What every PR pro can learn from Johnny Carson

Johnny_carson.Our entire industry should thank cable network TCM for airing classic segments from the legendary Johnny Carson Show.

Entitled ‘Carson on TCM’, and hosted by Conan O’Brian, the classic segments display all of Johnny’s brilliance. In fact, Conan himself said of Carson, “Johnny was the greatest late night talk show host ever. Period.” And, I agree.

That’s because Carson possessed attributes that few rivals could emulate and which every PR practitioner (from the newly-named PR Week’s uber elite Power 50 Club to the lowliest intern at the smallest shop) should study and adopt.

As Conan mentioned (and as you can clearly see in the link), Johnny was:

1.) A great listener. When Chevy Chase was asked what it had been like to sit in Carson’s shoes and serve as a guest host, he called the gig “impossible. No one listens as well as Johnny,” said Chase.

The same could be said of many PR people, who confuse listening with social media monitoring. They’re two very different things. That’s why we’ve retained a listening coach to help Peppercommers do a better job of listening in face-to-face meetings.

2.) Improvisation. Johnny could handle any comment, however bizarre, from any guest. And, he could use his rapier-like wit to defuse a tense or awkward situation like no one else.

I’ve seen many PR executives wither and die on the vine when an unexpected client or prospect observation derailed an otherwise smooth presentation. Studying improvisation, and being ‘in the room’ as comedians like to say, is a critical skill for fast-track PR pros to practice and master.

3.) Vulnerability. Carson wasn’t afraid to shed a tear after hearing a guest’s sad tale or reminisce about what once was.

It’s been said before, but the best leaders are those who aren’t afraid to show vulnerability. Sadly, our field is still chock-a-block with lots of tough and gruff executives who believe it’s a sign of weakness to admit fault or display empathy. Study Carson’s tapes. Audiences loved the man because he DID show his vulnerability. And, BTW, the V-word will only become more important in years to come.

4.) Self-deprecating humor. Johnny loved to poke fun at himself for his many failed, high profile marriages. He also made fun of his monologue jokes that had bombed.

How many times do you see a comedian, an executive or a PR pro, for that matter, make fun of her shortcomings? Self-deprecating humor is a rare commodity, but one that is well worth embracing if you can.

5.) Authenticity. Carson wasn’t afraid to tackle tough subjects and, as you’ll see in the clips, share his personal P.O.V. on everything from sex and politics to society’s double standards and his never-ending salary battles with NBC management.

Although we’d like to believe otherwise, most PR executives are afraid to posit their views on the leading issues of the day, as well as the very real ones challenging our industry’s future. That’s why I was so delighted to read Marian Salzman’s take on what she called the ‘feminization and political correctness in PR’.

So, do yourself a favor this coming Monday night at 8pm. Tune in Carson on TCM and study the late talk show host’s techniques. I guarantee you’ll pick up some subtle nuances that will make you a better PR professional. And, that’s no joke.

2 thoughts on “What every PR pro can learn from Johnny Carson

  1. A huge fan! I remember looking forward to Johnny (followed by Dave Letterman) when I was a youngster down the shore. It was a big deal to finally be allowed to watch him and extend my bedtime… by hours…my parents couldn’t understand why their young boy liked him so much. It was the monologues. I didn’t get every joke of course, but I enjoyed his delivery. It was like he was in your family room.

    I will tune in tonight, too.