Plank Legends & Leaders: Ann Barkelew


Ann Barkelew, APR, fellow PRSA, is an outstanding public relations leader who has received numerous honors during her 35-year career with corporations, agencies, and non-profits. She was named Public Relations Professional of the year by her peers and recognized as one of the most influential women in business in Minnesota.

She also has received the Distinguished Service Award from the Arthur W Page Society and a lifetime achievement award from the FleishmanHillard Agency, where she holds the position of Senior Counselor. Prior to joining the agency, Barkelew was Vice President of Corporate Relations for Dayton Hudson Corporation, which is now the Target Corporation.

Before moving to the private sector in 1981, Barkelew held the title of Chief Public Relations Officer for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. She began her career as a high school English and Journalism teacher and a school administrator in the Missouri and California school systems. Like many successful Public Relations leaders, Barkelew has made a point to never forget her community.

She currently serves on the boards of the Minnesota News Council, Vocal Essence, American Red Cross, Big Brothers Big Sisters and is on the University of Minnesota’s Intercollegiate Athletics Advisory Committee. She also previously served two terms on the Minneapolis Club Board of Governors, and three years on the Board of Directors of the United Way of Minneapolis.

Define what leadership in public relations means to you.

>> Leaders in public relations are smart. They’re creative, they’re very passionate, they have a purpose, they’re not afraid to go outside boundaries. They’re people that want to see something grow. They want to see something change. So they’re very committed to bringing people together, to being collaborative, to making change happen.

What factors most contributed to your success?

>> I believe that I can attribute a lot of what I’ve been able to achieve in my career to the fact that I started in the public sector. I started where you had to do everything. You have to learn to run a mimeograph machine, and you had to be a writer.

You had to setup your own interviews. You had to learn to do everything. And I think developing generalist skills, most of the really great leaders that I know today, and that I have come to know over the years, are people who can do everything, who have that very broad based generalist approach to public relations.

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

>> Probably facing crisis creates the biggest learning experience. And a great learning experience for me was, happened in the non-profit world. As a volunteer, I was the chairman of the board, well not immediately, but I was named to the board of a theater in Minnesota, where that founding artistic director had been accused of abusing young boys.

And this really rocked the community and as it should. And people called for shutting the theater down. And we had to mobilize. We had to go to corporations, we had to work in terms of having parents understand and the artists and really helping the community understand you don’t want to throw this thing away.

And to see what public relations, that kind of program, it was clear and simple. A public relations program to make sure people understood, that make sure people understood the facts to try to keep the county attorney from indicting the world and to see what happened. And then to realize that ten years later, that theater won a regional Tony.

Whom do you believe to be the most outstanding public relations leader in the field today?

>> My great role model in public relations was Patrick Jackson. And I think what made Patrick so great and what made his impact on our fields so enormous, is the fact that he was always pushing. He was never content to have things be the way they were. There was always a new way to do something.

He absolutely knew no boundaries. He was at home working with government officials or counseling Presidents or working in a corporation or working with the school people, non-profit sector. I mean he simply and his enthusiasm for what we do in public relations just made you sign on as a true believer.

You wanted to commit your life to the cause of public relations. So I think that that kind of leader, where you have followers, I think here at the University of Alabama, the Betsy Plank Program. I mean, Betsy, is that kind of leader. She inspires senior professionals to give time to students.

She sort of shames you into realizing that you owe a great deal to make sure the profession stays strong.

Do you believe that leadership skills in public relations are different from leadership skills in other professions?

>> I think yes, I think learning to be more collaborative, learning to work with other disciplines so that you can speak their language. I think when I first went into corporate America, I reported to the Vice Chairman of a very big corporation.

All the organizational heads of the corporation reported to the vice chairman. And because he was the head of administration for the corporation. And he did not understand at all the power of a news release or what would happen when the media picked up on a story. He just knew he wanted to see the end result, but he didn’t understand really what went into it.

And I tried in my old English teacher, good PR person kind of way to explain to him, but it was until I began to speak his language that he really understood. And I put the news release on a matrix, and I identified the key messages of the news release, and then I, across the matrix, we put them the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Delaware, all these things and then put little check marks beside it.

And I sent it up to him with print outs and a wire stories and all and he came into my office and he said Ann, this is wonderful. This is wonderful. So I think, public relations people, it’s sort the old when you’re trying to speak Chinese or, you need to learn to speak to talk in a way that, in a language and terminology that people in other disciplines can understand what we do.

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

>> It requires some different things of you. In a public sector, you are always dealing constantly in the court of public opinion. You have to be much more involving. You have to be sure that people really understand and seek other opinions before you can take action, the public likes to be involved.

In corporations, you make decisions much more quickly, and it isn’t as involving of the general public. And in agencies, I think there’s, I suppose I did it in the right order in my career too. I sort of ended up in at an agency. But, you don’t take home as much of what you do on the job because you’re dealing with so many different assignments during the course of the day.

What can university professors do to develop leadership in their students?

>> Giving them real experiences, to me that’s the most important thing. I think that having a faculty as you do here at the University of Alabama, people that come to the classroom, that come to academia with real experiences. You’ve been in corporations, you’ve been in agencies, you’ve been in non-profits, and so, it isn’t like you only just read about it in a book.

You have the real experiences. To get experience, you needed to learn, you needed to make mistakes. You didn’t immediately walk in and meet with the CEO. And I think that those expectations, they sort of, they need to understand that there is some basic work that needs to happen.

And that it takes time to get to the top. And not that you can’t be impatient about it, but I think really being willing to understand that there’s a lot of background work, a lot of sort of less attractive work that needs to be done along the way.

Can leadership be taught?

>> Well, I don’t think leaders are born leaders. I’m not so sure it can be taught, but I do think it can be learned. And I think exposure to leaders, learning to recognize leadership, the end result of having a good leader in an organization. Seeing what someone can do in turning a company around.

Understanding how they face different challenges, and looking I think most leaders sort of model after some other leader. I don’t know that there’s any one formula for someone being a leader. But I do think that I find myself, when I’m in a leadership role in some way, I find myself thinking of and realizing that I’m doing that because I saw someone else do that. So, some of it is learning to model what other leaders have done.

What can a new public relations professional do to begin to develop leadership skills needed in the profession?

>>Certainly having internships in their companies is a great opportunity for young people in the field to get some real experience and to add some meaningful things on their resumes for when they start out. Being available, it bothers me that PRSA does not have as many senior people from the field coming to conferences and meeting with students.

Again, I believe there’s an obligation. Somebody took the time to teach us and we can’t forget that whether it’s at the local chapter or at national meetings, that we still need to spend time sharing that information if we really do care about what the profession is going to become.

Can you give a concrete example of leadership at work?

>> We had an instance in our department store division, of a bad arrest for suspected shoplifting. The young man arrested was an African American. And he charged the department store with being racist with singling him out, profiling him, etc. And that he was totally innocent of these charges. At the same point in time, there were other department stores where people said that they were treated differently because maybe they weren’t dressed as nicely or the color of their skin was different, or something.

And it was happening coast to coast. The Director of Public Relations at the Department Store Division of the Dayton’s Hudson Corporation. So that would have been the Dayton’s Hudson Marshall Field Stores, said to the CEO of that company, we need to listen to what this community is telling us.

And it was one of those things where sometimes executives just want something to go away. And she kept pushing and pushing until they had meetings with leadership from the African American community. And as a result, to make a long story much shorter, as a result, diversity training became part of the culture of that company.

It might have happened at some point in time, but it wouldn’t have happened when it did, or as quickly as it did, if it hadn’t been for that public relations leader pushing the top management. And I think this is a good example of, public relations leaders need to understand that there aren’t any boundaries.

That they can cross over the boundaries, there isn’t some neat little box that they all fit into.

Can you recommend any books for students and young public relations professionals looking to develop their leadership skills?

>> I really think that for students that Peter Drucker books, The Keys to Effective Leadership, the basic leadership books are the best ones.

What are 2-3 most crucial issues facing our industry today?

>> I think we have a responsibility to help our bosses understand what it is we do and not that we’re just something that’s nice to have but that we’re necessary to have.

No one is going to do it for us and so we have to step up and do it. I was really lucky in that I worked for one of the great CEOs of all time, Ken Macke the CEO of Dayton Hudson. And I was never shy about giving him advice and counsel on public relations but also being sure that we involved him in things we were doing.

So we invited him to sit in on conference calls with us. And as he began to really see the kinds of things we were doing to coordinate communications throughout the whole corporation, he would suggest ways that we could be more involved. And so I think that we have to educate our CEOs about what it is we do, that we’re not just, we don’t just plan events or put out news releases, but getting him to launch at the Wall Street Journal, and letting him see the kind of arena that we’re used to playing in is very, very important.

Do you believe that the public relations profession has more credibility today than it did 20 years ago?

>> I believe a great deal of it depends on how smart the CEO is about public relations and its role and what it can contribute. I think, when you have someone that’s really sensitive to the importance of communicating, of collaboration, of all those things that we do better than anyone else, then, I think you have much stronger recognition of the role.

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

>> You are about to begin the most exciting career in the world. It is the best job you’ll ever have. It is no two days are ever the same. And it is very important that you remember that it’s not a nine to five job, that it’s going to require a lot out of you and that you will never enjoy anything as much as you will enjoy being in the field of public relations.

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

>> What we’re looking or today is smart people. We want people who are street smart, too. We want people that know how business works and how organizations work. We want people that have a broad base of experience. And we want people who are good writers. When I interview young people, and I say to them, tell me about the news writing courses you took.

And they go, well and they want to show me big papers they’ve written. Well, it’s a long time before you write big papers. I want to know what are your basic writing skills. I want to see a spark of creativity. I love to toss a problem out and say if you ended up on this assignment, what do you think you could contribute or how would you handle this?

What would you suggest that this company do to solve a problem? And if there is just a blank look or no spark of creativity then, and we don’t even give them a writing test at that point. So, I think really being smart, do you understand what I mean by that?

I don’t mean a straight-A student. But being smart and wise and being able to work with other people is very, very, very important.

Recorded: October 2006

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