Plank Legends & Leaders: Andre Taylor

Andre Taylor is a retiree from Alabama Gas corporation based in Birmingham, Alabama. In his most recent position as Vice President of Communications, Andre was responsible for planning and directing Alagasco’s employee and customer communications efforts along with along with their community affairs activities. A native of Mobile, Alabama Andre is a graduate of the University of Alabama with a degree in Journalism.

In 1989, he was awarded the University of Alabama School of Communications Outstanding Alumni Award in Advertising and Public Relations. Andre is also a Vietnam veteran and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He currently serves on the boards of the Lakeshore Foundation, McWane Science Center, and the Alabama Veterans Memorial Foundation.

At the University of Alabama, Andre is a member of the board of visitors of the College of Communication and Information Sciences, a member of the President’s Cabinet, a board member of the Capstone Foundation and is a past president of the University of Alabama National Alumni Association.

Define what leadership in public relations means to you.

>> I would say, leadership in public relations to me means being the chief change agent within an organization.

Since it’s our function to manage an organization’s reputation, we really should take a hard look at how that reputation is being perceived and adjust the perceptions of people the best way we can to make sure that the reputation is perceived in the manner that the organization wants. A lot of times, organizations have processes, practices, and programs, and ways of doing business.

That effect the reputation and if you’re not on top of how that perception is occurring then you are not really presenting the best reputation possible. So I think a PR person should be on top of those perceptions and then coming back in the organization and advocating changes where necessary.

What are the most important qualities of excellent leaders in public relations?

>> I would say that one of the most important is the ability to build relationships. Because it is all about relationships when you talk about public relations. And not only externally with those key stakeholders and customers and others that can externally affect your business or reputation. But also, internally.

Really making sure that the organization’s strategic vision, for example, is aligned with those programs and practices and policies that I spoke of earlier so I would say the other characteristic was Would be the ability to align. But also just being in the position to really, really monitor what an organization’s vision is and then how that vision is going to be affected by changes.

We know, we’re right now in the situation in this country where the economy has allowed people to coin the term, the new normal. So I think it’s really important that PR people have the ability to understand what the new normal means. Both externally and internally.

What factors most lead to your personal success?

>> One of the things was I kept learning. It wasn’t like I ever got to a point where I thought I knew it all. And the another one would be that after a while I was willing to get out of my comfort zone. When you first get into the PR business, you tend to become a little myopic and what you think you should be doing.

And one of the mistakes I think a lot of people make is that they become specialists in one area. But if you really want to be a leader, then you really should get out there and get out of your comfort zone, take on different assignments. And look for other things to do within an organization, to really round yourself out.

Quite honestly, I got into, my degrees in journalism. So I got into public relations primarily by getting into an organization and taking on different roles. And then, from there got more over into the PR side of the business.

What’s been the most powerful learning experience?

>> The most powerful learning experience I had was when I had to go through a 360-degree feedback situation. And what that means is I had to pick a subordinate’s peers and people who were higher rank than I was in the organization and say. I want you to fill out this form and essentially tell me how I’m doing in a number of different areas. So when you get feedback from people and you put it up against how you are perceiving yourself and how you are perceiving the type of job and how well you’re performing.

When you get other people’s perception and you try to match them up, it’s not always a comfortable experience, quite honestly. But what it did for me was, it really gave me the opportunity to say, now if I’m not aligned properly what I really need to do is find ways deal with those weaknesses as we might describe them and work on them in, in order to make sure that, that I am perceived the way I think I need to be perceived.

And then, also the way that will help me get where I really want to go. And along with that, another way of saying that somewhat is that it was when I realized that the skills that had gotten me where I was were not necessarily going to be the skills to get me where I wanted to go.

So all of that sort of came together and that’s when I said you know I got to do something about this. And one of the things I did was I took responsibility for my own personal development. I got out there and kept learning, look for ways to overcome perceived weaknesses and build on the strengths that I had already accumulated over the years.

Name one individual you believe to be the most outstanding leader in the field.

>> Well, the one historical figure that immediately comes to mind is Betsy Plank. I met Betsy just several years ago. I had not known her for a long period of time. But after being around Betsy and really understanding what she had done in this industry, she was it. And the reason we’re doing this interview is because of Betsy and perception that, as PR people we really, really should see ourselves as leaders.

And accept that as a responsibility and do whatever it takes to become leaders. Not just PR leaders but leaders within the organizations that we’re working. And it was towards the end of my career that I started getting and understand of being what it meant to be a leader and now how important it was to be a leader. Again, especially how that row can and does affect an organization’s reputation.

Do you think that leadership values are different in public relations than in other fields?

>> No, I really don’t. I think that the basic skills and values of any leader are going to be the same. Now how they are used are going to be different, depending upon the organization. But when you get right down to it, I think the same skills and values of a leader are pretty much going to be the same.

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

>> No, again, I think there’s some basic things that all leaders have and that again is just going to depend on the organizations. Is going to depend on the organization to teach ignition, it’s mission, how they set up their programs, processes, and practices. So it is just going to very as the organization vary.

What can new public relations professionals do to develop their leadership skills?

>> One of the things that I see is sort of a common thread among leaders is they have a diversity of experience. Is something about having done a number of different things that gives you a sense of what it takes to really be able to deal with any type of obstacle.

So I would say one of the first, for a new person is look to broaden the skills as much as possible. If you’re working in an organization and you are going to be put in a box to do, say, just put out the company newspaper, well volunteer for one where you might have to do something else. But because I really came to understand the value in having a set of diverse experiences, and how valuable those really can be in the long run.

Can university professors do anything to help public relations students develop their leadership skills?

>> Yes, most definitely. One of the first things they can do is to give students tough assignments. Make sure that they are challenged so that they really, really begin to learn perhaps what their strengths and weaknesses are.

So it is very, very important to give them tough assignments. Number two, give them team assignments because they are going to have to work in teams wherever they go. So they really need that ability to be able to work well with others, which is so with common terms.

So make sure that they do have opportunities to work in a team and then I think the instructors need to give kids honest, hard feedback. Tell them what their strengths are, tell them what their weaknesses are. Give them an opportunity to work on their weaknesses so that once they do leave here they are prepared to walk in the door and take off.

Can leadership be taught?

>> I think leadership really can be taught. I really do. Like I said, once I went through that 360-degree feedback situation in my career I really began to understand elements that I needed to work on in order to be a leader and be perceived as a leader.

What can the profession do to develop new leaders?

>> It’s as simple as keep talking about it. It’s one of those things you can’t aspire to something if you don’t know what it is you need to aspire to. So I think just talking about leadership in the profession is the first step, and it’s importance and why it’s important to individuals. I really think is the first step and then what we’re doing here at The Plank Center is the other.

Taking a look at what are those elements. How are they currently working? Because they, it’s out there already, we do have leaders out there already. So I think about taking a look at what has helped them become leaders within their organization and bringing that information back and then sharing that with others is a big step in developing that leadership within the profession.

Was there an instance where someone’s leadership caused a significant change to be made?

>> The company that I worked for had sort of an old-fashioned way of doing business. And I saw a leader coming to that organization and affect a cultural change that was just unbelievable. And it is still, that culture change still has effects today throughout the organization, even though that leader is gone.

So, in fact, they came down to getting people to understand that this organization has a vision. This organization has a set of values. Now what we will going to is we’re going to make sure that those values and visions come together. And that’s how we are going to be perceived both internally and externally.

But it was just the way he came in, the type of leader that he was. He was open, he wanted feedback from employees as well as customers. He set hard goals and objectives for the organization but at the same time, people were given feedback on how where we were doing towards achieving that vision as well. So it was quite an experience to see a real leader come in and affect an organization in that type of way.

Is there one book on leadership you’d recommend to young professionals?

>> One of my favorite books on leadership is the Secrets of Leadership of Colin Powell and is written by a fellow named Harari, I forget his first name right off hand. But it’s an easy read, so that’s why I would recommend it, to young professionals. But Colin Powell is just one of my personal heroes as well and that’s the book I would just recommend right off the top of my head for anyone to go out and read.

What are the most crucial issues facing the industry today?

>> It is still the perception of what we do and what we’re supposed to be doing I think is the primary crucial affecting our profession right now I think in a lot of organizations is undervalued.

And is undervalued perhaps because we don’t get into these organizations and take on that leadership role. That we tend to be reactionary, according to how people perceive us. One of the first things in the Colin Powell book is, one of his first secrets is, he says, it’s okay to piss people off. And I think PR people need to have that courage to tell folks here’s how it really is and so I think the still the real crucial issue is how we are perceived and undervalue within the organizations.

Do you think the profession has greater legitimacy than 20 years ago?

>> Yes, I do. I think that over that period of time we have shown our value and worth in a lot of different ways. So I think if you compare it, we have grown in terms of our value and worth and how we’re perceived. But I think in most organizations though we still have a very, very long way to go.

What is your advice for students in public relations just entering the profession?

>> Once you get into an organization, first of all, know the business. Know how that organization makes its money, if it’s a nonprofit, know how it measures its success, know the business. The second thing is to know that organization’s vision. And again, as I mentioned earlier, know its values. And really get to make sure that the values and visions actually do match up because in our profession that’s our job as I say it to really be able to communicate that.

And one of the thing in a sort of You don’t get to it right away, but it’s important to keep this in your mind. And that is while you are managing an organization’s reputation, you’re also managing yours, and you really need to understand that from day one.

When looking at hiring an entry level professional, what factors would you weigh most heavily in your decision making?

>> First thing is the ability to write. Because you’re going to find that most entry level jobs and in public relations, that is important. You’re going to walk in there and you’re going to have to be able to write. Second thing would be strong interpersonal skills, how you get along with people, and how you present yourself. And then, how you really manage your own reputation.

Those are key elements and the other one that’s been mentioned earlier. Also, would be a diverse background. If you’re coming straight out of school, I want you to be able to tell me, well I worked on this campaign, and on this campaign. I managed the copywriting on this campaign.

I managed the media relations on this campaign, and on this campaign, I managed this. Just a broad, base experience to show a broad level of skills.

Recorded: December 2012