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the Last Word

Lessons Learned

by BARBARA J. MARSHALL, associate vice president for college relations and marketing emerita

Barbara photoI first envisioned this piece as a humorous essay called "Mistakes I've Made," but I realized that most of my mistakes just really aren't funny. There are three categories of mistakes: minor, truly tragic and "there but for the grace of God." Mundane mistakes are frequent and boring. Tragic mistakes, thankfully rare, are just too painful to write about. "There but for the grace of God" mistakes are when someone else catches my error in time to save my neck. Not going public with those as I prepare to retire.

A boss of mine liked to say, "If you don't make mistakes, you aren't taking risks and aren't learning anything." I have made more than my share, but in the interest of retiring with some shred of dignity I will focus instead on some of the many, many lessons learned as a result of them. In fact, a few of them have become "Marshall Law."

  1. As the spokesperson for the College, I talk to reporters a lot. Lesson learned: Everything you say, no matter how stupid, will end up in print. The sound you hear while you are making chatty little asides is the sound of a keyboard typing every single word. Corollary: The media believe everything you tell them is true, so the PR rule is, like carpentry, check twice, speak once.

  2. If you have one typo in an otherwise impeccably written and designed publication, everyone will see only the typo, and 400 people will tell you about it. The same applies to the website, except multiply the number of people by 10.

  3. Marshall Law of Phone Calls:

    10 p.m.—a reporter who wants you to comment officially on something you don't even know has happened.
    2 a.m.— the dean of students alerting you that something terrible has happened to a student.
    5 a.m.—the weather is horrible and school will be affected. Corollary: No matter how rapidly your team begins weather communications and how many ways you communicate, someone will be mad at you.

  4. Twitter is here to stay. Despite my deep seated conviction that tweeting was a passing phase, and nobody cares what Brangelina had for lunch, I will hereby admit I made a mistake.

  5. In 14 years, your team will save you from making a fool of yourself at least 10,000 times. They will find the typos, repair cludgy sentences, research the year Teel Hall was built and how many students we had in 1856. They will be awake for your call at 5:10 a.m. to inform radio and television stations about the snow. They will produce brilliantly written copy and gorgeously designed publications. They will handle a 6,000 page website and multiple Facebook pages. They will tweet so you don't have to. In short, they will make you look very, very good.

    Which leads to the most important lesson of all, one that I learned from my father and which equipped me both for life and for my career.

  6. It's all about relationships.

My father worked for most of his life in a refinery in South Philadelphia as a waste management supervisor, but he was a master of relationships. He paid attention to people. He always knew everyone's name and what grades their kids were in. He treated everyone he met as a treasured friend and they, in turn, would walk through fire for him.

I once had a boss (not at Albright!) who said, "You're too friendly!" because I spoke to everyone as we walked around campus. Sadly, she viewed this as an impediment to our progress when it really was the greatest of assets to our work.

So my definition of public relations (with my apologies since I have long since forgotten the author) is "building relationships that maintain trust and motivate mutually supportive behaviors." This is true on an institutional level as we work to serve our students and build great relationships with them, our alumni, friends, parents, the media and our community. It is equally true on a personal level as the members of the College team demonstrate a commitment to service, going above and beyond as a matter of routine.

Finally, I will admit to one very big mistake I made about Albright. When I first arrived, I thought I would be here for three to five years because of my long commute. I never imagined I would find such a vibrant institution and mission, so many opportunities for growth and creativity and such wonderful people. My relationships within the Albright community have nurtured me and sustained me for these past 14 years. I am more grateful than I can ever say. Lesson learned.

Barbara J. Marshall retired on December 31, 2011, after nearly 14 years at Albright. She was named associate vice president for college relations and marketing emerita by the Board of Trustees in recognition of her outstanding service to Albright College.

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