinking. It’s vitally important that we stop and take stock of where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.

You were likely once a broke college student wondering how you’d make it in this new career path you’d stumbled on called PR. Your own parents still had no idea what you were majoring in. And now look at you!

If you’re still grinding, remember this:

I doubt 2024 Michael would have ever grown up to be in a position to work with the Salesforces of the world if he hadn’t also been 2009 Michael . . . wondering how he was going to cover TWO mortgages, during the worst economy of a lifetime. The skills, contacts and character that got me through that are directly responsible for whatever successes I’m having now.

And without a doubt, without 2009, that moment on the sidewalk last week wouldn’t have felt nearly as sweet.

P.S. Would you believe that bankrupt CEO still found a way to pay me in full about a year later? JS, you’re a man of integrity. And to Laura and Jon at Aflac – thank you SO MUCH for trusting me not just with your business, but with your endorsement when I sent strangers your way asking about me. Your referrals made all the difference as I scrapped to build my clientele in those early years.

This article was originally published on March 27, 2024

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