Plank Legends & Leaders: Dr. Diana Martinelli

Dr. Diana Martinelli is the Widmeyer Professor in Public Relations and Interim Associate Dean of the P.I. Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University. Diana has nearly 15 years of professional public relations and communications work in broadcasting, health care and national government programs. She worked as public affairs director of a radio station, a program associate for public relations in the West Virginia School of Medicine, and as managing editor for the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse.

Diana’s research explores health communication and women’s role in public relations. She regularly gives public relations and communications seminars to government, professional and academic audiences and has secured or been part of grant projects totaling more than $1.1 million.

Diana has a BSJ and MSJ from the P.I. Reed School of Journalism, West Virginia University, and a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> Leadership in public relations to me is exemplified by someone who has not only strong technical skills, but also strong emotional intelligence. In addition, I think, someone who is truly open and curious about others and different perspectives and that they can take all of those elements and use them in a strategic way to help move organizations toward their goals.

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

>> Excellent leaders in the public relations field have actually been identified through research that The Plank Center has sponsored, global research that’s identified about six different public relations leader dimensions, including an organizational dimension. But to me, out of those six dimensions, really, I believe the most important would be an ethical orientation, team collaboration, strategic decision making, and relationship building.

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

>> I think part of my success personally has been due to factors that were both internal that I could control, as well as external, those things that I could not control. And those things that I could control included just perseverance, resiliency, and a willingness to take risks, both personally and professionally. Those elements outside of my control, really, I was blessed with people in my life who believed in me, again, personally and professionally, and allowed me opportunities to grow and to learn and to challenge me.

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

>> One of the most powerful learning experiences I had professionally in public relations was when I was a young public relations practitioner working in healthcare PR. And our unit, our public relations unit, was combined with the marketing unit, and that was not unusual at the time. A lot of organizations were combining those functions into one. And my boss in the public relations unit had a leadership style of very nurturing and very collaborative. And when we were merged with the marketing unit, they brought in someone from outside, someone external, and that person did not have any relationships built yet and I’m sure had a very significant charge placed before her. And her style was very different. Her style was more of an abrupt, kind of hierarchical, top-down style, not at all collaborative, as my other boss had been. And so for me, it was an opportunity to really compare and contrast two totally different leadership styles within the same organization and within a relatively short period of time. And for me, that helped me to decide what types of leadership styles resonated with me personally and those that I wanted to try to emulate.

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

>> It’s tough to identify a single outstanding public relations leader in the field today, I believe. I think we are blessed with so many outstanding leaders, including all of the members on the Plank board. I’m just so impressed with all of their accomplishments and their passion for public relations. Rather than name one leader in particular, I’m going to name three, three of whom I have personal experience and knowledge.

And the first is Dr. Bruce Berger, who is one of the directors and founding members of the Plank Center board. He has been a leader in research in public relations, really, not just leadership generically, but public relations leadership specifically and has managed to organize and facilitate research from around the world that’s helped us to really understand, I think, ourselves and our profession better. Those who are in the field, agency work, I think Richard Edelman, the Edelman family for maintaining an independent agency in this world of conglomeration and for being supporters and very strong supporters for a long time of public relations education.

And then, lastly, I think Fred Cook– Fred Cook is now, I believe, a chairman at Golin. And while he was at Golin, he helped to facilitate a radical change in the way that agencies, or particularly his agency, was run. And that’s going from the traditional agency model, again, that’s very hierarchical, where you’ve got assistant account executives and account executives and account directors and creative directors and all of those kinds of titles and functions to really form the g4 model. And so they worked with people, they tested them, they spoke and found out their passions and their strengths and talents, and they came up with four, four titles– catalysts and connectors and creatives and strategists. And so to me, that’s a true thought leader in the field of looking at new ways and innovative ways to serve clients and to serve people and to practice public relations better.

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

>> Historical, outstanding public relations leader– of course, I have to say Betsy Plank, and I’m sure you hear that a lot. I was honored to know her while she was still alive. And her legacy, what she has done to create The Plank Center is just fabulous. But personally, she was a woman leader. She was the first woman president of PRSA. She was the first woman in many, many ways in the field of public relations. But it was her passion for the profession for young people and for supporting that in so many ways and always thinking about the next generation and mentoring that causes me to list her as number one.

And then there is a second one, another person very famous to those of us in the field, Arthur W. Page. There is a society named after him and his principles. You know, I believe he was the first person to hold the title vice president of public relations. He worked for AT&T, but his principles were very simple and yet profound, things like tell the truth and prove it with action and then practice public relations as if the whole enterprise depended on it, and, indeed, it does.

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?

>> I think the leadership dimensions that are critical for public relations are also key and in other fields. But I believe the emphasis that is placed on those areas could be different. For instance, I think public relations leaders have to demonstrate, have to be a role model for team collaboration and for relationship building. Leaders in other fields might be able to make decisions almost in isolation, really. I mean, they could say this is the way I think we need to go for the organization, and so this is the decision I’m making.

But I think in public relations, team collaboration and, again, building and maintaining those positive relationships force people to engage with stakeholders and to get their perspectives and to try to get buy-in for whatever decision it is. So, again, I think the skills are important in any field, but I think the emphasis placed on those skills and the way professionals demonstrate those may be different.

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

>> I think the requirements for PR leadership may well vary by the type of organization. Again, I think all of the elements of leadership that are important are still important, regardless of the type of organization in which one works. But if you think about it, someone who is in government public relations, the skills and the types of activities that are very important for them and the stakeholders that they have to move that organization forward may be very different from the types of talents and skills that an agency head who is dealing with lots of different types of clients, a transitory, sometimes transient type of clientele and also lots of employees– I think that the work that they do, the emphasis and their particular skills, again, may well be different.

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

>> A new public relations professional I think can work to develop leadership skills simply by taking advantage of opportunities and taking the initiative to pursue opportunities that are going to force them to grow and to stretch their skills. I think also seeking out and emulating a mentor is very important to help them develop their own leadership styles and their own skills.

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

>> Public relations educators can help public relations students develop leadership skills in a couple of ways, I believe. One of those is to give them opportunities to practice real-world skills through encouraging them to do internships, through student-run agencies, through case studies in the classroom, through organizations like PRSSA, so really exposing them to professionals to guest speakers who come in and talk about what they do on a day-to-day basis and to open students’ eyes to the possibilities and also to let them know that it’s possible for them to do those things, as well, but they have to prepare themselves. I think, secondly, public relations educators have to hold students accountable and accountable for meeting deadlines, accountable for doing quality work, accountable for working in teams, and accountable for acting in a professional way.

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

>> I think leadership can be learned. I think it is difficult to teach it, per se, but I think that one has to try to teach and instill leadership attributes and qualities in young people and others who have a desire to become leaders. I think just like anything else, some people are better at it naturally. They have the personalities that make them more charismatic or dynamic or outgoing. But just like someone who is shy can learn to overcome shyness by doing it and practicing, I think, too, leaders also can be developed with time with self-reflection and with effort.

Some have argued that there is a shortage of outstanding leaders in PR today. What can the profession do to help new practitioners, or those with experience in the field, develop greater leadership skills? How can we address this leadership deficit if, indeed, it exists? 

>> I don’t believe we have a dearth of leadership in public relations. I know so many excellent leaders in the field who were doing their work every day in a quality way. And I know on the Plank Center board, for instance, there are many, many outstanding leaders in public relations represented.

I do think, however, that we may have a lack of leadership when it comes to the profession overall, people who are true thought leaders who are out representing the profession as a whole and talking about its value holistically to organizations and representing the profession moving forward, making sure it’s not subsumed or put together with marketing and with advertising. Although those things certainly work together and integrated communications is extremely valuable and I’m wholly supportive of that, I think public relations as a function has value in and of itself, as well. And we need thought leaders who are able to express that and to convince executives and others of organizations of that value, too.

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

>> My current boss, Dean Maryanne Reed at the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University, is an example of someone who was able to put forth a significant change and do so quite elegantly. And I was able to watch her do this and admire her approach to it from a public relations perspective. And what that change was after 75 years of being a school of journalism, she really took the initiative and did the research and talked to stakeholders to change that to a college of media. As you might imagine, a lot of alumni are very loyal to their school, and, of course, journalism is extremely important in society and one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

And so she didn’t mean to diminish that in any way, but it was a matter of really truly representing the breadth of what our programs offered– public relations, advertising, you know, television, media production, all sorts of things and not just journalism. And so she had to, again, do the research and engage stakeholders and build support for that change.

People typically don’t like change very well, and she knew there would be people who still opposed that change. And yet she engaged with them. Any person who spoke out against it, she engaged. And she talked with them, and so she earned a lot of respect. People came to understand, even if they didn’t agree with the change, why it was made.

And I believe it was something that helped us move into the future, helped us engage more young people who may think, gosh, I love media, but maybe I don’t want to be a journalist. So it had a larger goal. It was visionary, and she did it so well. And I think people, again, even who did not agree with it, came out respecting her all the more for it.

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

>> There are so many books on leadership. I cannot name just one, but I would recommend for young professionals, I think, anything by John Maxwell. He has written so many books, and he’s so accessible to so many people. And also a couple of classics from people who are no longer with us but I think they still hold lessons for young people, and that would be How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and also Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Managers and that series. It’s practical advice and something that people probably know on a subconscious level, but I think it can help bring it to the forefront and they can take something very valuable away from those books.

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

>> I think one of the most significant issues confronting the public relations profession today is that it is being subsumed perhaps by more of a marketing function. And I know this has been a fear in the field for some time, but I believe with the confluence of social media and marketing and advertising and public relations and although those can have benefits, certainly you want to work together with all of those units to move an organization forward, I think that there is a tendency to perhaps put the focus on the consumer and forget about all of the other stakeholders that are involved in an organization and making it run well and gaining loyalty and really having a long-term vision for that organization.

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

>> I think the public relations field in some ways has greater credibility than it did 20 years ago in that I believe most executives understand the value of reputation. And in today’s social media environment, reputation can be destroyed in a matter of hours, whether it’s deserved or not. And so I think most leaders understand that public relations people need to be monitoring and spanning all kinds of media and ensuring the reputation is safeguarded and helping when a crisis does occur to help build back trust and recover from that crisis in an authentic way.

However, I also think that perhaps public relations is not as valued in other ways, again, for wholly its pure function of simply building strong relationships, maintaining those with multiple stakeholders over time to move an organization forward. And I think public relations people are so skilled at telling an organization’s story and understanding how you can do that in an authentic way to also be true to the vision and moving it forward long term and cutting through some of the cacophony of messages that are out there, and yet so many people can tell messages that I think a lot of organizations don’t perhaps value a public relations professional being in charge of those.

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

>> My best advice for young professionals just entering the public relations workforce would be to exhibit a strong work ethic, to also exhibit a positive attitude, stay humble, have a good sense of humor, and show an eagerness to learn.

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

>> If I were to hire a public relations entry-level position today, the strongest factor in my decision would be strong writing skills– secondly would be experience, experience through internships, experience through work, extracurricular activities, PRSSA, and also telling me that they really have a passion for the field and that they really are eager to contribute to the organization in which I’m working.

What habits in your daily routine strengthen your leadership skills?

>> One of the elements I think that helped strengthen my leadership skills on a daily basis is taking time to be human first. And that may sound funny, but what I mean by that is to take the time to step away from the desk and to walk around and to engage with people on a human level and not just hide behind my phone and my computer and use mediated communication, but really to ask people, not only what they are working on, if they need any help, how that is going, but also how they’re doing, how their families are doing, what kind of plans they have coming up. And I think that that really helps me to get a better insight into them as a person. It makes work more fun, more engaging, more human, but it also helps me, from a leadership position, to know if there are issues that people are facing and ways we might be able to help them or what their passions are that I may not even be aware of. And so to me it’s a simple thing. It’s a small thing, but it’s so easy to get bogged down in work and just sit there and just focus on that and not focus on the humanity that’s around you.

My leadership tip is…

>> My leadership tip is to take the initiative to try new things and to grow and not to be afraid and not to wait for them to come to you.

My mentorship tip is…

>> My mentorship tip is to identify a leader whom you admire and to emulate them and to take the initiative and don’t be afraid to initiate the relationship.

My networking tip is…

>> My networking tip is to always carry business cards, always give away business cards, and always take business cards from those whom you meet. On the back, write the date, write where you met them, and then when you get time, go back write a personal note, tell them how much you enjoyed meeting them and ask them to LinkedIn.

Every leader is…

>> Every leader is human and makes mistakes, and that’s all right as long as you admit it and you learn from it and you move forward.

Lesson that took you the longest to learn…

>> The lesson that took me the longest to learn is that it’s OK to ask for help and to ask for advice. I think that many times professionals and young people who are just starting and they think, oh my gosh, I’ve graduated college and now I need to know everything, and you don’t. And it’s not a sign of weakness, but it’s really a sign of strength to ask people for help and ask people for advice when you need it.

Recorded: July 2017

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