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9 communications lessons from Bob Dylan

Forget some literary soothsayers’ predictions that an American novelist such as Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon or Ursula K. Le Guin would win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

Pay up if you bet on an international writer—Albanian poet Ismail Kadare, Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai or Israeli author Amos Oz.

This year’s laureate in literature—the award that eluded Lev Tolstoy and Mark Twain—goes to the iconic American singer/songwriter, Bob Dylan. Yet amid the celebrations by fans and expressions of surprise among critics, PR pros and communicators can glean lessons from a rebranding wizard whose songs inspired a pivotal generation—and many thereafter.

Few keepers of shortlists were betting on Dylan in advance. The New Republic’s survey of authors in the running as of last week was headlined with the worst literary prediction of the year. (But hey, at least they thought to include him.)

“Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature?” the magazine stated. “Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure.”

The writer, Alex Shephard, scurried to reassure us (and perhaps himself) today, “Bob Dylan is a fine Nobel Laureate.”

Which is great, because we’ve rounded up advice from PR pros and other communicators inspired by Dylan:

1. Trust your gut.

Cameron Craig, senior director of global corporate communications at Polycom, cites the Dylan song, “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

Recently, he was helping an executive prepare a speech, and the exec drew a point from a deeply personal matter, the death of his father and how it affected his leadership capabilities. Craig says he went with his gut.

“His words were moving to me, and I’m sure they will be moving to the audience hearing his keynote,” he says.

2. Boldly innovate.

Dylan has always been at the forefront of innovation in folk, says Katie McGraw-Paul, vice president of Shift Communications’ health care practice and the Boston agency’s resident Dylan fan.

Proof point: Dylan’s decision in 1965 to go electric at the Newport Folk Festival, McGraw-Paul says. The move from folk to rock ‘n’ roll both shocked and inspired fans and critics.

“His willingness to take change head on and go against the grain is something PR professionals can and must learn from,” McGraw-Paul says. “While we must maintain our media relations creds, we also need to ensure we’re taking intelligent chances and innovating ahead of the data-driven, integrated communications world that we are living in today.”

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3. Rebrand.

It wasn’t just through music that Dylan embraced change. Though his name is now iconic, he was a master of rebranding, says Jonathan Rick of The Jonathan Rick Group. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, he found a new name that was not only appropriate—he was influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas—but also permanent.

“What’s more, when [Dylan] tried to change his tune/brand, via the Bob Dylan Gospel Tour in 1979-1980, his exposure paled in comparison to his original persona,” Rick says.

4. Embrace your idiosyncrasies.

Dylan has often been criticized for his rough voice, notes James Richter senior content strategist at Walker Sands Communications. He could have taken this to heart and found a vocalist such as Mavis Staples or Johnny Cash to sing his songs, Richter notes. But rather than trying to please everyone, he won a devoted fan base.

Lesson? Organizations should embrace what makes them different, Richter says. For internal communications, a unique style helps everyone feel they’re part of something that outsiders might not understand.

In PR, “if your brand story travels along its own frequency, so to speak, it will likely resonate with an audience that appreciates your company’s unique point of view,” Richter says.

5. Be ye perfect.

“Dylan is a perfectionist—but not in the humblebrag way that most PR pros today claim they are,” says Rick.

America’s newest Nobelist went through 40 pages in rewriting the song “Dignity,” which he then ended up cutting from his album, “Oh Mercy,” Rick says.

“Note to junior account execs: How many drafts did you go through in writing your last press release?” he adds.

6. Don’t fear failure.

Employers, employees and managers alike can’t be content with failure, but can learn lessons from failed projects, Patrick Fiorenza writes in an article for Govloop.com, “Leadership lessons from the curious case of Bob Dylan.”

Fiorenza cites the Dylan song “Love Minus Zero, No Limit,” in which America’s newest laureate wrote, “There is no success like failure, but failure’s no success at all.”

7. Know your organizational culture.

Knowing the organizational culture and lay of the land is crucial to excelling and leading an organization, Fiorenza writes. He cites Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which offers a cautionary counterpoint: “Because something is happening here/ But you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mister Jones?”

The goal, then is not just knowing what is happening, but “knowing the right way to inspire and empower employees,” Fiorenza states.

8. Find your strategy.

Tracy Pound, program coordinator with an adult literacy nonprofit, sees wisdom in the lyrics, “Some people feel the rain; others just get wet.”

“It speaks to having a well-devised PR strategy so that your audience connects to your message,” Pound says.

9. Never say die.

“When your media outreach feels futile, keep on moving—just like a rolling stone,” says Sarah Erickson, a media relations specialist at Walker Sands.

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