Characteristics of Excellent PR Leaders

What are the most important characteristics of excellent leaders in public relations? Integrity, commitment, dedication and curiosity are a handful of the qualities public relations professionals use to describe excellent leaders in our profession.

ALICIA THOMPSON: So there are a couple of key qualities, in my mind, that make excellent leaders in public relations. Again, first and foremost is integrity. We have to be seen as honest. Second is a constant curiosity, and a willingness to constantly learn and challenge yourself. Third, would be a commitment to excellence and delivering a brilliant work product for the client. And finally would be a courage to do the right thing.

DR. NILANJANA BARDHAN: I think there are three or four qualities that are necessary to be a good public relations leader. I would say number one is to be a really good student of human nature, because we work with different kinds of people, and we are in the work of building relationships with different kinds of peoples and publics. So it is really important to understand that human beings are very complicated and diverse and we have to understand and not judge differences. That is one thing. The second thing I think is to be able to stay calm and composed in times of crisis, in order to come up with good solutions and, especially in the PR world, that is something we have to be really good at. And thirdly, I think a peer leader has to be a lifelong learner and keep growing and never say stop learning and I know everything there is to know about being a good leader.

PAT FORD: Having the core values that really are exemplified in the page principles and some other leadership mattress in our business. Be honest. Be forthright. Be engaging with your stakeholders and I think especially understanding what the full dimensions of communications really are. It’s not just about how we frame things to say them the right way. It’s great listening and understanding of the full dimensions of the mission of whatever our organization is, whether it’s a company, an educational institution, a non-profit organization, a government agency. What is that mission? What are the values of that organization? And how can we best exemplify them in both words and deeds?

KEVIN SAGHY: Some qualities of excellent leaders in people in PR, first of all, I think they need to be big picture thinkers because everything we do impacts the organization’s reputation that we work on. So, to have that big picture in mind and everything that we do in the day-to-day can impact that larger picture. Then to think strategically on how to implement a day-to-day to reach those goals. I think in PR we work very hard so you have to have a strong work ethic. You need to be truthful, honest, and then you have to listen because we have to work with all of our different colleagues, different functions, as well as our own team. So, we really have to process information before we act on it.

JULIA HOOD: Important qualities and characteristics of people in PR are that they understand business, that they are courageous, and that they are authentic, and that they convey trust, and create trust, and build trust with their stakeholders.

RICK LOOSER: I think to be an excellent leader in public relations, you have to possess a few qualities that are universal. I think, first of all, you have to be curious. You have to want to know more than just the facts you’re given. You’ve got to want to know why, and how. And you got to make sure that somebody’s has convinced you of those before you’re satisfied. I also think you have to be I think you have to be enthusiastic, in public relations to be a real leader. I think probably the most important is that you have to have a passion. I think you have to have a passion for, from the agency side, for the clients you represent. From the corporate side, I think you have to have a passion for your product. You have to have a passion for your employees, your process. I think you have to have a compassion in all those for your competitors. To know who you’re up against, and to know what you’ve got to do to succeed; to know what you’ve got to do to be better than them. I know there’s the textbook answers which I’ll talk about process and other parts of it and I think we’re not talking about even being a leader if you don’t have that now. So to me it is, I think you got to have a passion for knowledge and then just a passion to do good work.

MARIA RUSSELL: I think to be a leader in public relations, the person has to be smart, but smart enough to know what they don’t know and constantly be looking for ways to improve themselves, smart enough to bring smart people around them including interns. I think perseverance is another trait of a leader in public relations. Being challenged, but not giving up in that challenge. I think the person should have great self-confidence, they should be self-assured and they should be articulate and well spoken. I think curiosity is one of those innate traits that really helps the public relations person. Why does this happen, why have we always done it this way? Why can’t we do it a different way and finally, I think they are ethical practitioners, they trust others and they themselves are trustworthy.

BETSY PLANK: I think excellent leaders in public relations have first of all that kind of understanding that they are part of a respected tradition of the democratic process. Secondly, I think they have a desire to bring people and organizations and their constituencies together. And help them respect one another, even though they may not agree on some basic issues. I also think that a public relations leader is characterized by being a good listener as well as a writer, as well as a speaker, and as well as a persuader. So, listening is very much part of the work in a public relations leader. And beyond that, and beyond one’s professional responsibilities. I see great leaders in public relations as people who understand that they have a commitment beyond their practice to society at large. As I want to say, you can seldom scratch a civic, or cultural, or non-profit enterprise, and that you won’t find public relations people on the board or on the volunteer roster. And I think that doesn’t happen by accident. They, public relations people, have a desire to be part of the fabric of a community. And so, they were very much involved with that community over and beyond their daily desk.

T.R. REID: I think the leaders in public relations have to define some qualities that are relatively specific to what we do. One of them is knowing what the outcome we want to achieve on behalf of an organization is ahead of the what we’re going to do. It’s pretty easy in public relations, perhaps in other disciplines. I’ll have to take the word of others for that, haven’t spent my entire career in PR. But it’s easy to get distracted by the things we’re doing rather than why we’re doing them. And if you start with the outcome that you want to achieve, and work back from there, and then use that as your guide all along the way to see whether or not you’re successful. Then I think would be massively more effective on behalf of the organization. In the moment and over time I think there are behavioral characteristics too that are very important. One of them is maintaining a calm, at least projecting a calm and a competent demeanor as you go about your work. There’s a real opportunity for public relations professionals to pretty deeply assert themselves as critical to an organization when things aren’t going so well. And when we’re effective in those moments I think that has huge implications for the degree to which organizations rely on us all of the time.

JOHN REED: All the ones I have known, and I’ve known a lot of them. They’ve been characterized by two things, hard work I mean it’s pretty corny to say, but the good performance in PR, hard workers and like it and enjoy their work, and luck. Luck is that intangible that helps a lot. I’ve known some well-trained PR people who’ve failed because they had some bad luck. Fate. Kismet, whatever you want to call it. So, good training plus good luck.

DR. BRUCE BERGER: I think the most important qualities of excellent leaders in public relations really have grown out of research that we’ve done through The Plank Center in recent years. We’ve identified probably a half dozen what we call dimensions of excellent leadership. They’re things like self-insight, self-awareness, which includes visioning power and interpersonal skills, a strong ethical orientation, relationship building capabilities, team collaboration, strategic decision-making capabilities. Those are some of the most important dimensions of excellent leadership in public relations.

RON CULP: I think you start with experience, which is essential, obviously. So some time working within the profession. And then I think, two would be patience. A lot of patience, which you get through the experience. And then, a sense of humor. In patience, I’d probably also include, in that, the ability to listen.

BILL HEYMAN: I believe that a person’s ability to develop relationships inside an organization so they have the support that they need to do the things that they want to do are important. Probably, though, before that, is a person’s integrity or oftentimes we call also their courage, which is, we’re big on how good are people at pushing back when they’re asked things? How good are they at delivering bad news? So I think the integrity and the courage piece than their relationship piece. And probably as much as anything is their ability to support the people that work for them so that it’s not a big ego thing. They’re not taking a lot of the, they know how to share the spotlight if you will.

JACK FELTON: I think truths would have to be number one. Integrity, you have to be trusted. And if you’re trusted by the CEO, by the financial officer, and the other people, and by the employees, then you have a much better chance of getting your communications through. I think you also have to be someone who keeps digging. Perseverance is part of the job, too. I think a lot of PR people give up too easily when someone says no. And I think sometimes you need to come back again and say, but what about, or how about, and keep trying. Persevering is really, I think, a part of what we do. And the other thing is a sense of responsibility. You’re in charge of projecting the image of an organization. And you have a responsibility that you better feel you carry, and feel it’s really an important part of your job.

JOHN PALUSZEK: We share these qualities with leaders in other fields but, nevertheless, I think they are quite applicable to public relations. First of all, I think it was President Ronald Reagan, who said, a good leader should know what his or her constituents want, which goes to the fact of listening very creatively, directly to the people that you’re leading, but also to the way in which society is evolving, etc. And the second thing he said was, in addition to knowing what people want, you need to know what they need. And that goes again to the vision aspect in terms of formulating what are the important elements. What are the important objectives and opportunities as well as challenges that exist in the public relations fields, for example. Now, I’ve tried to do that currently in terms of expanding our field and its vision globally and in terms of corporate social responsibility. And I’m finding that there is a growing acceptance of those kinds of opportunities and challenges for public relations people.

MARILYN LAURIE: I think I’d have to start with knowledge. That if you bring a knowledge of the business or the nonprofit that you’re in, but I’m talking operational knowledge, deep knowledge, the kind of knowledge that puts you shoulder-to-shoulder with the people who are running whatever institution we’re talking about. And knowledge of the issues, knowledge of the constituencies that are outside the organization that affect the organization, some experience with problem-solving. If you bring that kind of knowledge to the table, I think you start off in a strong leadership position. Secondly, I would say, maybe even first, integrity. If you are perceived to be speaking authentically from your own set of values, if what you are doing is based on what is really true, as opposed to perhaps what people would like to think is true, or wish were true. If you talk from a base of truth and honest values, and personal integrity, and don’t wishy-washy around in terms of what is true and you have conviction about it, then I think that’s the second thing that’s critical aspect. Third, I would say that the unique thing the PR person brings to the table is the outside view. My career, for example, was very much based on being what I call an insider-outsider. So, the capacity to identify with and care about the institution, the company, the cause, but not so much that you are so captured by it, that you forget what the broad outside public is thinking about it. What your opponents think about it. What people of various interests think about it. So that you can bring that to the table. That is absolutely crucial. And I guess if I thought of one more it would be guts. If you need the courage to stand up for what you think needs to be done, what the solution is, what the option is, if you don’t have that you’ll get crushed by the operating people who have their own very often narrow view of what is required.

HAROLD BURSON: I think a broad knowledge base is one of the first. Perhaps even more important is an ability to get along with all kinds of people, and an adaptability to all kinds of situations. I think one must be intuitive, one must be curious, one must be committed. I think a person must be energetic, entrepreneurial. All of those qualities.

DR. ROCHELLE FORD: I think one is humility, that you have to have a humble servant’s heart and that’ll go a long way versus someone who has an outstanding ego. Because again, the best public relations people are the rainmakers behind the scenes. In addition to that, I think transparency is critical, that you have to be open and honest. And that goes into the third principle of honesty, honesty is the best policy. You learn these simple things when you were a kid, to be open and to be honest. And that’s a key to a public relations leader’s characteristics.

OFIELD DUKES: One is having a progressive and clear vision and second is a strategic plan of action and number three is being able to take the initiative and having the courage of one’s convictions to proceed and implement whatever plan of vision you have. And the last is being productive, leadership really demands positive results.

KEITH BURTON: Excellent leadership, in my opinion, starts with listening. I’ve long believed, and that’s when I first moved into my role in 1991 with a great organization Ketchum Public Relations. I learned early on in my work, that the people I worked with and served within this agency, had things to say to me that I didn’t always hear. And so, I went off as a part of my work with the Center for Creative Leadership and participated in a 360-degree review in which I heard their feedback. I actively asked for it and heard it. And they told me things that I really needed to know about how I lead, and how I could be more effective in that leadership. And I’ve tried to practice through the years, great listening, number one. Believing in a consistent set of core values, that really help to guide in what I do and to be accomplished in that respect, those two things were important. But also executing in a way that is consistent, so that people see you living out as values and doing the things that you tell them are important, yet really walk the walk in those values rather than just walking tall.

GARY MCCORMICK: I think it goes back to those values. I think that they definitely bring to the table a feeling, an empathy, for their audiences, an understanding of how the communications, and the company, are going to impact the community. And all of those audiences, and, I think, bringing that leadership to the business leader, who is also looking at the bottom line, helps bridge those two, for a better success overall.

DR. DIANA MARTINELLI: Excellent leaders in the public relations field have actually been identified through research that The Plank Center has sponsored, global research that’s identified about six different public relations leader dimensions, including an organizational dimension. But to me, out of those six dimensions, really, I believe the most important would be an ethical orientation, team collaboration, strategic decision making, and relationship building.

BRIDGET COFFING: When you’re looking at leadership in public relations and the qualities that are really needed, I think one of the primary things is to be a great listener. The reality is we need to be data and fact based, we need to be informed. We need to know what’s actually happening and what people are thinking. So to listen and to listen with understanding. I think you need to be empathetic. I think you have to be able to take that data, take that information and humanize it. So empathy and understanding that it’s about people. And then third, in terms of leadership and public relations and qualities, I think a bias for action. Folks aren’t looking, I don’t believe, for perfection. But, they’re looking for action and effort. So, I think a combination of those three really epitomizes some of the qualities that are part of the magic mix for a PR professional.

DR. BRYAN REBER: I think three or four of the most important characteristics, I tied into my definition there, but I would say first of all, emotional intelligence. Second, the ability to push back when necessary, to try to help an organization see things that it might not normally see, and then I think the third is the listening component, being able to really listen, and put words into action. Strategies are involved in that, too, of course.

JOANNE BISCHMANN: The most important leadership qualities, in my opinion are, integrity and honesty, which is part of integrity. Curiosity is probably an undervalued trait in leadership, always thinking about what could be, not what is. Being collaborative, having relationships and knowing how to build relationships is the hands-down key to having strong leadership.