6 Leadership Techniques for Executive-Level PR Practitioners

January 8, 2014

How are today’s PR executives managing in these challenging and changing times?

I spoke with nine senior-level practitioners to learn more about their leadership philosophies and what’s working for them.

They underscored the importance of inspiring teamwork, articulating the agency’s vision and values, being decisive and forward-thinking, and sharing leadership. Clear goals and a spirit of collaboration are what’s guiding our leaders today.

Here’s more, in their own words:

1. Share your vision and give your followers a clear road map.

Many of the leaders focused on the importance of having a clear vision and clear communications with the people who work for you.

Peter Marino, vice president of communications, MillerCoors: The famous leaders I’ve followed, whether coaches like John Wooden and Vince Lombardi, or military leaders like Colin Powell, described leadership as the ability to get people to follow you without questions of doubt.

You have to understand where you want to take your team, share the road map to get to that destination, and help them figure out their roles in getting there. To do so, you must provide clarity, candor, communications and focus.

This directional focus is especially helpful when managing today’s workplace of multiple generations. I’ve got people on my team 20 years older and 10 years younger than me, all of whom are solid contributors to our team.

Are there conflicts? Sure. But I manage that by laying out the “north star” of our destination, being clear about what our roles are, and if there are conflicts, getting them out on the table. Communication is key.

Barri Rafferty, senior partner, chief executive officer, North America, Ketchum: I’m not sure that leadership changes that much over time. When business is tougher, people need more vision, clarity on the plan, and more communication. Particularly during the Great Recession, what people wanted and needed was the vision and lots of reassurance, on a weekly basis. Make sure people at all levels understand the road map.

Don’t assume. Say it over and over, so it’s truly embedded. That’s a lesson I took from the recession and am still practicing today.

2. Followers are attracted to confident, decisive leaders in good and bad times.

Employees are attracted to, trust, and ultimately, follow leaders who emanate confidence and decisiveness. It is important to display these attributes consistently and steadily, even in down times.

Andy Polansky, chief executive officer, Weber Shandwick: One’s basic leadership style should remain constant, regardless of the situation.

It’s about being adaptive, listening to everyone’s point of view, trusting your instincts and being decisive. But you’ve got to make the tough decisions to drive the business forward.

Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, senior manager, communications, ITT Corp.: When tough situations arise, lay out the facts for the team, allow debate and encourage them to discover the solution. In some ways, it’s a democratic process, which is messy. But if you really want substantive change to stick, that’s the more effective process.

Still, it’s imperative that the leader act decisively when the decision must be made, particularly when not all are on board. Good leaders build up a trust factor so that after collaborative discussion they’ve earned the right to say, “OK, here’s how we’re going. Now, we go.”

And if you’ve built up trust, there’s going to be buy-in. You’re going to have some disagreement, but your people will respect you for not waffling.

Rafferty: Confidence is key. You gain more confidence over the years, and that confidence comes through in how you interact with your people. I definitely lead with more confidence now.

When there is conflict or difficulty, you must be a great listener. You also need to be direct: “I’ve heard all the perspectives, and now I’m going to make the decision. Here’s what we’re going to do, and let’s go.”

Because Ketchum emphasizes collaboration, I’ve learned how to facilitate giving everyone a chance to weigh in, make everyone feel listened to, and then make a decision and move forward in a relatively short amount of time.

As a leader, you want to be liked, but it’s more important to be trusted. If they trust you, whether they like you at that moment or not, they’re going to follow. 

3. A leader’s role is to serve and teach their followers, and to inspire teamwork.

Many of those I interviewed emphasized the critical roles of the leader-as-servant and of the teacher-coach.

Renee Wilson, president, North America, MSLGroup: What I enjoy most about leadership is that it’s about the people you serve. It’s so great to give back to employees who give so much to you. You owe them. It’s rewarding when you know you’ve given people great leadership. You know you’ve become a great leader when it becomes our vision, our strategy, our point of view.

D’Angelo: Real leadership tests one’s ability to be a servant, to serve your followers’ interests. You’re going to be measured on how well the organization did, so it’s your job to bring others along. It’s a different kind of commitment. Do you really want to focus on others’ success?

It’s not for everybody, and that’s OK. There are many people contributing individually, but leadership is a different kind of aspiration.

Elise Mitchell, APR, Fellow PRSA, CEO of Mitchell Communications Group and Dentsu Public Relations Network: Leaders should ask themselves, “How good am I at leading others?”

Some are good with clients, some are good with programs, and some are great writers. But attracting and motivating teams is another talent altogether. Empowering the talent to work together as teams, and helping them to achieve great things for their clients, is a special talent.

Chris Atkins, managing director, public relations and internal communications, PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP: I’ve changed my leadership approach. Previously, if I wasn’t satisfied with a staffer’s work, I might have done it myself. I’ve learned that doesn’t benefit anyone, because then I’m not teaching. On my whiteboard, I have the words “You can’t edit an empty page.” I tell my team, “If you bring me an empty piece of paper, what can I do with it? It’s OK to get it wrong, but try it. Give it to me. Let me give you some guidance.”

I’ve also given up on impatience! I now recognize that every task is an opportunity to teach my replacement, and I appreciate that that’s a good thing.

Rafferty: The best leaders are truly passionate about being leaders, about coaching, about taking the company forward by taking people forward, and empowering and developing others.

4. Be willing to let go and share leadership with others.

One hard-to-learn but essential lesson is that truly great leaders must share leadership responsibilities with others.

Renzi Stone, chairman and CEO of integrated marketing communications agency Saxum: The burden of a leader is much heavier than anyone who aspires to it may realize. And it’s only made lighter by inspiring others to share the load.

Polansky: As someone who started his career at one of Weber Shandwick’s predecessor companies, I may have a unique perspective. When you grow up in a business and have every position one could have, you think you have a good sense of how things are best done.

But as one takes on more and more responsibility, you realize you can’t do everything yourself, that there are those around you who do things better than you can.

Further, you’ve got an entire management team with various leadership styles, and if you harness that, they can do things as a group that just one or two people can’t do. So you have to step back, let others step up to the plate, as you counsel, coach and celebrate rather than do.

Mitchell: I hit a leadership crossroads in 2005. At that point, I realized Mitchell Communications could grow enormously if I was willing to let go and build and empower a group of leaders below me, so I could focus on strategic planning and building the business.

I specifically hired to counter my own weaknesses and to avoid “plate-stacking,” or duplicating my strengths.

As the agency began to grow dramatically, I knew that if we were going to reach the next level, I was going to have to empower, equip and trust them to go forward, to lead the agency in their areas of expertise, and to flourish. And that meant I had to step back from holding things so tightly and start sharing with them.

Leaders and founders have to be careful not to hold things too tightly or their agencies can grow too dependent on them. You must look for others to take your place. We did so by creating an executive committee and charging it with handling my day-to-day responsibilities.

[In January 2013, Mitchell sold her firm to the global communications giant Dentsu and is now charged with building its global PR network.]

I was only able to [grow the business] because I had given away day-to-day management of my firm. It never would have happened otherwise. You will find something bigger to do if you’ve given the power away, and be careful not to be a micromanager or control freak. If you want to be the one who decides everything, you become the chokehold for every good idea that could possibly come out of your organization, and you’ll run off your best people.  

5. Articulate the agency’s values and use them to guide decision making.

Todd Defren, chief executive officer, SHIFT Communications: We saw a sea change when our firm, which was going through a period of rapid growth, redefined our values, or as we call them, “cultural attributes.”

For the first seven years, we’d say, “That person is a real SHIFTer” or “I don’t think they’re fitting in at SHIFT.” But at an off-site retreat, when we turned 10, our senior leadership discussed what that meant, creating a list of 10 attributes. We then asked the staff what they saw as the agency attributes and learned there was remarkable agreement.

We consider those values every time we make a hiring decision, every time we complete an employee evaluation form, when we let someone go, or make a tough business decision. They act as a guardrail for decision making. And sometimes that sucks, because you can’t fly off the handle — you’re always bound by the values — and employees hold us to that agreement. 

6. Look up, look ahead, see what’s around the corner and pivot as needed.

One of the key job talents of an effective leader is the ability to see what’s coming next, plan for it appropriately and respond quickly to marketplace changes.

Mitchell: You can’t be a leader who’s always looking down. If you never lift your gaze up for the horizon, then you’ll never see what’s coming, and you won’t know where we need to go tomorrow.

So keep one eye on where you are today and one eye looking out and forward. This is key to being able to anticipate how clients’ needs will evolve and providing the kinds of services that will best address their business problems.

Atkins: Successful leaders, even while employing different styles, share three common characteristics: empathy, curiosity and the innate ability to sense that something’s coming — and, even if they don’t know what it is, to be ready at a moment’s notice, to pivot and to turn.

These communications executives participated in interviews for the piece:

  • Chris Atkins, managing director, public relations and internal communications, PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP
  • Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, senior manager of communications, ITT Corporation
  • Todd Defren, chief executive officer, SHIFT Communications
  • Peter Marino, vice president of communications, MillerCoors
  • Elise Mitchell, APR, Fellow PRSA, CEO, Mitchell Communications Group and Dentsu Public Relations Network
  • Andy Polansky, chief executive officer, Weber Shandwick
  • Barri Rafferty, senior partner and chief executive officer, Ketchum North America
  • Renzi Stone, chairman and CEO, Saxum
  • Renee Wilson, president, MSLGroup North America
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).


Chris Osborne says:

This is probably one of the best collaborative articles on leadership I've read in a long time. Bravo Ken Jacons and thanks!

March 25, 2014

Chris Atkins says:

In reading this, I realize that when I said "to pivot and to turn" I meant "to pivot and to turn and to rotate and to move in a spiral motion. And revolve." But hindsight is 20/20.

April 4, 2014

Angela Calzone says:

Nice work, Ken. The varied perspectives are insightful and focused.

Oct. 22, 2014

Post a Comment

Editor’s Note: Please limit your comments to the specific post. We reserve the right to omit any response that is not related to the article or that may be considered objectionable.


To help us ensure that you are a real human, please type the total number of circles that appear in the following images in the box below.

(image of three circles) + (image of five circles) + (image of seven circles) =



Digital Edition