Alison King on Adopting a People-First Mantra

December 1, 2016

I first met Alison King, president of Media Profile, a number of years ago at a PRSA Counselors Academy Spring Conference. I have since seen her leadership skills in action, as she served as chair of our successful 2016 conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this past May.

What was the toughest moment for you that tested your leadership strengths? 

The people and culture are the fabric of independent agencies. Having to lay off one person is difficult. Having to lay off 15 percent of my staff in 2009 was painful. We had lost our two largest accounts in the space of a few weeks through a mandated review process. One had been a client for 10 years and the other for five. We did great work for both and had large teams servicing those accounts. I knew we wouldn’t be able to absorb the impact of the loss and keep current staffing levels.

I led a series of management meetings where we made the excruciating decisions around who would stay and who would go. The day we found out we’d lost the second account, I personally let go of 15 people. Following those meetings, I held a staff meeting about our decision and communicated openly and with empathy. It was one of the worst days of my life, but I was proud of the way we handled those layoffs.

Who is the most inspiring leader you’ve ever worked for?

Media Profile was founded in 1988 by a larger-than-life man named Patrick Gossage, who had been press secretary to Canada’s first Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. He had one goal: “to create a place where people want to come to work every day.” 

Patrick was an inspired, energetic and demanding leader. He expected the best from us every day and pushed hard. He taught me tenacity in media relations and demanded I pursue every possible media angle and not take no for an answer. He was a tough editor with little patience for bad grammar and constantly demanded we “juice” up our writing. He taught me the difficult art of listening and reminded us that when the client is talking, we’re winning.

His “fun first” mentality ensured a balance between work and play. He established a company culture that includes twice-a-year business reviews and dinners with the entire office, a company picnic and a holiday party that makes news. He taught me that an agency is nothing without its people, and our assets walk out the door every night. His people-first mantra remains the cornerstone of our agency.

What was your worst leadership faux pas, and how did you recover? 

We’re always competing against large multinational firms for accounts. There was a period where we decided to face that competition by positioning our agency as a uniform, national firm. In a sense, we lost our way as an agency and battled through a bit of an identity crisis. This approach fell flat because it wasn’t who we were, and audiences are looking for authenticity. I led the management team through a rebranding exercise to rediscover our authentic voice. We changed our company narrative to trumpet our independence. This represented a turning point for our branding and our new business pitching. That year, we were successful in 70 percent of our pitches.

Why should communicators attend the Counselors Academy conference in May?

Becoming part of Counselors Academy and attending its Spring Conference has become the single most important contributor to my professional development as a leader. The presentations are practical and inspiring. We are building out a marketing-automation function that is a direct result of a presentation by Arketi Group at last year’s conference. I’ve made changes to the way we review employees, our brainstorming process and tightened up our approach to overservicing clients — all as a result of Counselors Academy. 

What's your best counsel to someone who wants to make the leap from PR practitioner to leader?

Our profession continues to transform. It’s a challenging time to be a leader because of that innovation. In order to make that leap from practitioner to leader, you need to think big. A practitioner maintains and implements what is already there, whereas a leader innovates and is looking for ways to stay ahead of the game.

I always think back to what I learned very early in my career about the importance of listening. PR people tend to like to talk, but the ability to listen and have empathy is critical in a good leader. And lastly, a strong leader must be very clear about what they stand for and be consistent in how they present their personal brand.

Can you describe the moment when you realized that you were becoming a leader?

I assumed leadership of Media Profile in 2006, but it was really when I faced the difficult task of having to lay off a number of people that I looked in the mirror and knew that I was a leader. Leading a company through a steady growth feels great but managing through difficult times, keeping the ship on course and ultimately saying farewell to trusted colleagues in an ethical and honest manner really helped me earn my mettle.

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website (www.jacobscomm.com) and contact him by email (ken@jacobscomm.com) or Twitter (@KensViews).

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