7 Skills PR Leaders Need to Succeed in the Coming Years: Do You Have What It Takes?

April 8, 2014

What skills will leaders of communications organizations need in a few years?

Think speed, flexibility, boldness, adaptability, a global mindset, vision and personal growth.

I spoke with 10 corporate and agency leaders, and these seven key attributes emerged. Here’s what they had to say about them:

1. The need for speed

While it seems that we’re already working at lightning speed, these leaders predicted that this will increase exponentially in the future.

Steve Cody, co-founder and managing partner, integrated communications agency Peppercomm: People are making mistakes in nanoseconds, and who knows how much faster it will get? Things are only going to get faster, so it’s going to take leaders who can quickly provide brevity, accuracy and authenticity. The speed will weed out potential leaders who can’t learn on the job — there won’t be time for that, as the job will be even more demanding.

Andy Polansky, CEO, Weber Shandwick: The pace of change will only increase. That provides both opportunity and risk.

Elise Mitchell, APR, Fellow PRSA, CEO, Mitchell Communications Group and Dentsu Public Relations Network: We’ll have to get even faster at research, knowing the data that matters, both understanding and being able to find the information required, and then having the insights you need to make better, faster decisions.

Everything will continue to compress, which will require being able to activate much more quickly and efficiently, and with greater results. Things happen in real time. Social media was a game changer in this regard. So you have to activate not only with speed, but on strategy, and in a way that’s relevant to the target.

It will be more critical to be efficient — you must identify processes that allow you to scale and move quickly — and effective. Your solutions can’t just be faster and cheaper, but better.

2. An increasing emphasis on flexibility

Flexibility has always been a hallmark of solid leadership. Our leaders predict that in an era of rapidly changing communications, this skill will be in even more demand.

Peter Marino, VP, communications, MillerCoors: I think even more flexibility will be required in the years ahead, because business pressures will increase, and clients will be seeking more immediate gratification, so strategic chops will be more important than ever.

Chris Atkins, managing director, public relations and internal communications, PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP: Flexibility in outlook and temperament will be key, because with such revolutionary change occurring within a business cycle, you need someone who can acknowledge change is happening, and take the steps — sometimes painful ones — to make sure the enterprise can make the changes to remain relevant, to be able to say, “Wait a minute. That’s not how we should be doing it tomorrow, even though that’s how we’ve been doing it.”

3. A willingness to be bold

Two leaders with reputations for boldness predict that this attribute will gain greater currency.

Todd Defren, CEO, high-tech agency SHIFT Communications: They’re going to need to be bold. Clients care less and less about where good ideas come from, care less about the pedigree of the agency, care less if you’re an advertising or a PR firm. The leaders who are going to thrive are the ones who create and evangelize bold, market-changing ideas. Who cares what you call your agency? If you have bold ideas and can execute, you’ll reap the benefits.

C. Renzi Stone, chairman and CEO, integrated agency Saxum: The era of disruption and experimentation in the marketing communications world will continue through 2016 and likely beyond. The savvy marketers of 2016 will have to be bold, thoughtful and creative because innovations in technology will continue to create new specialty shops and niche experts within our discipline.

4. The ability to adapt to new technologies

As technology plays an ever-increasing and defining role in communications, future PR leaders will need to not only stay on top of technological trends but also understand the implications for the practice.

Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, senior manager, communications, ITT Corporation: It will be critical to combine and incorporate the first principles of public relationships and organizational communications with the techniques of new technology. Do so, and you’ll be among those well equipped for leadership. A lot of people have one, but not the other. Many do well with face-to-face communications, but what if the other face is virtual? It’s a combination of philosophy and technology. Yes, they need it now, but it will be even harder in the future. I think the bar will be set even higher.

Barri Rafferty, senior partner, CEO North America, Ketchum: As so many things come in and become part of the real world, such as Google Glass, you have to think about how they have an impact on how your message gets out there. We, as communicators, must think about the format of different stories, new ways of communicating and the growing importance of visuals. In the past, photos supported stories; now they’ve become the story and communicate the message.

Take the time to figure out the implications of the technology and what skill sets you need in the company to take advantage of these changes. Which bandwagon must we jump on, or not?

5. A global mindset

Many communications leaders are currently thinking globally. Our leaders predict that with the world shrinking, all will need to do so in the future.

Renee Wilson, chief client officer, North America, MSLGroup: We will become even more global. In two to three years, the skills of collaboration and influence will be even more important. In the past, in traditional organizations, there was a hierarchy, and it was about command and control. Now we’ve evolved to a more collaborative approach, and this will be even more important in two years. You’ve got to influence across borders, and you can’t do that via dictate.

Mitchell: In three years, we’ll all have to think on a global level. The world is becoming a small place. Many of our clients and brands are crossing borders and becoming truly global. At the same time, you need deep understanding of the local markets and the ability to think about audiences in a local way.

Polansky: The maturation of the PR business on a global basis will continue. Those that have the global mindset will be rewarded. Multinational companies looking for growth aren’t looking to the United States, but many PR companies are still focusing on the United States. What we do for our senior leadership is the Weber Shandwick 10x10 program, where we send 10 midlevel managers and high-potential employees around the world, for their personal development and to bring more of a global viewpoint back to their offices.

6. A strong vision, with the ability to see what’s ahead

Today’s leaders believe that tomorrow’s leaders must share a strong vision for their followers, while seeing what’s coming next.

Marino: PR leaders will need one eye focused like a microscope on where their business is and where their people are right now, and the other eye like a telescope on what’s coming around the corner, at what’s next, like a new tool or a new digital application. It will be essential to correctly prognosticate what’s ahead and bring it back so you can act on it faster than the competition.

Atkins: We don’t know what demographic and technological changes will come, but the ability to look around the corner, and the ability to stay connected to your market (the talent market, the market for your products, regulatory, etc.) is critical. Leaders are out there talking to customers, to influencers, to government. It’s not about evangelizing; it’s about intelligence gathering.

Polansky: I think it’s more a function of business strategy, but you certainly need to surround yourself with vision. The firms that build the right talent pool now will be well prepared for the future. You’re building your business now for what you want it to be down the road.

7. The desire for personal growth and accelerated learning

The previous six points make clear that the leaders of the future must continually learn in order to succeed.

Stone: The attributes of a leader are timeless: powerful vision, impeccable character, strong work ethic, leading by example, thoughtful disposition and being opportunistic.

Every leader makes history in the present moment. Some will miss their moment, through distraction, complacency, laziness or lack of ability to adapt to changing times. The leader three years from now is the person who undertakes personal growth as a leader every day.

D’Angelo: It means an acceleration of learning. I was recently at a school of information technology and they were talking about careers that hadn’t even been invented yet. The premium for continual learning is going up and up and up. Be humble enough to be the perpetual student. 


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).


Samuel L. Waltz, Jr., APR, Fellow PRSA says:

Agreed, Ken, and What Else? is the question each of us is likely to ask when we've finished nodding agreement to the 7 in your article. CONTEXTUAL BUSINESS / ORGANIZATIONAL SAVVY & PERSPECTIVE almost seems intuitive, but I don't know that it is for many in our Profession. For Credibility within our Organizations and with our Clients, as well as for Quality Execution of our work, it's my impression that too many folks ignore the need to grow in that Business Savvy. When organizations talk about margins, or EBITDA, or IRR, or ROI, or a variety of other really critical business considerations, too often we nod knowingly (but really unknowingly to avoid displaying ignorance!). Many came to PR / Business Communication because we wanted to be in Business, but found our strengths more in Communications rather than in Finance or Engineering or Product Management or whatever. That's OK. That's perfectly OK. But it does NOT give us a Free Pass to evolve merrily in our careers without taking time to acquire that more contextual knowledge that allows and enables us to be more valuable as counselors and team players. Frankly, too, perhaps we as PRSA volunteers, or our sections, have some role or opportunity in this! Sam Waltz, APR, Fellow PRSA 1999 National President, PRSA

April 13, 2014

Ron Hill St.Hilaire says:

Well done... After reading this piece, the reality is the cross overs are all part of this visionary thinking. They are all important and in unity. All 7 areas have merit. Thanks for this overview. PR professionals need to read this!

April 14, 2014

Kenneth S. Jacobs says:

Thanks for your comments, Samuel and Ron. It's interesting to me that you (Sam)indicated that many came to PR to be in business, and then found our strengths in communications. In my experience, more come to the industry because of their interest in communications rather than business...and those who take the time to study and understand the business side(rather than just nod knowingly)do much better than those who never "get" the business side. Ron, I agree, these seven are definitely in unity. Thanks again.

April 16, 2014

Jennifer Sanders says:

I just have to say that I would like everyone I know who has aspirations of success to read this. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to realize that some skills that I take for granted should be properly acknowledged so that I may take myself seriously. This subject matter transcends the genre of PR, and I think, should be referred to for many current and future professional avenues. I found this piece to be incredibly uplifting and look forward to the newest wave, it's going to be fun...

April 16, 2014

Kenneth S. Jacobs says:

Jennifer, thanks so much for your comments, which made my day. Truth be told, there are great--and not so great leaders at PR agencies, and on the Corporate Communications side, at advertising and digital agencies, at accounting and law firms, at medical practices, and just about any type of organization you can name. To one of your points, if you take your work seriously, others will take you seriously, no matter your level.

April 18, 2014

Agi Schafer in Kansas City, MO says:

Ken: I guess I'm behind the times. I just happened on this article from 2014 and find it more relevant than ever before. I think this piece is a great foundation for a mini series for our chapter's Masters program -- targeted for seasoned professionals. Can you recommend any Kansas City speakers -- leaders who embody your top 7. Thanks. Agi Schafer, Kansas City, MO

June 28, 2016

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