Alex Stanton on Leadership Opportunities

June 27, 2018

Name: Alex Stanton

Current Status: CEO, Stanton

Location: New York

Career highlights: Helped grow Dorf & Stanton organically into one of the top independent PR agencies in North America, with six offices and 200 people. Now leading the third full-service communications firm of his career.

Favorite downtime activity: Riding hills (and dales) on my bike

Best place to travel: Cape Cod, Mass.

Any three dinner guests: Jimmy Carter, Steve Jobs and Christine Lagarde

Favorite film: “The In-Laws” 

Favorite book: “Real Leadership,” by John Maxwell

What are some of the greatest challenges you see facing PR agencies today?

Our perennial challenge is to demonstrate value to the C-suite and show the leaders of companies and organizations a clear path between effective public relations and their top and bottom lines. And that means using business and financial terms to communicate our plans and progress, as opposed to PR language that can leave management teams skeptical. Another ongoing (and sometimes epic) challenge is managing client expectations in an environment where we are increasingly conditioned to immediate gratification; and yet, the reality is, it takes years of thoughtful strategy and relentless execution to build a durable reputation.

At Columbia University, you taught a class titled “Becoming an Effective Communications Leader.” How do you achieve that?

Leadership opportunities are not given; they’re earned. It has been a long, hard path to get communications pros into the room when crucial issues are being debated and decisions are made, and not just when it’s time to release a statement to the media.

Communicators are wrong to assume that we — and the PR function — must be consulted because this is 2018 and that’s what happens. The truth is that professional communicators have only a temporary pass, and our importance and relevance must be earned every day by leading companies and organizations from the front. That means taking risks and confronting the tough issues.

What major media trends do you find the most and least encouraging?

I’m most encouraged by the rising popularity of legacy media outlets, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, among younger news consumers. These media brands and other leading outlets are adding digital subscribers at a good clip, and younger readers are demonstrating a willingness to pay for quality, even in the face of a nearly endless supply of free news content. In fact, the largest growth in U.S. subscribers paying for news content from 2016-2017 was among people aged 18-24, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Not only does this trend keep top media outlets financially viable, it also provides the resources to create new communication channels like video and podcasts.

I’m worried about the role that partisanship and technology are playing in creating a growing “surround sound” effect in media consumption. It is easy to filter out news and points-of-view you don’t like, and to create an echo chamber for yourself. This can make it difficult to reach audiences with new messages and to expose people to new ideas. And that’s never a good thing for communicators.

What career advice do you have for practitioners joining the PR profession today?

There are moments in time, and in every career, when positive and negative events present an opportunity to step up and really show your stuff. You can’t preplan these situations. But everything you do before they occur prepares you to shine in that moment. It’s vital to have a fundamental understanding of the business you work in or represent, and how it sells its product or service and makes money. That means getting out on the front lines with customers and influencers, and experiencing the sales and service process for yourself. This understanding will give you the tools to become a critical thinker about the opportunities and challenges ahead, and to emerge as a trusted communications problem solver over time.

What do you wish someone told you when you started in the agency world?

There’s no money or success (including results for clients) while you sleep. Many of the best opportunities in public relations come your way because you put yourself in a position to learn and have formative experiences. This is a challenging, hardworking profession made even more intense (and interesting and exciting) by the 24/7 news cycle, the proliferation of credible (and not) media outlets, and the changing dynamics in the marketing communications industry.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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