Public Relations Tactics

The 12 Essential Talents of Leadership

March 31, 2011

At Ketchum Public Relations, staffers at all levels frequently find their innovations green-lighted and contribute heavily to the global agency’s success. Likewise, at Start-Thinking, a digital communications design agency in Wichita, Kan., employees are encouraged to question and challenge ideas from senior management.

These are two examples of PR agencies that understand what it takes to lead.  They inspire their employees to be willing participants — partners in making the agency thrive.

This is just one aspect of exceptional leadership.  There are other traits in a PR leader that stand out, including:

  1. Demonstrates acute awareness
    The claim “What you see is what you get” is fine, as far as it goes. But successful leaders know that everyone has hidden assets and considerably more to contribute than what is shown on the surface.
    “Effective leaders should be able to see potential that their people themselves may not even see,” says Ann Willets, president of Eatontown, N.J.-based Utopia Communications and “Ask the Professional” columnist for Tactics. “By helping people develop [this potential], you not only get more from them, but you also gain that much more loyalty because you helped them grow.”
  2. Encourages a challenging environment
    One major leadership pitfall is believing that every person should think the way the boss does.  A great team operates in a system where everyone is open to others’ views and opinions — even those contrary to their own.

    Kris Schindler, founder of Mentor Sanctum and managing partner of Start-Thinking, a communications design agency in Colorado and Kansas, says that her firm purposely hires lifelong learners, thus creating a team that expects to be challenged intellectually.

    “One of the first things I look for in any new hire is intellectual curiosity. Sure, we’re focused on great results for our clients, but because our brains are engaged in the process, we’ve earned the reputation for being creative and innovative."
  3. Thinks with vision
    New college graduates want to work for a company that has a vision — a course of action they can believe in. So start by articulating your vision to your potential hires.

    “When you started your agency, you must have had some idea in mind — something distinctive you wanted to do. Share that vision,” Willets says. “Show [people] what life would be like in an agency where these goals were achieved.”
  4. Creates alignment
    Effective leaders understand that there are innumerable great ideas in every department and will sift through them, select the best ones and prioritize them against their well-articulated goals. The key is to get every person, from the CEO to the interns, to contribute.

    At Ketchum, senior partner Barri Rafferty encourages people to generate ideas from every part of the organization.

    “Everyone has a chance to contribute to annual plans, and we’ve green-lighted products and innovations from talent at all levels,” she says.

    Willets says that leaders shouldn’t worry that they’ll appear weak if they listen to ideas from others. “When you decide someone else’s idea is right, you’re still leading,” she says.
  5. Acts decisively
    For people to believe in your vision, you must be decisive in every aspect of agency management.

    All team members must understand your personal and business values so that they ultimately grasp the corporate decision-making process.

    While input from all parties is encouraged, everyday decisions must come automatically — and promptly — out of established policy, aligned with agency values.

    “I have a 24-hour rule for responding to all emails and requests,” says Rafferty. “Sometimes decisions need more information gathering, but prompt decisiveness is key to achieving optimum business results.”
  6. Engages others
    There is nothing more valuable to an employee, especially to a newcomer, than a boss who demonstrates an interest in each staff member’s ideas, development and overall well-being.  You want employees to feel comfortable coming to you about anything, personal or professional. Employees who fear their bosses conceal valuable information and are timid about offering ideas.

    If you have a door to your office, leave it open, says Dana Hughens, head of Clairemont Communications in Raleigh, N.C.  “We build our programs around understanding audiences, listening and engaging them in open, honest interactions. To be successful, we have to take the same approach with our employees,” she says. “Having an open-door policy provides great insights into what motivates employees to provide the best client ser-vice possible.”
  7. Exudes powerful energy
    Because energy is contagious, it’s important that leaders exude positive energy in words and actions.

    “It’s not about some forced optimism,”  Willets says.  “But a leader should think, act and speak the language of success.  You can acknowledge challenges — even very serious ones — but still keep your focus on how to overcome these challenges.”

    In other words, if you believe success is possible, then it’s much more likely that your employees will believe it too.

    And let’s not underestimate the value of fun to raise positive energy.

    “We all chose a profession not because the odds of early retirement were good but because we love what we do,” says Margie Fox, president of Maloney & Fox in New  York. “So with hours that promise to be long — and situations that are sure to tax our good humor — a smart leader needs to put a high premium on levity.  An hour channeled into inspiring laughter begets multiple hours of billable time.”
  8. Builds relationships for success
    Many people have written about emotional intelligence (EQ), which can be a better predictor of success than IQ, because success is often relationship-driven.  An office that focuses on EQ breeds better interstaff relationships and thus breeds a better final product.
  9. Communicates — and listens
    It’s easy to think that communicating involves only talking. But listening is an equally important part of the communications equation.

    Roger Friedensen, APR, president and CEO of Forge Communications in Raleigh, N.C., and a member of the Counselors Academy of  PRSA’s executive committee, concurs.

    “The best public relations leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with did a whole lot less talking and a whole lot more listening, Friedensen says. “Clients want to know they’re being heard and understood.”
  10. Sees patterns and trends
    The business side of any good operation is based on the leader’s ability to spot patterns and trends, learn from the past and focus on opportunities — not problems or challenges.  That’s how companies stay relevant. In this ever-evolving profession, a leader must continually survey the landscape for opportunities both outside and inside the agency.
  11. Creates high-energy teams
    High-energy teams beget high success. Great leaders always surround themselves with a team that has a wide range of talents and strengths. By doing so, each team member supports the team’s overall mission and goals, filling different needs.
  12. Displays consistency and integrity through authenticity
    Leadership never ends. You must continually examine who you are and what you stand for (personally and professionally), and ensure that your actions align accordingly with complete transparency.

    “How leaders do things is as important as what they do,” says Deb Radman, APR, Fellow PRSA, PR consultant and former president of PRSA’s New York Chapter. “Being confident enough to show people that you are in charge, but humble enough to realize that you may sometimes be wrong is a special balance that good leaders exhibit. This kind of openness encourages people to try and take risks.”

PR leaders have to develop their skills at the highest level to compete in today’s environment. Inspiring and encouraging your team to deliver top-notch results takes exceptional leadership skills. Adopting these qualities will help build a company that will not only survive, but will also thrive.

Alan Cohen
Alan Cohen, president of Acts of Balance Executive Coaching ( and a PRSA Counselors Academy member, has more than 25 years of experience in business, including public relations and human resources. The article was inspired by an ebook written by D. Luke Iorio, CEO of iPEC Coaching.


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