Plank Legends & Leaders: Dr. Nilanjana Bardhan


Dr. Nilanjana R. Bardhan is a professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC). Nilanjana’s teaching interests include public relations, intercultural/international communication and critical media and cultural studies.

Define what leadership in public relations means to you.

>> PR leadership is multidimensional. And yes, there are some leadership skills that I think apply across different industries. But at the same time, there are some PR skills that come to mind right away when I think of PR leadership. And those skills are the ability to be the kind of person who’s an excellent communicator and is able to inspire and motivate groups and people in her or his organization in ways that they’re able to accomplish goals and objectives that have been set for that organization. And the PR leader is able to bring people along with her and him in order to accomplish those goals and objectives and obtain and earn the respect of the different people within the organization as well.

What are the top qualities of excellent leaders in public relations?

>> I think there are three or four qualities that are necessary to be a good public relations leader. I would say number one is to be a really good student of human nature, because we work with different kinds of people, and we are in the work of building relationships with different kinds of peoples and publics. So it is really important to understand that human beings are very complicated and diverse and we have to understand and not judge differences.

That is one thing. The second thing I think is to be able to stay calm and composed in times of crisis, in order to come up with good solutions and, especially in the PR world, that is something we have to be really good at. And thirdly, I think a peer leader has to be a lifelong learner and keep growing and never say stop learning and I know everything there is to know about being a good leader.

As a recognized leader in public relations, what are a few factors that lead to your success?

>> Things that you experience growing up that shape you into who you will become later. So I’m going to start with the schools that I went and the teachers that I had earlier on in my life, who were very, I was fortunate to go to some schools that gave me access to some very inspiring teachers. Teachers who taught me to be a responsible person who took pride and the work that she did and who also learn to respect difference. And these teachers at an early age were very influential in my life, and then along with my parents, the home environment as well was very important, I think. And they were the other sort of people who taught me to be disciplined in my work. And there was time for play, and there was time for work. And they instilled those values in me. I think those things really helped earlier on. And then, later on in the work world, I think those sort of just take on different, they just seep into the kind of person and leader you become later on in your lives. I think those early influences of teachers and parents and even friends. Now I say friends because I was very fortunate to grow up with many different kinds of friends. I had friends from many different parts of the country and the world. And I grew up in India. And the one thing that when these days, and I am so thankful for this experience, when I think back to this, I think about they were the people, my friends, who taught me how important it is to build relationships across differences. And in PR we have dealt with so many different, and work with so many different kinds of publics. So my friends taught me that to some extent.

What is the most powerful learning experience you’ve had with respect to leadership?

>> So one experience that has shaped me, I think, today and has made me who I am today as a peer educator, is the experience of being a migrant. And that is a very interesting experience actually, because I did my undergraduate education in India and I live there up to that point, and then I moved here for graduate work. And I did work for a short while when I was in India, but then when I moved here, to move into a different country, into a different culture, and learn how to live life and adjust in a completely different system, can teach you a lot. It can teach you a lot about how to be flexible, and yet focused and determined, and how to work with many different kinds of people. And I think going through that experience, and going through it without any family, or friends who you’ve grown up with there to support you or be there you have to sort of do this on your own that can teach you quite a few things about how to get things accomplished as supposed you can say and bring people along with you also.

Who do you believe is a historical figure that best exemplified leadership in public relations?

>> Historical figure who has exemplified outstanding leadership and public relations, and this is going to sound cliche but Betsy Plank comes to mind just because of what she accomplished at the time she accomplished it. Being a pioneer for women in the field of public relations I think that is such an outstanding example for women practitioners to follow. And I’m going to give you another couple of examples, historical. And these examples probably don’t come to mind right away when one thinks of PR in the way we normally tend to think of public relations. I think you can really argue that these folks and these leaders were PR leaders. One is Dr. Martin Luther King. To accomplish a social movement the way he did for social justice and for civil rights takes somebody who knows how to be a good PR leader as well because that means communicating with people. And working with the media, along with everything else you do.

Social movements are peer movements in a way if you think about it. Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, who was where I come from, from India, who was a leader and he was so good at working with the media of that time. We’re talking about the 1930s and 40s and so on when he was leading the independence movement there about how to gain independence for a country. And how to work with people and the media in order to do that. So I think those two examples are they were PR people.

Is there a difference between leadership in public relations and leadership in other fields?

>> I think leadership skills in PR compared to any other profession, some skills are I think the same across the board. However, I think if you think about public relations as a profession, I think leaders in our field have to be really good communicators, because our work is about building relationships with people, and leaders build relationships at so many different levels.

So, how to be a good interpersonal communicator, along with knowing how the media works, right? The human communication part of that is really important and how to build relationships along with your communication skills and how to really understand different kinds of people, and that different kinds of people have different communication behaviors. And how not to judge people based on difference but to understand how to build relationships despite differences.

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

>> I think it does matter what kind of organization or peer leader is in charge. Often the leadership skills will I think differ to a certain extent based on the organization, probably not too much, but what I mean here is if you think about non-profit PR, and you think about for profit or you think of an agency and corporation, each organization has its unique nature.

And the PR leader has to be able to adapt. For instance, for-profit, the bottom line is going to be a very important factor. So how a person leads and the messages that person shares or the way that person, that leader inspires is going to be a little different than say for a non-profit where the bottom line may not be that pressing a factor, so that I would say yes to that.

What can new professional just entering the field do to develop their leadership skills?

>> The new PR professional coming into the PR work world I think needs to look out for good mentors. And those they feel can be role models for them. To look out for people who can be role models for them, who can inspire them, from whom they can learn, network.And never stop learning or think that you’ve figured it all out and now there’s nothing else to do. But to be a constant learner and look for good role models and network. Yes, and those are the ways to pick up those skills and just keep constantly learning.

Can leadership be taught or is it a trait that can be inherited or something else?

>> I think leadership skills are a mix of certain personality characteristics that one just inherently has and a mix of your experiences as you grow up and go through life. And what you teach yourself and what you learn. So I think it is really a mix of all of these three things rather than just one or the other.

Can you think of an example you’ve seen from leadership in action?

>> Two students that I have known in our program are really good examples of PR leadership in action. I had just started teaching as a young assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale several years ago. 15 or 18 so years ago. And our PRSA chapter was going through some difficulties. And we needed a leader, a PR student leader, who could really rally that organization, bring membership back, and get it going full momentum and full speed again. And two students, Helena Paschal, I still remember her name, and if she’s out there she’s a successful motivational speaker. She has her own business now. And Veronica Jenkins. Helena was our president. And Veronica was our VPO, vice-president of operations. The way those two women got that organization back on its feet with their personalities. And the way they communicated with people. And their positive attitudes in the face of a low morale situation was something that I as a professor learned from immensely and it was just something I always think about as an inspiring example to students.

What’s one book on leadership that you would recommend?

>> Well, some people might laugh when they hear my answer about which book inspires me a lot when I think about leadership, and it’s one of those books that will mean something to people of all ages, it’s the Little Prince. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that book but it’s actually back from the 1940s and It seems like it’s a children’s book but it’s actually not just a children’s books, it’s for adults and for children. And it’s by, and I know I’m going to butcher the name, but it’s Antoine D. And he was an aviator, an author, a poet back in the last century in France. And Little Prince always inspired me when I first read it. I was so excited about this book because to me it was the message was, is important expose yourself to different kinds of experiences. And to learn from every experience. And you meet so many different kinds of people and have some new different kinds of experiences if you allow yourself to go through those experiences and you grow so much as a person and how you understand people in the world around you if you open yourself up to that. And that to me is very inspiring and I think leaders need to be people like that.

What are one or two crucial issues facing the public relations industry today?

>> I think two or three crucial issues of Confronting the PR profession today. One is, I’ve mentioned this example before, the issue of diversity. We are in a country and in a world right now, especially, actually, let’s talk about the country and the United States and the changing demographics of this country. The demographics are changing very fast, however, the PR industry and the communication industry to a large extent does not reflect these demographics. And this is going to be I think an issue if it is not addressed, and the industry is talking about it. That’s over the last five years, there’s been plenty of research on this issue and how to bring about change. I think this is one of the issues. The second issue is how to successfully and effectively harness the power of social media. I think right now we’re in the throes of it. We’re very excited about it. We’re trying to use it and developing metrics and measurements and so on. But at the same time, I think we need to do a lot of work to really understand how effective use of social media for PR is. I think those are the two sort of top issues for me when it comes to the sort of challenges confronting the profession.

What advice would you give to students just entering the field as public relations professionals?

>> Some advice I’d have for new students or students who just started in the work world would be not to be afraid of hard work and to always be passionate about what you’re doing. I think if at any point if they feel they’re losing their passion it might be time to actually switch fields. But to find ways, and different things work for different people, it’s always kept the passion for the work alive. And I think also, as one is growing in one’s career, it is really important to learn from different kinds of people. So when they’re networking, when they’re reaching out to others when they’re looking for mentors. To try to not just always learn from those who you feel are like you. But try to learn from those who are different from you because that’s how you really grow as a person, I think so. I those some things I’d like to say in term or offering the term of advice.

What are some daily habits or routines in your life that you believe have contributed to your success?

>> Habits and daily routines that strengthen my leadership skills when it comes to this topic, I think I can think of a couple of things. And the first is with so much coming at you from so many different directions, it’s easy to sort of go off in ten different directions at the same time. So learning how to be mindful and making that an every moment sort of thing is important, and the second thing is remembering that things can get difficult sometimes, things may be uncertain at other times, and there’s a lot of stress sometimes in work. But despite all of that, it’s really important to remember the importance of play and humor because if we get too heavy and if we start taking ourselves in life and work and everything too seriously, and by this I do not at all mean that we should not take our work seriously but it’s sort of an interesting paradox there, if you will. But the third thing I would like to say is that human interaction is really important and I think in today’s sort of, we’re so sort of immersed in social media sometimes we forget that. Ten years ago if I needed to ask a colleague something, I’d go over to their office and actually talk to them. Nowadays, people are sending emails from office to office. And I try to, on a daily basis, try to have as much human interaction with people as I can so I don’t forget those skills because those are very important.

My leadership tip is…

>> My leadership tip is to never stop being a learner, because I don’t think there is a point anyone ever reaches that says I’ve learned everything there is to learn about being a good leader. Be a life-long learner is my leadership tip.

My mentorship tip is…

>> To students, my mentorship tip is, to look for a mentor who will really understand who you are as a person, and help you grow, given who you are as a person. And what your goals and ambitions are.

My networking tip is…

>> My networking tip is to broaden your horizons when it comes to networking and to not always seek out people who are like you, but people who are different from you. So you can really learn about how complicated this world is and have to navigate your way through a very complicated not just country, but world.

What’s the lesson that has taken you the longest to learn?

>> The lesson that took me the longest time to learn Is it comes down to one thing, and that is a Native American saying. And that saying is it’s about having the serenity to know what are the things that you cannot change and to accept those, and to have the courage to change the things that you know you have the power to change and to have the wisdom to know the difference between the two. And I think sometimes it’s very easy to think you can control everything and change everything, but I think as one matures and goes through experiences and through life you figure out it’s really important to make these distinctions. And good leaders teach themselves how to do this.

Published: February 2017

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