How to Lead in the Rapidly Changing World of Public Relations

October 16, 2013

Some people believe that there’s been more changes in communications in the past five years than in the previous 25 like rapid technology advances, the 24/7 news cycle and expanding globalization. That made me think: How have leaders of communications organizations changed their leadership approach to succeed in today’s business environment? 

I gained insights from 10 communications executives whom many respect as strong leaders. They report adopting 10 specific strategies to lead better in this fast-changing era, which included:

1. Never stop learning.

All of the leaders discussed — with great passion — the amount of time that they spend learning how to improve their already formidable leadership skills. And a recent Korn Ferry study indicated that successful leaders need skills like adaptability, flexibility and a thirst for knowledge.

Renzi Stone: The challenge of a leader in this environment is that the breadth of skills is being redefined all the time. I have to remain open to what the marketplace is demanding from me as a leader.

Steve Cody: You must constantly keep on top of what’s current, new and best in leadership. If not, then you risk using 1998 leadership skills in 2013.

Renee Wilson: In the past, leaders were expected to have all the answers. Now we’re learning in real time about how the business works, along with everyone else. I’ve evolved my leadership style by constantly keeping up with the next big thing.

Barri Rafferty: There was a time when if you got to the leadership position, you thought you knew it all. Today’s leader must be a constant learner and more open to learning from everyone in their world.

Anthony D’Angelo: There are a lot of severe potholes and craters along the road [to effective leadership]. The respected elder must be keen about learning new things. If you think you’re done learning, then you’re an idiot!

2. React more quickly.

Business is moving faster, partly due to the impact of digital media and the compression of news cycles, the executives said. This means that leaders don’t have the downtime that they once had, which creates tension between long-term strategies and short-term imperatives. Leaders need to react much more quickly to changing business dynamics and learn how to maximize brief interactions with team members. 

D’Angelo: The acceleration of the activity and all of the forces that work with and against your organization are constant and continuing. It’s only going to get faster and more turbulent. If you haven’t buckled up for the wild ride yet, then you’ve probably been blown out of your seat.

3. Make time for face time.

As the executives said, leaders spend a significant amount of time traveling, so face-to-face interactions with team members can be difficult for them. Leaders need to learn how to maximize contact by using Web technology and email, as these interactions are more important than ever.

Cody: I try to fly more regularly to our San Francisco and London offices, rather than relying on video conferencing. We’re doing weekly staff meetings, and staffers know the doors to my and Ed’s [Moed, Peppercomm co-founder and managing partner] offices are always open. Ed and I are reaching out more. It’s conscious and it’s palpable. I have many more points of connection now, and everyone benefits.

Andy Polansky: I try to interact with as many folks on our team as possible, at all different levels. It’s critical to listen to people’s views and about the work they’re doing. I try to get to as many places as I can so people can hear what’s happening, so you can celebrate the work all around the world.

Rafferty: I’m a relationship-oriented person, and our business is as well. Go back to your roots and do what you always did: Have face time with your teams. I still do many breakfasts, lunches and dinners so that I get as much time with the team as possible.

Peter Marino: A big part of my day is having a variety of touch-base conversations with all team members, like “How’s it going?” “What’s working?” or “What’s frustrating you today?” It’s about nipping issues in the bud early. I want them to feel like there’s almost nothing they can’t talk to me about.

4. Communicate more often.

The revolution in technology means that sometimes your employees are never in the same room as you. The increased use of mobile devices facilitates communication across generations and continents, and changes not only how leaders interact with their team, but also the definition of leadership. As the executives said, the key is giving more-regular briefings and being willing to share more information — both good and bad.

Chris Atkins: People want to figure out the best ways to work for them — sometimes from the office, sometimes from home, sometimes from somewhere else and sometimes from midnight to 8 a.m. I have people on my team who I’ve only met once or twice in real life, so it’s a constant challenge to make them feel like part of the mother ship. It’s not about standing up and inspiring and motivating them in person, but figuring out how to inspire and motivate them [from] 2,000 miles away.

Wilson: I use all [communications channels]: digital chats, monthly videos, a print newsletter. Going multichannel and using constant, regular communications are critical because you’re competing with so many other forms of communication. 

Polansky: We have the “My WeberShandwick” intranet. We’ve offered “Ask Me Anything,” where, for one week, people from around the world send in questions over our collaboration platform. It’s created great conversations on business-related matters as well as what’s on people’s minds.  

Todd Defren: There’s so much communication happening every minute of every day. I try to be quieter longer, so when I say something, it has more meaning. I also need to be more open about everything, from the finances of the agency to my personal life, but less frequently. I’m making it clear that I’m listening to every word with greater focus and attention.

5. Find and retain a new kind of talent pool.

The intensive change in communications has required PR agencies to attract and retain professionals with different skills, and to look for existing talent to broaden their own skills, the executives said. PR pros have always been good at managing complexity. Clients will value that skill even more as their business, and communications, grows more complex.

Stone: At Saxum, we’re encouraging people to have a working knowledge of the entire marketing communications process. My media relations person should understand coding language, and although she can’t edit video, she should understand its basic concepts. If you don’t have the depth of expertise or the breadth of knowledge, then you’re at a disadvantage.

Elise Mitchell: [The scope of talent required] has widened enormously. In the past, it was “find the best writer or pitcher.” Now we’re looking for designers, research specialists and experts who can look at and understand data, and social media strategists.

Defren: Thanks to social, we’re now involved in paid and owned sides, and their integration with earned. We need communicators who are comfortable with the notion that it doesn’t matter if it’s earned, owned or branded media, as long as it moves the needle for the client.

Wilson: Gone are the days when you could just hire brilliant people. Now we need people who are adaptable, flexible and have proven they can roll with it. I do a lot more due diligence in that area now.

6. Encourage employee engagement.

Leaders are recognizing the importance of mining the skills and knowledge of employees at all levels.

D’Angelo: People want to be involved, not told, serviced or “sold.” That’s true in an employee communications campaign, a PR effort or a leadership approach. If you encourage a healthy give-and-take, then people will get behind you.

Cody: What you’re seeing in the past few years — exclusive of the Wall Street types — is the slow but steady demise of autocratic, out-of-touch leadership. For example, we’ve opened up brainstorms to many more levels and invited in non-client team members, like administrative, accounting and IT staffers.

Atkins: In the old days, staffers did what they were told, and no one asked their opinion. Now we see the folly of that because we’re leading people [who are] five years out of school who want to have input on significant strategic decisions and who want their perspectives validated.

7. Be part of social media.

Executives said that middle- and lower-level staffers want to feel that their leaders can still “roll up their sleeves” and execute — particularly when it comes to the digital and social media space.

Cody: Only a few years ago, it was important to know all there was to know about public relations. But due to the complete blurring of lines, we must be masters of all trades. That includes apps, mobile, content creation and understanding Big Data. You’re going to have leaders from those disciplines, plus advertising, reporting to you. So you’d better be able to walk the talk about all of them.

Atkins: One of the challenges [that baby boomers] have, in a rapidly changing world, is leading by example. To have any credibility with my team, I’ve had to jump into social media. I wouldn’t have any authority if I weren’t conversant in the technology. 

8. Seek change and take calculated risks.

In this ever-evolving environment, leaders need to be open to new ways of doing things. This will maximize your returns and keep you a step ahead.

Marino: Because each generation is different, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. With millennials, you need to be particularly flexible. Their hierarchy of needs is different from previous generations. The art of leadership is about being able to adapt to a different set of personalities and shaping them into a beautiful team.

Stone: [I am now evolving by] constantly learning, holding few things sacred as it relates to strategy and being flexible enough to meet changing client needs. This isn’t a time for rigidity. We’re asking a lot of questions on why we do things the way we do.

Mitchell: It seems much easier to play it safe, and you’ll get return with the safe bet. But you’ll get exponential return with the calculated risk. The key is having a clear understanding of your value proposition, knowing where you can win and playing to your strengths. So whether it’s opening a new office, offering a new practice or making that critical investment hire, do your research, have the good sense to figure out if your prospects will pay you for it and then pull the trigger! That’s how you foster a feeling of innovation and adventure in your company.

9. Engage and learn how to listen.

Many leaders said that they are focusing on being better listeners as a tool to help engage their teams.

Marino: When you’re younger, you’re always looking for opportunities to make your mark. Now I’m listening more and trying to be more thoughtful. I go back to the adage: “You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you speak.”

Atkins: I flatter myself into thinking I was never a terrible manager before. But now that many of my team members are so far-flung, I’ve had to become a much better listener by necessity.

Wilson: We’re all multitasking and trying to do too much. Instead, be present. Be truly engaged with whomever you’re leading. Remember, it’s not about you — it’s about them. It’s easy to get pulled into the technological advances. But is “I’ve got three BlackBerrys and two smartphones” a badge of honor? I don’t think so.

10. Be authentic.

The workforce population is more attuned to what does or doesn’t make a great leader. So be aware that every move you make will be scrutinized — for better or worse — the executives said.

Cody: Today’s average PR firm account executive is much more knowledgeable about what makes a great leader than when I was an account executive. We’re under the magnifying glass, and that puts additional stress on us as leaders. Everything we say is news. So in good and bad times, be mindful not only of what you say, but also of how you say it — because it travels like wildfire.

D’Angelo: Anyone in management or leadership should know that your people are looking for cues, whether [it’s] intentional or not. And your teams, as communications experts, are sophisticated perceivers. They know when they’re being fed a line. For leaders, authenticity is critical.

These communications executives participated in interviews for the piece:


Ken Jacobs

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


Jon Harris says:

Great roundtable Ken! Thanks, Jon Jon Harris Chief Communications Officer The Hillshire Brands Company

Nov. 1, 2013

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