Plank Legends & Leaders: Dr. Elizabeth Toth


In roles as author, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Chair of the Public Relations Department, and full Professor of Public Relations at Syracuse University and subsequently the University of Maryland, Dr. Elizabeth Toth has inspired and enlightened many minds in the public relations industry. Toth has received numerous grants and awards for her work.

She has published over 75 articles, book chapters, and papers, and served as Editor of the Journal of Public Relations Research, Journalism Studies, and Rhetorical and Critical Approaches to Public Relations. Toth has co-authored Women and Public Relations: How Gender Influences Practice, and The Velvet Ghetto, the increasing number of women in public relations.

Toth also received the national PRSSA Outstanding Advisor Award and the PRSA’s outstanding educator award. Toth holds a BA in speech from Northwestern University and an MA and Ph.D. in communication from Purdue University.

Define what leadership in public relations means to you.

>> A definition would be the ability to focus on a mission to gather people together to actually create actions to achieve goals and objectives. And I think that can emerge in different people at different times given different situations.

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

>> I had a chance to observe Pat as the president of the Public Relations Society of America. And as one of our best trainers, one of our best people for professional development, he was both intellectually gifted but also had the ability to inspire, and to really make you want to do the best that you could do.

Whom do you believe to be the most outstanding leader in the field today and why?

>> This was a tough one too because there are lots of people that I could name. I wanted to first start with Betsy Plank. Not because she’s the person that named this center on leadership. But because she really, in her many years of being a leader in our field, has been our visionary, has always done the right thing, but has included people, has identified the best in people, has really brought out the best in people in order to achieve goals for public relations. But I could also mention John Paluszek, who is also a former president of the Public Relations Society of America. He is a much gentler person. A quiet commander who, again, is able to listen to all points of view, but then to move us forward. To find a consensus and move us forward to goals.

In your view is there a historical figure who most exemplified leadership in public relations? Why?

>> Well, I do want to pick Pat Jackson, because, first of all, he was knowledgeable, but he valued knowledge and he insisted that we build the knowledge in the field. And he was also able to distil it for everyone so that it wasn’t just academic jargon, but it was translated in a way that made the practice better.

Do you think leadership skills in public relations differ from leadership skills in other professions?

>> I don’t think they’re different. I do think that there are many similarities. But I’d like to choose two that I think are distinct. One is the ability to communicate well. To, in other words, use the skills to create messages to understand feedback, to create ways of building relationships. And I claim that for public relations as distinct. The other is to consider the values that are I think part of any decision-making process. Public relations does bring the conversation of values to the table. Morals, beliefs, expectations, obligations, and I think that leaders in public relations must understand that dimension to be successful.

Do the requirements of leadership vary by type of organization?

>> I think so, because each organization has a different culture, and it has different goals and objectives. I don’t think I would do well in a corporate setting. I have more skills I think in a non-profit, say, where there is more need to build collaborative relationships. There is less need to do things quickly and in a hierarchical way. So I think I wouldn’t be very successful in authoritarian settings or corporate settings where decisions have to be made very quickly with a small group of people. I do better with big groups of people and with the problems always changing.

What can a new public relations professional do to develop their own leadership skills?

>> I think the most important thing as I reflect on my own leadership is how it took a while for me to know who I was really well and the kinds of things that were important to me and my own values. Those things don’t start to emerge until, I think, you are out of school. And you get into different situations, different problems that have to be solved. And you sort of find out what you’re made of and what’s comfortable to you. And if in fact, you find yourself able to be cool to focus on the problem at hand, I think those are things that, those talents start to emerge. You become more conscious of them. That’s what I would ask, or recommend to young professionals is, that they just learn who they are as they work through various jobs and settings in public relations and they’ll see whether or not these kinds of talents are there and if they warm to them after. They really actually want to illustrate them or exhibit them in their work.

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

>> Well, what I try to do is actually put students in leadership positions. We have team work, group work in our upper-level undergraduate classes and graduate classes. And sometimes it’s really challenging to let groups have the time to develop their leadership or let leadership emerge. And you do have to stand back and let them fail as much as succeed. And to point it out to make it safe to fail, or make it safe to be successful. And to really, again, stand back and see why you were successful and what did it take to be successful.

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

>> Well, I think that I see a lot of it being inherited, that it is something that is part of your personality. That’s why I think many people can be leaders because they have personality traits that really assist in situations where problems have to be solved and groups have to move forward. The other part of me would say that it can be taught, that you can observe leadership in action. You can study what people have said about leadership. Again to kind of be more conscious of your own style and whether or not you have observed that in yourself in different situations. So in some ways, you can put people in situations where they can be, again, more conscious and aware of the things that they can bring to the table.

How can the profession do to help develop leadership skills in its public relations professionals?

>> One of the areas of research that I conduct is on the influence of gender on the field of public relations. We’ve been concerned that because the field is now predominantly female that we will lose these opportunities for leadership and that organizations will have a preference for males and they won’t recognize the leadership talents that women have. So I think that I’m very sensitive to the idea that we don’t have enough leaders. I think we have plenty of people with plenty of talent. But there may be some biases in the choice of leaders based on gender and or based on other kinds of demographic characteristics, so we have to really, again, be conscious that we’re not falling into stereotypes and limiting the choices that really may be out there for us.

Can you give a concrete example of leadership at work?

>> I wanted to give an illustration of where there were leadership talents that emerged in a group. And it’s one of my favorite examples because it goes to the idea that nothing is etched in stone. When Syracuse University lost 35 undergraduates because of the terrorist attack of the Pan Am 103 plane over Lockerbie, Syracuse University was inundated with media and also activist groups made up of parents and friends of the students that were lost. The activist groups, in the beginning, were very negative and created pressures for the university.

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