Plank Legends & Leaders: Dr. Rochelle Ford


Throughout Dr. Rochelle Ford’s public relations career, she has always made diversity and multiculturalism her focus. Ford’s public relations career began the University of Tennessee at Martin as a public relations instructor.

Dr. Ford’s ardent work ethic has been recognized by The National Capital Chapter of The Public Relations Society of America. She was awarded the 2006 Diversity Champion Award for her efforts in bringing attention to the issue of ethnic and cultural diversity.

Define leadership in public relations in your own words.

>> Leadership in public relations is really a servant role. In public relations, you’re there to help an organization succeed and to help the organization not fail in what it’s initiatives are. And so, if you’re going to be a leader in public relations, you’re really a servant leader. And you’re there to help the organization think about things that are going to be helpful to them, the communication, the relationships they need to build with different publics. You’re there to really think about what things are threats to an organization. And so if you’re the one who wants to stand out front and say I’m the man, I’m the woman, that’s not going to make you an effective leader in public relations. You have to have a servant’s heart and really wanting to help the organization.

What are 3 or 4 most important characteristics of effective public relations leaders?

>> I think one is humility, that you have to have a humble servant’s heart and that’ll go a long way versus someone who has an outstanding ego. Because again, the best public relations people are the rainmakers behind the scenes. In addition to that, I think transparency is critical, that you have to be open and honest. And that goes into the third principle of honesty, honesty is the best policy. You learn these simple things when you were a kid, to be open and to be honest. And that’s a key to a public relations leader’s characteristics.

What’s the best learning experience you’ve had with regards to leadership in the field?

>> With regards to leadership in the field, I think, the most powerful experience I’ve had was when I was a student actually and belonging to the Public Relations Student Society of America. I joined that organization as a freshman, my second semester of my freshman year and never regretted it since. Because I was able to become president of our student chapter when I was a sophomore, go to conferences, learn about leadership capabilities. We had a very small chapter at that time so I was able to help grow the chapter in size. And then I was able to learn more leadership on a national level when I was elected to become a district representative at that time. They have a district structure similar to what PRSA has. And to help chapters around the east coast learn how to increase their membership and learn about the public relations practice. And so that gave me a lot of exposure, and even enough confidence to run for national office. Now, of course, I didn’t win the national presidency, but the ability to stand up in front of hundreds of students who I didn’t know and to give a presentation and to promote myself, was a wonderful experience and one that I’ll never forget. And then it also gave me a network that I still have to do this day. I remember meeting Betsy Ann Plank when I won the PRSSA Betsy Ann Plank scholarship. And through PRSSA I would have never met a mentor like her, meeting Ofield Dukes as a student through the Public Relations Student Society of America. Again, a mentor that I have for life but it was being a leader in that organization that opened doors to meet great professionals like the two of them.

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

>> One of the most outstanding leaders today I think is Cheryl Procter-Rogers. She’s a former national president of the Public Relations Society of America and I consider her to be an outstanding leader today because she was very influential, not just in the public relations society but also in the black public relations society as well. And establishing chapters in Los Angeles, being very proactive in the entertainment industry but also in the corporate America as well. Being Vice President at HBO and going on to establish her own public relations agency. But as the Public Relations Society of America president, she was the second African-American woman to lead the organization and was able to do it with a broad base of support from the organization. And she was able to promote the brand of the Public Relations Society, create products and things that enabled the Society to flourish under her tenure. But she does it through a very nice, gentle spirit, she’s someone who you genuinely enjoy being around. But she’s a tough cookie, and you’re not going to pass one by her because she’s a nice person. But she’s a very strong, humble leader.

Whom do you consider to be a historical figure that most exemplifies leadership in the public relations field?

>> Well, I hate to call Ofield Dukes a historical figure because he’s still living today. And he’s a dynamic current figure in public relations. But he has a long history within the field and I consider him one of the best historical leaders in public relations. What he demonstrated as a journalist. But then, when he became a public relations professional, working under Hubert Humphrey’s administration, he was able to bring people together. He always talks about how to build friends and to network with people and how to influence people and being genuine, being honest, having integrity, knowing thyself and being true to thyself. Those are things that he tells people all the time but things that he actually has implemented, and things that he lives by that has made him an effective leader. His ability to start his own firm and counsel international governments and counsel local businesses and nonprofits and presidents of the United States in their campaigns. Absolutely fabulous leader. But then didn’t stop there, but has worked with the Public Relations Society of America, established the Black Public Relations Society chapter in Washington, DC. He’s there working with people and leading by example of having a humble spirit, being a gentle character, but then also being willing to be behind the scenes to make things happen.

Do you think leadership skills in public relations differ in any way from leadership in other fields?

>> I think you use the same leadership skills in public relations that you use in other professions. You may not, again, always be the upfront person, but at times you have to be the one who stands up for what’s right. You have to be the one who is vocalizing the points that need to be made. Sometimes you’ll put them in writing but often times it does need a charismatic individual who can get the attention of management or get the attention of the public to listen or to be heard. So just because I say you have to be humble doesn’t mean that you can’t be charismatic. That other leadership styles that people have, the leadership of being able to listen, to understand people crosses the board, whether, in corporate America, non-profits, or If you’re working at an agency, you have to be a good listener. You have to be a good communicator, whether you’re leading a business corporate 500 company or if you’re a school teacher, you’re a leader. So, I think those qualities are essentially the same. There are just some fundamental leadership skills that you need no matter what the environment is, but how you apply it. Again, you have to be good at your trade. You can’t just have excellent leadership skills, but you have to show leadership by demonstrating excellence. Knowing how to write, knowing how to edit, knowing how to speak, knowing how to bring people together, to do research. All those qualities that make an excellent public relations professional, it’s going to make a public relations leader.

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

>> I think that the leadership skills are essentially the same no matter the environment that you’re in. Then, again you have to be excellent at your trade and I say trade, but excellent at your profession as well. And you have to be an ethical person, I think that’s critical, no matter what industry that you’re in. You have to be true to the organization and true to the people that you’re working with and so that you are representing the public’s best interest within the organization no matter if it’s a nonprofit or a corporation. I think that a leader should be able to go between different types of organizations and still be effective. It’s just you’re representing a different type of client. But the fundamentals are the same.

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

>> I think first really observing excellent leaders. You can’t work within isolation. You need to look and see who is doing it right. Talk to those individuals. Look for strong mentors who can help you develop your own skills. I wouldn’t be here without excellent mentors and I learned from them. I’ve learned from their mistakes and say, okay, I’m not going to do it quite that way. But I’ve learned from their successes as well. So, finding an excellent mentor, getting involved in student organizations like PRSSA, again, it gives them an opportunity to work with their peers. And if you can motivate your peer group then you can really begin to motivate people are different than you as well. So, I think getting involved with organizations but then also, really finding great mentors or people that you find as role models. And begin to try to copy the things that are good, and avoid the mistakes.

What can university educators do to help develop leadership skills and values in their students?

>> I think it’s important that educators, when they have team projects, don’t always let the students self-select who’s going to be a team leader. Sometimes it’s letting one of the students who may not naturally arise because they’re not very talkative. But selecting people to be leaders of a group because it’ll give that student an opportunity to learn and to develop leadership skills because what you’ll oftentimes find as an educator is that one student becomes the leader of every single class project or activity that they do. And so you want to spread that opportunity around. And to also encourage them and teach them in the classroom, how do you lead a team, how do you lead a group of people so that it’s not just something that you let them flounder and do on their own, but to actually teach those skills. How to lead a group meeting, how do you try to listen to people, take notes? How do you summarize a meeting? Although that sounds like a secretarial skill, a leader has to be able to do that as well because they need to be able to collect their thoughts, collect the thoughts of others. And then, learn how to bring people together to come across some sort of consensus or way to move forward in the best interest of an organization.

Can leadership skills be taught, or are they inherited?

>> I think that leadership can be taught. In fact, when I was in high school I got to participate in the league of women voters in their leadership training seminars. In college, I was in the In-Roads program which taught young people how to become corporate executives. And so there are definitely modules that you can learn how to do. Learn how to become a better listener. Learn how to become a better speaker. Learn how to become a better organizer, better manager of time. All those things can be taught and then also you can learn by your mistakes. If you are a very introverted person you can learn by reading how to become more extroverted when appropriate. If you’re an extroverted person you need to learn how to take a step back listen, let others do the talking sometimes. And all those things can be learned. Now, some people are going to be naturally more charismatic than other people, and that’s fine, and those are some of the things that might be innate. But you can learn how to get outside your box, and learn different leadership styles because not every style is going to match every situation. And you have to learn how to maneuver through different situations and know what is appropriate.

How can professionals in public relations due to help encourage leadership skills in new practitioners?

>> Is there a lack of leaders in the profession is a good question. I think that people lead in different styles in different manners and different environments, so I wouldn’t say that there’s a lack of good leaders. But I think that we need to continue to develop and have opportunities for leadership development. I believe that, again, these are skills that can be taught. And so when we have our professional development seminars or conferences like IABC’s conferences that they have or Public Relations Society or Council of PR Firms and the events that they have. That you can teach and actually have these seminars on listening, on time management, on public speaking, and make sure that the various skill sets are taught at these different conferences or chapters and events, and so that it’s not just learning how to write better, or learning how to do new media better, but learning various leadership characteristics.

Can you give a concrete example of leadership at work?

>> I can go back to Ofield Dukes’ examples and one of the examples that there was going to be a crisis where people were going to begin to boycott because unfair practices, and he was able to listen to the public and listen to the organization and help people come down, and meet together, and talk about it, and to avoid that boycott from happening.

Is there a book on leadership that you would recommend to students and young public relations professionals?

>> There is a book of a biography of John H Johnson, Succeeding Against the Odds. And I think that that’s a wonderful example because he was born to a very meager beginning. And was able to build international corporation that targeted African Americans in a time where segregation was still happening and his mother only had a third-grade education. And she picked him from where he was raised along the Mississippi River and brought him up to Chicago so that he could actually finish high school because his town didn’t even have a high school for colored people. And so, she packed up her family, moved up to Chicago, he was able to finish high school there, started out by working as his high school publication, and became a leader even though he had this nice country accent from Arkansas City, he was able to become a leader. And what he did, he would practice in front of the mirror, learning how to talk. Because again not saying that a southern accent is bad, because it’s not. But when you talk to northerners and you have a southern accent, all of a sudden they think that you’re slow, or You’re not that intelligent, and so he learned to be able to oscillate back and forth between cultures. So that he could use the southern twang at home, but then go in front of his audience of his peers at school and learn how to speak with the typical standard American English. But in addition to that, he was able to have confidence in himself and his abilities. Again, not looking at what his past, his major beginnings were, but then have confidence in himself and say, you know what? It’s okay to dream, it’s okay to go after that dream. So he actually took out a loan on his mother’s furniture and able to start his first publication, $300. And his publication went from just one publication into Ebony, Jet Magazine. Then he went on to establish Fashion Fair, product line for women, cosmetic line, went on to have hair product lines. So there was a lot of different businesses that emerged just from having belief in himself and daring to dream and go after those dreams. And it’s a very motivational book. It’s very easy to read because it’s written in first person and telling of his experiences. And he quotes a lot of people who are leaders in themselves, from Dale Carnegie and other people. So it’s excellent read, Succeeding Against the Odds. I think one of them is going to be diversity.

What are the most crucial issues facing the industry today?

>> America is changing so much and people are afraid of that word diversity. They’re thinking, that’s something else, I don’t want to deal with that. That’s just affirmative action, but it’s good public relations. I always joke with people and say, okay, how many of you do campaigns just to target white people? And people then laugh at me and say, that’s a weird thing. I said because all white people are alike, aren’t they? And so you can do eight campaigns to target all white people in America. And they think it’s just the funniest statement ever made. But on the other hand, people then will say well, we need a special practice to target black people as if it’s a monolithic group. Or we’ll target all Hispanics because they represent all the same countries. Or really, we’ll target Asians because they too all speak the same language. And as you know, those are all very hilarious statements as well. But people are afraid to look at different elements of diversity, not just along racial lines, on gender lines.

People are afraid to talk about how the international implications of public relations are affecting domestic publics as well as international publics. People don’t like to talk about people who are different than them. Looking at the gay, lesbian, transgender communities that are a very important public that needs to be looked at because they deserve to have communications because they’re people, too. But people are afraid to talk about that. People are afraid to begin to segment their publics along those lines. Where sometimes, it’s very important to be segmented along different demographic lines.

So we have to learn how to get over communicating against otherness and be comfortable with our otherness. But first, understanding who we are and how that influences our communication is so critical. But it takes time for people to reflect on who they are, and then what commonalities exist between different types of people because there are commonalities. And then how do issues affect people differently, depending upon their background is.

So I think diversity is one area that’s going to need to be looked at from the practice of public relations. But also diversity within the profession of public relations, meaning who is actually becoming the professionals within the industry. We don’t want to end up like the advertising industry. Where we can have a class action lawsuit against that industry because the inability of people to progress through the agency ranks. But public relations is nearly as bad as the advertising industry is and so we need to be conscious of who are we promoting? Women have cracked the glass ceiling in public relations to some great extent. But if you look at Hispanics, Asian Americans, African Americans, they are so underrepresented within the public relations industry. And we need to do better recruiting, better mentoring, and so that people won’t just come in the door as entry level professionals. But can continue to grow within the industry and not be steered to other professions, but really stick with the public relations industry and become successful within. So I definitely think diversity is one of those major issues that need to be addressed.

Another issue that I think really needs to be addressed within public relations that is going to continue to be a challenge is this whole social marketing, social media, the new media. Things are changing so rapidly and how do we communicate with people? How do we control messages? How do we listen? Because there are so many messages out there now. That it’s not just understanding your publics by reading the daily paper because you still have to monitor the print outlets. You still need to monitor the radio and the television outlets. But then how do you monitor the blogs? How do you monitor what’s going on on Twitter? How do you monitor what’s happening in Facebook, and BlackPlanet, and Black America Web, and all these other websites and things that exist out there? So that’s going to continue to be a major challenge of how do we position our companies so that we are respected within that space? But then also how do we listen to these publics that are communicating on that space so that we can help our organization succeed?

What’s the best advice you can give to public relations students just entering the work world?

>> Write, write, write, write. And starting off, I still believe that some of the best training is learning how to think like a journalist. Because you’re going to learn how to ask excellent questions, you’re going to learn how to write, you’re going to learn how to edit. And I think that those are some fundamental skills that you can’t get rid of. Because I believe part of what the public relations person’s job is is to have the questions and answer them before anybody else does. And so if you can learn how to ask good questions, if you can learn how to respond to those good questions. If you can learn how to gather that information from your publics and really become a good listener. I think that you’ll be on the right track to become a good public relations professional. And I’m not saying that you have to become a journalist first and go work at newspapers before you enter the industry. I don’t think that’s the case. But I think that working for publications, at least on your college level, gives you that opportunity to learn, to get to know people, to get outside of your comfort level. So that you can communicate on behalf of people.

The other thing is get involved again with public relations organizations, like PRSSA. So many of these college campuses have student-run agencies now where you can actually work and learn how to become a leader and doing projects for real clients. And I think that that’s a critical thing to be able to do. Even doing public relations projects for your sororities or for your other state clubs or community groups that might be on campus or a local non-profit that might need some help and just to get your feet wet.

The other thing is internships, learning from the pros. Although student agencies are great and doing freelance work is wonderful, but going in and working underneath a professional to learn what their trade is or what their profession is. And to have someone supervising you, so you can learn the etiquette of offices, so you know that you’re not going to be on Facebook when you’re supposed to be doing work time. Not that any of my students would ever do that because they’re absolutely wonderful, perfect individuals. But I’ve heard that. I’ve read it someplace that there sometimes is a challenge in office etiquette. And that that needs to be something that students must learn is office etiquette. How to sit, how to talk, how to eat a meal.

All of those things are so important. And I think through internships and also through professional organizations, students can learn those skills. So write, getting involved in activities, like student-run agencies, and getting internships will help set students on the right path.

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

>> Their ability to write, number one. Their poise and their presence and their energy and passion for the field. I think that there’s a lot of students who go through public relations programs or communication programs who just think public relations sounds interesting. And they kind of wonder through the classes. They don’t have a passion for the field. I think the future leaders of this industry have a passion for public relations. Not just because they’ve joined professional organizations, but you can see the pride in their work. And the work, again, their writing ability. Because if you can write well, more than likely you can speak well, as well, because you know how to put ideas together. And so I would look for some who has passion, someone who has poise, and someone who can write.

Recorded: July 2019

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