Plank Legends & Leaders: Dr. Bruce Berger, Part I

Dr. Bruce K. Berger is a professor emeritus of Advertising & Public Relations in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama. In addition to being the Founding Director of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, he serves on the board of advisors.

Define what does leadership in public relations means to you.

>> Leadership in public relations is really a dynamic process that involves a kind of complex mix of individual traits, skills, qualities, values, and especially behaviors that combine and come together to produce effective practice. The kind of process, in fact, that can inspire in direct teams, help organizations achieve objectives, and really to legitimize that organization in society.

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

>> 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.

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

>> I think a few of the things that helped me grow as a leader were one, curiosity. I’ve always had a lot of curiosity about things. I’ve been willing to take risks and to volunteer to do things that other people, perhaps more intelligent than me, didn’t want to do.

But I took those on. I learned probably from my years in the Army how to focus and to be disciplined to carry out missions and very strongly sort of mission focused. And I actually have a very strong, although it’s relatively quiet, but a strong passion for work, and a good capacity for work. I think those have been important characteristics for me.

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

>> The most powerful experience I’ve had with respect to leadership, and actually to my professional work, was a three-year assignment that I had as Public Affairs Manager for the Upjohn Company, a pharmaceutical company, many years ago in the mid-80s.

I was responsible for public relations in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The office I worked in the language was French, so I had to learn French. I spoke some German, but I worked with people from ten different nations, diverse cultures on all projects. So my listening skills improved simply trying to understand what was being said.

I became much more sensitive to cultural differences, I think, and to cultural awareness, and really a great believer in how people from different organizations really, and different societies could come together to solve problems. A group like that, the group of ten that I work with, rich cultural diversity typically produce better outcomes, or better decisions than simply me alone.

So that was a powerful experience not only in leadership development, but really in terms of my own professional development.

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 it’s impossible for me to name one leader in the field today who’s the most outstanding leader. And I say that not because there aren’t a number of great leaders.

I think they are. But the truth is, we come to what we know about most leaders in the field today, we learn through media reports, we learn through award programs, we learn through anecdotes. We don’t really have much in the way of direct contact or experience. I’m thinking however of one individual that I do know, and have worked with off and on over the years, who I think is an outstanding leader.

And that’s Rob Flaherty, who is the CEO of Ketchum. Ketchum Public Relations, I’ve known Rob for 20 years I guess. And he is an incredibly creative, dynamic, inclusive individual. He has great vision for what communication can be and can do. He’s a tremendous developer of talent in his teams.

Ketchum is recognized as one of the best or the strongest agency cultures, I think, in the country. So for Rob Flaherty at Ketchum would really be truly one of our most outstanding leaders in the field today.

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

>> Trying to identify a historical figure who’s been a great leader is similar to trying to identify a great leader today. Again, unless we know someone personally and work with them, it’s difficult to assess their leadership capabilities. There were any number of people in the industry, the and the who are well known for the many contributions that they’ve made. It’s hard for me to think about a historic figure without mentioning Betsy Plank and I knew Betsy for years, worker with her very closely for the last 10 years, and to me, she’s truly one of the most outstanding leaders in the field.

The one quality that she had that I most admired was her tremendous energy and passion for the profession, and for students, and for research. Even in her 80s, the last years of her life, she still embodied that tremendous passion for the profession. So for me, she’s she is definitely on the the great leaders of all time.

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?

>> Leadership values and skills in public relations are to a large extent pretty similar to those in other professions or other areas. There are a couple of areas though where I believe are a bit different and one of them, for example, would be ethical orientation. That’s not to suggest that all leaders shouldn’t have a strong ethical orientation, but I think in public relations there’s an added weight to that because you’re representing to some extent as well the views, information, issues and concerns of a variety of stakeholders.

And you’re expected to take that information into the organization, translate it, and advocate for them in some senses. So you’re representing that as well as employee issues and concerns if you have responsibilities for employee communication. So I think there’s a bigger requirement if you will for an ethical orientation.

The second area of difference is that a really good leader not only has to have the communication skills, knowledge and expertise, but it has to be someone who has a vision for communication. I always think about that in a sense of a really good leader is somebody who can go about 1,000 feet, or maybe 10,000 feet, get above things, and look down on his or her organization.

In fact, see how it connects with other stakeholders, other groups, other parts of the world and the systems that we live in. So a vision for communication is something that makes it different, I think, from other leaders.

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

>> I don’t believe that the leadership requirements vary much at all for leaders who work in different types of organizations, like companies, agencies, non-profits, government agencies.

I think the requirements, the dimensions that I mentioned earlier for excellent leadership, I think those pertain to different types of organizations. What’s different, of course, is the structure and culture of those organizations.

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

>> New public relations professionals have a great opportunity, or really a set of opportunities I think, to develop leadership skills. They can volunteer for things. They should seek out a mentor, someone who can really help them make some social connections, somebody who can help them understand the organization. So a mentor is really important. Seeking out opportunities, following, observing, thinking about and really reflecting on leaders in the organization.

Everyone works with and for good leaders and those leaders who aren’t so good. So I think taking the time to reflect on the differences and what they mean is real important. Probably the most fundamental opportunity for a new professional is if they’re interested in leadership, to actually think, focus and reflect on what that means, and to start to put together a leadership development program for themselves.

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

>> I think there are a number of things that public relations educators can do to help students become better leaders or to develop leadership skills and values. Perhaps not as much as the professional world would like us to do in the classroom, but there are a number of things that we can do.

Personally, for example, I think helping students develop critical thinking capabilities is terribly important. The ability to think more deeply and reflectively about what’s happening and to see connections in relationships. I think this is a growing deficit, in fact, that we face in the profession with younger professionals. So in the classroom we can work on that.

We can put them into situations, we can put students into situations where they have to demonstrate leadership capabilities and work in teams, develop leadership skills. And probably the most important thing we can do to develop leadership skills is to be a great role model as a teacher and as a professional.

We know from previous research, in fact, that role models plays as great an influence on perceptions of leadership as anything else in the field. So teachers have an enormous responsibility, I think, to be a great role model.

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

>> I don’t like to use the word taught because it suggests leadership can be taught. I’m uncomfortable using that word because it suggests kind of a one-way dissemination of information. I would prefer to use the word development. I think leaders can be developed, they can be mentored, they can be coached. All of those are ways to develop leadership. If we think about leadership in terms of it represents a capacity and the set of capabilities, then the capacity can continue to be developed and the capabilities can continue to be developed.

So if we think about it that way, I read recently a review of a century of research about leadership development programs. The big question was, does it matter, does it make a difference? Can we develop leaders? In the findings over a century were that yes, most leadership programs developed, provided modest improvement for participants in leadership skills.

Sometimes there were substantial improvement that depended on some other things, maybe other experiences that they had as well. But development does work over time. So I think leadership can be developed, yes.

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

>> Regarding the issue of leadership development and skills in the profession, and I know something there’s perhaps shortage of good leaders, my own sense is that leaders are normally distributed, like a lot of other things in life.

Meaning that there are a handful of great ones, there are a handful of awful ones, and everyone else is somewhere in between, trending one direction or another, which suggest that there’s a great opportunity for improvement in the field. I don’t have any direct evidence for this in studies that we’ve done, but there’s a lot of evidence out there to suggest that followers are disappointed in many aspects of leadership today.

I think the same is true in our profession. I think there’s a shortage of great leaders. And one of the real issues is that the profession has not made leadership a priority. It’s not on a national agenda of associations, like the Public Relations Society of America. It needs much greater attention and the field has great opportunity for improvement.

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?

>> I can think of several examples of excellent leadership in practice. I think the one I’ll speak to is actually not a professional communicator, but an engineer. A gentleman who was the general manager of a huge manufacturing plant in Ohio that produced washing machines, he had a factory force of about 7000 people.

He was an engineer, he was also one of the world’s greatest communicators, and I worked with him on many projects. But he was a skilled and gifted communicator and leader. I recall the incident I’m thinking of was when a new quality program was introduced into the plant. Nobody was excited about it, nobody was interested in it, it was another program of the month.

But Roy personally took on the general manager, personally took on the challenge of introducing this program. He met with every employee and work team in the factory. He was highly visible. He talked about what it meant. He showed people what it meant for him. And he sort of modeled the way in terms of how things had to change to achieve certain quality requirements.

And that made an absolutely enormous difference in that plant. In fact, they were for a number of years, still may be today, they were Whirlpool Corporation’s best manufacturing operation in the world.

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

>> It’s very difficult to name one best book on leadership for young professionals. I think I’m going to name three or four books. The best leadership book, if you want to call it that, is a thin book by a gentleman by the name of Max Dupree. And the book is called Leadership is an Art. Max Dupree was the CEO of a furniture manufacturing company in Grand Rapids, Michigan for many years, highly successful one.

And he was what I would describe as an old time leader in that he was highly visible, he walked the plant floors, he walked the office floors, he greeted everyone, everybody knew Max. He didn’t have 100,000 employees but he probably had 10,000 employees, and most of them had met Max.

So they worked really hard for him because they knew him and they liked him, and then they wanted to do a good job for him. So he’s written a book called Leadership as an Art, that is maybe 100 pages long, that is filled with rich principles that I personally believe fully apply.

There are three other books I would recommend for young professionals. They’re not directly about leadership, but they can certainly help you. Peter Senge, an MIT professor has written a book called The Fifth Discipline, which is about systems thinking. And for people who work in large, complex organizations today, it’s a great way to understand how decision-making occurs in complex organizations.

So The Fifth Discipline is a great book. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, a very popular best seller ten years ago, is all about communication. And it’s important for leaders because it emphasizes through many anecdotes in the book it’s what you do, it’s not what you say. The strongest message is in your behaviors and interactions.

The last book is a current one, or a newer one, called Drive. The author’s name is Daniel Pink. And that’s an important book for leaders because it’s all about employees, and it’s about what’s important to employees, how you can motivate employees, make them more creative, more engaged, more involved. And that’s an eye opener, I think, as well. So those are all great reads.

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

>> I believe the two or three most crucial issues confronting the profession today are ones that were actually reconfirmed in some research we’ve done in the last year. Interviews with 16 public relations executives in this country, talking about what are the key issues that they wrestle with on the job.

I think they’re pretty reflective of those issues today. And the first one was finding top talent, which is all about the next generation of leaders and developing leaders. So leaders today worry about people. They worry about finding, retaining, keeping, developing good people. That’s an issue across the field, okay?

Number two was organizational culture. Meaning, the evolving changes are occurring in organizations today, what’s the role of communication, and how can communication better deal with cultural changes and the processes of globalization? That’s a big issue in the field today. A third issue today, I think, are ethical dimensions and ethical issues, and how we can do a better job professionally dealing with those.

And the leadership itself, as I’ve been talking about, is really a key issue in the field today.

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

>> The profession has greater credibility today on the one hand than it did 20 years ago, and the same or less credibility that had 20 years ago on the other hand. On the one hand, inside of organizations, I think executives inside of organizations that have public relation support, the profession has a better image today inside those organizations than it did 20 years ago.

Externally, in terms of the general public, I think the general public’s perception and conception of public relations is not good. Maybe even worse than it was 20 years ago. In truth, the big question for me is, does that really matter in terms of what happens on the job?

Is it important to have a strong image externally? I don’t know. I know that it is important inside of organizations to be able to do the right thing.

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

>> My best advice for students just entering the work world, I’ll tick them off here on one hand. Show up to work early. Two, stay late. Three, don’t miss a deadline on any project you’re working on. Four, volunteer for anything and everything in the organization. And five, treat people with respect and kindness.

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

>> Some of the most important factors, I think, in looking at new hires and judging young people coming into jobs.

In other words, trying to decide whether to hire someone or not, there are a lot of things that we look at. It’s kind of a complex process in thinking about it because you know, in the real world, typically you get lots of resumes, you get dozens, or you get hundreds of resumes for positions.

And they’re all pretty nicely done usually. So how do you begin to sort out, what are the factors that become really important? Many of those pop during an interview. The resume helps you eliminate some. But the kinds of things that would count for me and did count for me when I was in the professional world, in hiring was one, of course, what are the communication capabilities?

Can they write and can they speak? Those are pretty foundational kinds of things. Are they creative? What do they do to demonstrate that they have passion and positive energy in fact that they can bring to the job? How would they fit into the culture of your particular organization?

Do they seem to be people who can work on their own, in other words, do they have self-initiative? So there are eight or ten or 12 things that become important, and what you’re really looking, what I want to see happen is I want to see something pop.

We talk about the “it” factor. I want to hire somebody who has It. And if you interview ten or 12 people and you start to look at it, there is going to be somebody who pops, somebody who differentiates himself or herself a little bit more than everybody else in the interview.

That’s the person I want to hire. So for students entering the field, think about how you can differentiate yourself in a positive way from everybody else and then make it happen.

Recorded: July 2013