Plank Legends & Leaders: Bridget Coffing

Bridget Coffing has more than 35 years of communications experience including public affairs and issues management, marketing communications and public relations for both major corporations and public relations and advertising agencies. She most recently served as Senior Vice President, Corporate Relations for McDonald’s Corporation. In this role, Coffing was the company’s Chief Communications Officer and reported to McDonald’s Chief Executive Officer.

Coffing joined McDonald’s in 1985 from Golin/Harris Communications, where she specialized in food and consumer marketing. Coffing previously worked at Stephan and Brady Advertising and Regal Ware, Inc. concentrating on retail promotions, reputation management and marketing oriented communications.

Coffing is the recipient of numerous top industry awards and McDonald’s recognition, including the McDonald’s Presidents’ Award, which is annually awarded to the organization’s top one percent of employees, and McDonald’s Team and Circle of Excellence Awards.

She is a member of the Board of Advisors of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, the Arthur Page Society and The Seminar; a Board member of the Public Relations Society of America, Chicago chapter; and the Board of Visitors of the University of Wisconsin School of Human Ecology.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> Well, leadership in any category, much less PR, is a very broad term, and I would say, in a nutshell, it’s a state of mind. It is not an age. It is not experience. It is not anything more, in my opinion, than an attitude. A bias for action. An ability to listen, synthesize information and to act. And to do so in a way that is inspirational and motivational to people.

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

>> 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.

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

>> When I look back at my career and think about what contributed to my success, I have to start with my family. I have to actually start with my upbringing, and everybody can’t point to that. There are many very successful people that didn’t have the advantage I had, but I did have that advantage. And I was really able, I think, to build on that and pivot off of it. I was the fifth down of eight children in a family of very hardworking, wonderful values based parents.

They had high expectations, they were both born and raised on a farm, they were self-educated, they were supportive and encouraged us to do whatever we could and to make every effort to improve ourselves and to go for it, if you will. They also were tough, you know, and we learned a lot of lessons at the knee, you know. I remember one time applying for a job and writing what I thought was just a beautiful application letter and showing my father.

And I thought he would turn around and pat me on the back, and he literally took the piece of paper and said. “Bridget, do you know what I would do with this if this hit my desk?” And he had a very successful advertising agency, and he took my letter of education and he dropped it in the wastebasket. So, somewhat crushing, and yet then he sat down with me and said, “That’s not going to distinguish you. It doesn’t really say anything, and you need to capture who you are and what you believe, and why you think you would be a valuable addition to the organization.”

So, I learned the value of import, of constructive criticism, of the value of editing and having people look at your work and take it from a C to a B, or a B to an A, or whatever the case might be. So foundational trajectory, I would say, coming out of that upbringing.

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

>> When I look back and think about where were the learning lessons for me, and where were the teachers? So many positive role models, so many mentors. But maybe the most memorable is counter-intuitive and one that was a painful moment for me and actually very, very difficult. And I learned what I didn’t want to do in the way of leadership.

And that was when I graduated from high school, and my very, very best friend in Madison, Wisconsin. I was another daughter in their household. Her father was the president of the big bank in town and very influential in my life, and I shared with him that I was going on to the big University of Wisconsin and going to pursue a degree in journalism.

And he looked at me and he just shook his head and said, “I just think that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard. And you should be like my daughter, your pal, your buddy and take this particular route,” which was not to higher education. Because that will give you a job, an immediate income. And it was to vocational leaning, which is great and wonderful for many people, but it was just not what my aspiration was.

And he kind of crushed me and he said– he looked at me he said, “In four years you’re going to be like everybody else in town and you’re going to be knocking on my door looking for a job at the bank.” And I went home and cried with my parents who were not happy with their friend, and were absolutely staunchly reinforcing that the path I was taking was the right path for me. They were encouraging, they were all about you go and you get it done and you can be whatever you want. And if it’s had a bank that’s great and if it’s something else that’s also awesome. But, don’t you ever let anybody tell you that there’s something you can’t do.

So I learned that leadership is all about motivation and inspiration. It’s not about defeating people for your own, you know, power or your own aggrandizement. It’s about motivating and it’s about inspiring. And I’ve always remembered that. I remember him fondly but I remember that moment as being a seminal moment of what I was not going to do to other people.

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

>> Well when I look at role models in leadership today, it’s hard for me to actually point to one person or one individual. What I would point to is the management team of PriceWaterHouse, however. Now Tim Ryan happens to be the CEO of PWC America, so I would point to him individually. But, if you look back over the year and where we can learn by example, PWC, they were involved in one of the greatest PR donnybrooks of this century, when, on their watch, the Academy Awards actually publicly, in front of live television, announced the wrong movie of the year.

It was a PR disaster for them, it was a PR disaster for the movie industry. It was live– millions of people seeing it. And that could have been just a crushing blow to reputation if not handled appropriately. But, they got out there and they owned it. They talked about it, they took the mistake on their own. They were completely accountable for what happened. They committed to reviewing everything that had led, from a process and a procedure standpoint, to the error. And, absolutely acted as soon as they got the information on what had happened, and put in steps to make sure it simply never happened again.

And I think that people look at them and feel that they handled it really well. They actually kept the business. I think people thought they’re never going to work for the Academy again, they are so gone. And in fact, they retained the business that was just announced pretty recently.

I think it’s a complete and total testament to the trust bank that they had clearly built up over time. You know, between client and an agency consultant. Clearly, they had built up enough equity with the Academy so that when they hit this terrible situation then handled it appropriately. They were able to weather the storm and come out on the other side of it.

So, I think I looked to that leadership as a textbook, in terms of how to do it right, because things are going to happen. And I think what people remember is less what happened and as much how you handled it, when they look at leadership.

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

>> Well, I’m a voracious reader of history, so I love the biographies that autobiographies of leaders. And I go back time and time again to Abraham Lincoln. Why? I think he actually taught all of us a lot about what we do today, and today we would call it engaging with stakeholders. We would call the building relationships with third party influencers, with activists, we would use all that nomenclature today.

But, what he did in a really incredibly difficult time in our nation’s history is to put together you know a cabinet of both friends and foes alike. And he understood instinctively that to get from here to there you A can’t do it alone, you B need to understand the people that don’t agree with your point of view on how to meet them in the middle, and then C how to collaborate and listen and reach consensus together. And that’s what we do as PR practitioners every day getting out of bed. So, I look to him as just a great teacher.

I would also say that he was an individual that understood the power of words. And if anybody takes the time to go back and read, not only his first inauguration speech, but his second one that was so short and so sweet. It was when we were still engaged in the Civil War, and then you go on to the Gettysburg Address, you will see that he understood the power of words, the power of clarity and simplicity. Because you cannot read what he wrote and not understand what the spirit behind his commentary was. So, I always go back– I always go back to him and I always learn something again when I revisit his leadership.

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

>> When I think about the skill set that we need to have a public relations as distinct from some of our colleague departments in any organization, the reality is I think that we are best poised to be the master integrators and connectors across enterprises. And I do think that there is a unique role that we have. It is a unique role that says, we are responsible for being an ombudsman of the company to our public constituents and to our employees. But, its also a role that very clearly has a tremendous responsibility to be the ombudsman of external stakeholders and employees, back to the company.

So, that voice that we have, the ear that we have, the ability, I think, to integrate that in a way that is problem-solving, positive, values based, clear and direct. I think is very, very unique to any other department. Now, you have to work with every other function you have to work with every other department. But, that’s again, what we do best. We should be the master integrators working across an entire C-suite to build advocacy and to address problems and to bring solutions to that management of whatever organization that you are working with.

Do the requirements of PR leadership vary by type of organization, i.e., corporate vs. agency vs. nonprofit?

>> When I think of working in the field and are there differences between agency, or not-for-profit, or corporate the reality is I spent the majority of my career on the corporate side 30 years with McDonald’s corporation. But, what’s also true is I cut my teeth on the agency side of the business.

And I remember being terribly naive when I first made the jump from the agency side to the client side, and I actually had the naivety– stupidity some might call it– to think when I was at the agency, or to question, “What is the client doing, because we working so hard on the agency side. Surely we’re doing all the heavy lifting. Surely we’re doing the majority of the work. What possibly is going to be really different?”

And what’s really different is the nature of the work and the agency– excuse me, the nature of the work and the client side. The proximity to the “flame” and to the senior management team. And the need to be so accessible and immediate, and to be addressing what are the needs of that management team in that organization every day, every minute. And to concurrently be able to manage those longer stream projects, and that work that so often agencies are also accountable for.

So, it’s really understanding that there are slightly different roles. But, equally important probably. But, being really close to the flame when you’re on the corporate side, is something that I think most people would say is true.

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

>> When I think about developing a skill set that is going to really move your career along, I think one of the big lessons is moving from being an individual contributor to being a business contributor. It’s about learning the language of the management team. In addition to PR language, communications language– beginning to worry about what the senior management team and the CEO is worried about.

It’s understanding that the busy day-to-day mayhem of the world that typically PR practitioners live in, is always going to be there. But understanding, as well, that you need to move beyond that and to focus and to work on the priorities that the management team is thinking and worrying about as well. So, look for the opportunities, look for an ability to find your voice, and to understand that you can contribute at any level.

And they’re contributing is not at all a matter of your experience or the patch you’re responsible for. It’s a matter of having insight and listening and seeing and knowing that people welcome a good idea. And that people are hungry for folks, regardless of the team they’re on, to come to them with thoughts, with creativity, with an idea appropriately so but now living only in the box of public relations or your desk or your office.

So, good hard work and performance kind of get you to the dance. But, just staying in your office and putting your head down and churning is not what is really going to cultivate and develop your leadership skills, or your ability to network and build relationships that over time are actually were going to move you and the products and the enterprise along.

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

>> Well it’s really important to have a diversified educational curriculum when we’re talking about building the next leader of leadership on public relations. So, having that very well rounded basis of academia behind you is so important. And as I look at what else can we do to build or cultivate, how can we work with our academic partners. I think it’s continuing to make sure that we have environments in these academic institutions that foster, and cultivate, and nurture, debate, and conversation, and constructive dialogue, and diversity of opinion.

You get out into the work world and it is one big debate. It’s called work and people don’t need you if everything is obvious and everybody agrees. People are looking for your point of view and opinion. So, I think the idea of making sure that classes and curriculums develop critical thinking. And that we go from developing a great PR plan, to the capacity and the talent to build advocacy. Going from making a presentation to being persuasive, and compelling, and articulate. Going from really understanding our patch, and what the expectation is in this chapter, or this book, or this course to understanding that there is a different language that colleagues, and superiors, and competitors all speak. And making sure that we are as broad as possible.

I’ve always said that if I had a do over again in school I would absolutely take more courses in the business school. I would actually take more financial management classes. More government relations type activities. And I would really round out that academic experience with real world experience.

So, colleges and universities can really help, I think, try to bring real world into the classroom. Try to nurture this insatiable desire for what’s actually happening down the street. So that our kids are not only coming out with a great degree based on curriculum and classes, but on real world experience. And that they understand and know they need to be and have a pulse and a heartbeat of what’s happening behind and beyond the academic walls. Because that’s what they’re going to have to be dealing with. So I think it’s a great opportunity to really refresh, and enhance, and cultivate what people are going to actually be faced with when they begin their first job, or their second or their tenth.

Do you think that leadership can be taught? Or is it inherited, or something else?

>> I think leadership is a fantastic combination of instincts and how you came out of the shoot, your environment, what you see both positive and negative, and your ability to absorb it, and to think about it, bring critical thinking to it, and to say, “I’m going to file that because I want to replicate that. I want to learn from that.” I think it is a beautiful example of literally being informed and engaged and reading and learning from the best through the eons. So, I think it is a 360-degree opportunity for people.

People say leaders are born maybe not made. I don’t think that’s true. I think they’re born. I think they’re made. I think they’re cultivated. I think they’re self-made. I think they’re molded and that’s what’s so exciting the opportunity for everybody to be a leader in their own capacity at whatever level they might be.

I remember one of the greatest pats on the back I ever got was very, very early in my career. And I had a very specific role in public relations. I had nothing to do with speech coaching and developing our executive team to be ready to give a presentation in front of 15,000 people, or an interview in front of a network audience of millions. But, I heard and I understood rumblings that some of our executives weren’t terribly happy with one of the speech coaches we used for years. And he was a great guy but he was kind of a one size fits all. And some of our up and coming female executives were feeling like his approach was not working for them.

So, I just kept my ear to the ground, I did some research, and I found a couple highly recommended women in the industry who weren’t in Chicago, they were based in another market. So, I just took it on myself to kind of call them to interview to find out what it would look like to get them involved. And I simply pass that along to the right people to try to help them. And I didn’t really– it wasn’t really even acknowledged at the time.

And three months later my performance review my boss said, “You didn’t have to do that. It has nothing to do with your job. It has nothing to do with your performance. But, that’s leadership. Seeing that there was an issue and an opportunity with another group. No personal agenda. Nothing for you to gain or lose. But you came with a thought and idea.” I was probably– it was my first couple of years in business. And I that was a big learning for me too, that you can contribute no matter how many years you have on the job or what hat you wear.

So, I think it’s all about the individual I think it’s about the environment. And I think it’s about your instincts, which you can teach yourself to have good instincts I think.

Can you give a concrete example or illustration of leadership at work in practice?

>> I really learned a lot from a leader at McDonald’s, the previous chief communications officer, Jack Daly. And this is many years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. And it was a time when McDonald’s was under some intense pressure relative to the menu, relative to diversifying it, addressing changing taste preferences, nutritional profiles, that kind of thing.

And so we were on the front line in public relations. So, we were taking criticism from the media, and from activists, nutritionists and that kind of thing. We were getting increasingly frustrated and quite frankly, I’m not proud of this, but we were looking to marketing, or we were looking to the menu management team, or the food development, or food scientists to come up with all these solutions. And Jack looked in the mirror and asked me to look in the mirror. And he literally quoted a great Jerry Garcia line, which is “Somebody has to do something, and it’s incredibly pathetic but it has to be us.” And we had t-shirts made, we had sweat shirts made, and we decided why are we like pointing fingers in opposite directions?

And this is Jack’s leadership, I give him full credit for this. He convened a group. We brought in folks from all over the world in our McDonald’s system, and from marketing, and from menu management, but all the communications professionals too. And we outlined the problem and said, “We’re going to stay in this room for a week”– they were there for five days– “and we’re going to understand what the issues are and what the opportunities are. And we’re going to come up with an action plan for management to contemplate. And coming out of this we are going to make a two, or four, or 10– whatever the case is– point recommendation to management that we are going to author coming out of this meeting. And we’re going to own it and we’re going to stand behind it. And are you in or are you out?”

And that was difficult because we had a model that had been very, very successful. But it was critical within the internal mechanism, I guess of McDonald’s, for somebody to break out of the pack and to say out loud, “We have an issue. We’re being a little bit tone deaf and we have an obligation and a responsibility to hear that, to think about it, and then say what are we going to do about it?” And then go to management and fight for it. And so that was a great example to me of somebody that said, “Our job is not to win popularity contests.”

And I tell this to young people coming up in the business all the time. Our job is not to run a popularity contest. It is to understand and assess situations based on facts, based on truth. And then really bring the right people together to determine what is the right thing to do. And then go after that right thing hard and fast.

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

>> There is a great book that I have been quoting wildly for the last probably six months. And I think that everybody that is in communications should read it. It’s by, Rich Karlgaard. It’s called, The Soft Edge Where Enduring Companies Find Success. And the premise of this book and why I like it so much is he’s a real hard nosed business person. And he spent his entire life working on profitability and margins and that kind of thing.

But his new premise, and this is based on intensive research, a global perspective, and really looking at a lot of case histories is that there is one factor that separates enduring companies when they hit rough waters. And it’s the soft edge of their business, and it is their character and their values. So he articulated this using the icon of a triangle. And so the one side of the triangle is essentially the heart– is strategy actually. The first part is strategy. We all know you have to have a good strategy or your business is caput.

The second edge is the hard edge. That’s speed to market, your product, your margins, pricing relevance to your customer, critically important. The foundation is a soft edge and it is all about your values, all about your character. Something we’ve all talked about for decades now. What makes this different is that he is saying that it is of equal, if not greater proport than the other two sides of the triangle. And then he goes on to build a business case for why that’s true.

It’s fantastic and it is language that any communications professional can use in talking to any person in management, regardless of what end of the business they might be running. From operations, to legal, to HR, two to whatnot. So, I highly recommend everybody get a hold of The Soft Edge by Karl.

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

>> When I look at the PR professions day, I do think we have some unique challenges. And I think the reality is the increasingly divergent, and I think polarized points of view that the world is having to deal with. So, really a critical point of emphasis, I think, in the day to day working of business and the job that we play in terms of public relations. So, tied to that, no less important, I think, is then the lack of trust. So, I would point to trust is being a huge challenge as it relates to PR today.

We know from countless research studies that people’s sense of confidence and trust in all the major institutions is really waning. And so how can we bridge that gap? What can we do to overcome that and to build trust. And then I think, thirdly, in terms of a challenge, I think it is the pace of innovation. It’s a fantastic thing. It’s the flip side of a very positive coin. But, a recent KPG survey literally affirmed that over 40% of CEOs have stated that they are going to massively transform their business operations in the next three years.

That is a massive challenge and a massive opportunity for the communications professionals that are all part of those organizations. And I think it’s pretty much everywhere. If you think of 40% you think it’s probably 100% that are undergoing some sense of change. So, the idea of change management, again when you talk about issues facing the industry, it’s also opportunity as it relates to the men and women and all of us who populate and staff work to help make those things a positive and something to lead with versus an issue that we’re trying to manage.

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

>> I think our industry absolutely has– I can’t say more legitimacy because more than what– I think has tremendous legitimacy. I think it has a growing legitimacy. You look at the corporate relations functions and where they sit-in an organization. I reported directly to our CEO. You know being part of the C-suite. Being at the table. Being part of the discussions from the onset, versus being called in after there’s an issue or something to solve, or a contribution to make. Being part of the intellectual capital of the management team I think is critical. And it was hard fought, that seat at the table, hard fought. It wasn’t always so.

But, I think it’s very worthy to fight for and to retain, and to have that voice as companies face challenges in today’s environment that is dicey and dynamic. The speed of social media, the increased demands for even greater transparency and responsiveness, it’s absolutely critical that we continue to fight for that seat and for that legitimacy because it is something that, when it comes from the C-suite and from the very highest levels of that organization, the, I think, implied respect and authority an, the torque. if you will, is critical to getting our jobs done successfully.

What’s your best advice about a career in PR to students who are just entering the work world?

>> I would tell anybody that’s coming out of school and entering the PR world to bring your energy. Bring your passion. Bring your excitement. Continue to be a student. Continue to learn. Our cache as we come and contribute to our respective organizations is about being informed, and understanding what’s going on in the world and representing the entire organizations. It’s about being a conscience to that organization. It’s about having your voice and understanding that voice you’re going to use at different times, and with different levels, and with different effect. But, that it is incredibly, incredibly critical.

So, be a student, be curious, dig in, and get comfortable with messy. It’s not a pretty world. The business isn’t necessarily pretty. So I think that our new reality is change. Get comfortable with change. Embrace the fact that there is continuous disruption and suit up. Be a be a player, don’t be an observer. But get in there, get your hands dirty, put your hands up for assignments. And again, I think people aren’t looking for perfect. I think people are looking for effort and trying, and a willingness to fail, own it, and move on and learn from it.

My leadership tip is…

>> My leadership tip is to match what you do with what you say. People want to know about an organization the same thing they want to know about a human being, which is yes what are your goals. What is your vision? What is your strategy? But they actually want to know who you are. So, make sure there is no gap no light in between what you say and what you actually do. So, let your actions match your words. So authentic, sincere, I think that goes a real long way at every level.

My mentorship tip is…

>> My mentorship tip is to be open, be vulnerable, be honest. The reality is as you seek a mentor, he or she cannot help you if you’re not honest about what– an open your aspirations are. And also open and honest about where your gaps are, where your opportunities are. So I think that being able to have a very clear sense an understanding of who you are, where your needs for growth are so that people can guide and direct you will make for such more meaningful and impactful, not only dialogue, but personal development action plan for yourself. So, take a hold of being as– it’s like the same advice as a doctor. A doctor can help you if you go in and say I feel great. And in fact you’ve got a broken back. So you need to be open and honest to be able to get the guidance and the input that will help you develop, and help you to really take on the kinds of things that make you a better professional.

My networking tip is…

>> My networking tip is to really focus on building relationships. Sincere, authentic, deep, and meaningful relationships. And networking to me is not checking the box. And I’m not suggesting it is to other people by saying that. But I think it’s become a cliche. And I think that networking and just meeting people, and having a big host of folks that you can count as acquaintances isn’t as effective as developing relationships.

Where you really can speak about important subjects with candor, with honesty, with clarity, with the kind of professional intimacy that’s really required to solve a problem, or tackle an issue, or come up with a game plan or a solution. Whether it’s for your own professional development or whether it is taking a solution to your enterprise, it’s not that much different. It’s all about relationships.

Every leader is…

>> Every leader is human so I would encourage everyone to understand that while we will all meet people in our professional life, to know and to understand that we all get out of bed you know the same way. That we all have strengths that we’re very proud of. That we all have problems that we’re trying to solve. That we all can benefit and learn from value added relationships. And so, it goes back to having and building over time confidence, and earning that seat at the table.

Finding that voice and contributing in a way that is appreciated and valued. Because people are looking for talent and for public relations counsel and leadership that understands what the marketplace and the dynamic is that’s going on. And that is thoughtful and purposeful. And that leader is human and if you can come with that kind of clear thinking and consistency, because I think leaders are also looking for consistency, and for people that they know are honest brokers. So you know develop that leadership trait that is your brand and your calling card. And when we talk about leaders and their traits, we’ll be talking about you.

Lesson that took you the longest to learn…

>> I think one of the things that really took me a while to learn, and I would love to short circuit that for anybody that listens to is I thought for a long time I had to have all the answers. That I was supposed to know when a question was asked what that answer was, or that I was solely responsible for getting that answer. And I learned– I would like to think relatively quickly, but I wish I’d learned faster– that in point of fact, you don’t have to have every answer to every question.

When something is asked of you that expectation typically is that you are going to have the wherewithal to get the answer if you don’t have it. And to seek the subject matter experts. And to surround yourself with people and to cultivate and develop relationships that you can call upon to bring that answer, to bring that best thinking, to bring that solution to the table. So, that would have saved me a lot of anguish and a lot of burning the candle by myself at midnight had I learned that earlier.

So, I think people love a collaborator. I think people love someone that is so honest and such a straight shooter that they’re able to say, “I don’t know, but I’m going to get you that answer.” And then they do it and they deliver on what they said they would, which is the answer.

Recorded: July 2017

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