Plank Legends & Leaders: Alicia Thompson


Alicia Thompson, APR, has more than 20 years of experience developing and implementing marketing, corporate and crisis/issues management communications strategy and programs for privately held and publicly traded companies and agencies. She currently serves as vice president of communications of Edible Arrangements.

Define what leadership in public relations means to you.

>> Leadership in public relations to me means you are providing the teams that you work with and support all the guidance they need, a vision for where we’re going to go, and how we’re going to get there. And most importantly, the support they need to actually deliver what we need to deliver, either for our client if we’re on the agency side or for our company if we’re inside a corporate in-house position.

What are three or four most important characteristics or qualities of excellent leaders in public relations?

>> 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.

As a recognized leader in the field, what factors most contributed to your personal success?

>> So I think some of the things that have contributed to my success in the field have truly been integrity, doing what I say I will do, and actually following through. If you can deliver on those things and people know exactly what to expect from you, then you can be considered, I would guess, a leader in the field.

What’s the most powerful learning experience you encountered with respect to leadership in the field?

>> So the most powerful learning that I’ve had or experience I’ve had that reflected leadership in the field was the opportunity to work for a wonderful leader, Cheryl Bachelder. She’s the CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. And when she came into the company, she was the third CEO in three years, a female in a very male-dominated industry. And even though she wasn’t an operator, she had to win over the trust of franchisees who have invested their life savings and their children’s education in a restaurant. And her ability to win them over by trust, integrity and a commitment to their success was something that I have packed away in my toolbox and hopefully deliver every day.

Name one individual whom you believe to be the most outstanding leader in the field today. What makes this individual such an outstanding leader?

>> I think one of the most outstanding leaders in the field today is Richard Edelman, our CEO, our global CEO. Richard is like his father, very much a trailblazer. And they are constantly looking for ways to innovate our industry and push us all just that much further so that we can continue to evolve the field. And so I would say for sure for me and the industry he is definitely a leader today.

In your view, is there a historical figure who exemplified outstanding leadership in the field? Why?

>> There are two men that I think exemplified leadership in the industry in the past. Of course, Dan Edelman, our founder, because he created and has continued to operate as an independently owned family run company, something that is unheard of. But he created such a foundation and a legacy that we continue today. And secondly would be Ofield Dukes, he was a professor. He was the founder in many ways of African American public relations industry. And so I think both of them in our own right truly, truly are legends in the industry.

Do you think that leadership skills and values in public relations are different in any way from those in other professions? If so, how and why?

>> So I don’t believe there are any significant differences around leadership in both the public relations industry and general business community. However, I think what does set public relations leadership apart is that we often have to advise business leaders about leadership and how it’s going to be perceived in the marketplace. And so in that respect, I think we have to have a much deeper understanding of how leadership is perceived in the community. And we have to be able to then share that and teach that with our clients.

Do the requirements of public relations leadership vary by type of organization?

>> I think the requirements for public relations leadership vary slightly by organization, be it agency, corporate, nonprofit, simply because of the stakeholders that you’re dealing with.

Be it a client, it’s going to be slightly different than if you’re counseling a CEO which is going to be slightly different if you are counseling volunteers for a nonprofit. So although the tenets, the core tenets of leadership remain the same, how they are implemented and acted out I think varies very greatly based on your stakeholders.

What can a new public relations professional do to begin to develop the kinds of leadership characteristics and skills that you described?

>> So I think new young professionals coming into the industry as it relates to developing their leadership skills should first and foremost become students of leadership. I think we do a tremendous job of developing managers. But people need to understand the difference between the two for themselves and then start to become students and so that they can recognize good leaders and start to emulate them.

What can university educators do to help public relations students develop important leadership skills and values?

>> Educators in the university system can help their students to develop their leadership skills by encouraging them to get involved in organizations on campus where they can start to experience what leadership is. They can start to be expected to act and behave like a leader, and they can start to cultivate those skill sets, especially working with organizations but also in things like internships.

Do you think that leadership can be taught or is it inherited?

>> I think leadership is actually a combination of an inherent, you’re born with it, and then it’s developed over time. I think there are some people that are natural-born leaders. They have just this core essence of who they are that’s tied to integrity, that’s tied to doing the right thing, that’s tied to always thinking about what’s in the best interest of others. And then they can cultivate that to become even better leaders by figuring out and learning how to bring that to life in the workplace.

What can the profession do to help new practitioners, or those with experience in the field, develop greater leadership skills?

>> So I don’t know that I think there’s a deficit of leaders in the public relations field. I think we have a lot of people that have the natural skill set, but it’s not necessarily one of those softer skills, so to speak, that is highlighted in our industry. So I think we as an industry as a whole need to start to embellish what leaders bring to the table. And then we can start to help cultivate those leaders and make them more recognizable, and thus people want to emulate them.

Can you think of an instance where someone’s leadership made a difference in resolving an issue, or causing a significant change to be made, or inspiring a group, or introducing a new program?

>> Recently I saw leadership in action when the incidents happened in Orlando with the shooting at the nightclub. And then two days later there was an incident at a Walt Disney World property where a two-year-old lost his life due to an alligator attack. I saw one of the leaders within my organization very quickly mobilize a team to be on site to provide our assistance as a global agency to the city of Orlando, to the mayor’s office, to the police force, to whoever would need communications expertise or support. And this one individual helped to galvanize a community in a way that I’ve not quite seen in the past. And what was also neat about it, inspired others in the organization to not only help in that situation but to be a beacon in the city. To help galvanize and unify all of the various constituents and bring them together in a way that has significantly made a difference in helping the city heal.

What’s the one best book on leadership you would recommend to young professionals?

>> So there’s an amazing book out right now that I would recommend to young professionals about leadership. And it’s called Grit, The Passion, and Perseverance of Success. And I think for leaders, even though I didn’t note those as specific skill sets, I think perseverance and a passion and strong sense of what we do is critical to developing leadership skills in this industry. So I would say Grit is my new book, and it’s something that’s light, an easy read for young professionals. And it’s not 140 characters, but yet it can still be enjoyed.

What are 2-3 most crucial issues confronting the public relations profession today?

>> A couple of critical issues I think that are facing our industry and professionals in our industry today I think are, first and foremost, the quickness with which we are constantly evolving.

We are no longer just public relations professionals. We are expected to know digital. We are expected to know social crisis issues. Gone are the days of just writing a great press release or a speech. So the pace at which things are changing, I find, is very difficult for public relations professionals and the industry itself just to keep up with. The second issue I think or challenge we’re facing is the convergence of all of the different practices under the marketing umbrella. So advertising, marketing, communications, public relations, the lines are blurring. So how do we constantly define who we are and what we do in a way that our internal clients and our external clients understand? And finally, I would say the constant challenge to this industry is the perception of a lack of integrity, might we say. That we are spin doctors. And that now that we finally have a seat at the table, that we are seen as counselors to C-suite is constantly making sure that that perception continues to diminish and that we are constantly bringing value to our clients.

Does the profession have greater legitimacy today than it did 20 years ago? Why or why not?

>> So I think the profession has more legitimacy and credibility than it did 20 years ago because we’ve constantly involved. We’re no longer just public relations which has had a very negative perception many, many years ago. I think now that we’ve earned our seat at the table and we are seated at the right hand of the C-suite executives, we’re helping them with issues management. And we’re helping them specifically with reputation management. I think we certainly have overcome that. We still have a ways to go. But we’ve certainly made progress.

What’s your best advice about a career in public relations to students just entering the work world?

>> My best advice to a student or a young professional entering the public relations field would be to have a strong passion for what we do. It seems glamorous on the outside sometimes, it’s not always. It’s a roll up your sleeves and just get the job done kind of, sometimes thankless, position. But when you can reflect on what you’ve done, when you’ve helped a company manage its reputation from a negative to a positive, or you’ve done a product recall that has helped to enlighten parents on safety issues. Then those are the days you go home and you go, what I do actually is having an impact and making a difference.

If you were hiring an entry-level public relations professional in your organization today, what factors would weigh most heavily in your decision making?

>> So when hiring the entry level positions in our company, there’s a couple of things I look for. First, is going to seem really odd, but it’s, I call it fire in the belly. More than competency, more than an ability to write well, I want somebody that has a fire in the belly. They have a passion for it, they want to do it, they are persistent. And they are really ready to dig in and get the job done. Second would be strong writing skills. I cannot reinforce how strongly we need good writers in this industry. Though what we write has definitely changed, and we are more content delivery people now. I think writing is by far the second skill set that would be important on the top of the list. And the third would be a great work ethic. We are not necessarily an 8:30 to 5:30 kind of industry. And so we need to look for people that are willing to put in the hours knowing that there’s a payoff at the end.

What habits in your daily routine strengthen your leadership skills?

>> The habits, I think, in my daily routine that strengthen my leadership skills are first and foremost I do a walk around every morning. I have 120 employees in my office. I walk around the office usually around 9, 9:30, make sure they’re all there. And I actually ask them, how was your day? How was your weekend? What are you working on? I let them know that I’m interested in what they’re doing. And nobody wants to quote unquote, follow someone that they don’t think has their best interest at heart. So for me, that’s the first thing I do. The second thing is I spend a lot of time doing things like quarterly business reviews. Because I also want to understand the business climate, the clients, their needs, so that I can help my teams deliver the best outputs possible.

My leadership tip is…

>> My leadership tip is to never stop learning. Always be a life-long learner. Never assume that you know all there is to know about any one particular thing.

My mentorship is…

>> My mentorship tip is to remember that it’s reciprocal. Your mentor is learning just as much from you as you are from them. So don’t get caught up in my mentor has to be older than me, my mentor has to be in a more senior role because the best mentorship relationships you both are learning.

My networking tip is…

>> My networking tip is if you’re not working your net, your net is not working. Having a laundry list or a Rolodex full names that you never reach out to, that you never engage other than when you need something is not networking.

Every leader is…

>> Every leader is a work in progress. Leadership is not something that you can declare that you’re done and put it on a business card. It is something that we constantly work towards and aspire to every day.

The lesson that took you the longest to learn…

>> The lesson that took me the longest to learn was patience, and I am still a work in progress on that one. But in our industry things don’t often move as quickly as we would like them to. So being patient and waiting for the right opportunity is something that I am still continuing to work on.

Recorded: July 2016

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