Plank Legends & Leaders: John Paluszek


John L.  Paluszek is a former journalist, author and Senior Counsel at Ketchum in New York and Washington D.C. Paluszek specializes in reputation management and corporate responsibility. He is also co-Chairman of the Commission on Public Relations Education, Liaison to the United Nations for the Public Relations Society of America, Ambassador-at-Large for the Global Alliance on Public Relations and Communications Management, and a member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.

Paluszek has written many commentaries for business and academic journals, such as the Journal of Public Affairs Council, Journalism Studies, and the United Nations Global Compact Learning Forum. He is the author of an American Journey: His Immigrant Family is Multi-Generational Memoir and some of the books are Corporate Social Responsibility, Organizing for Corporate Social Responsibility, and Will the Corporation Survive.

Paluszek is a graduate of Manhattan College and a trustee emeritus of the college and has been awarded at Manhattan College Honorary Degree, Doctor of Humane Letters.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> Leadership obviously is a very broad term and I do think it has some special manifestations in public relations. First of all, I think leadership in public relations requires that you totally understand the value of public relations in our society. And by that, I mean that public relations people very often are creating the bridge between an organization and society or between organizations. And working in the public interest, obviously, that is a contribution to society. So that’s number one. Number two in terms of public relations leadership, and this is shared with other leaders in other fields I will grant you, but it is the ability to have people buy into your vision of what’s important, what’s coming down the pike, how we ought to deal with it, and then, helping you and being involved and manifesting that vision and dealing with it.

So I think those qualities are very important in terms of public relations leadership.

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

>> We share these qualities with leaders in other fields but, nevertheless, I think they are quite applicable to public relations. First of all, I think it was President Ronald Reagan, who said, a good leader should know what his or her constituents want, which goes to the fact of listening very creatively, directly to the people that you’re leading, but also to the way in which society is evolving, etc. And the second thing he said was, in addition to knowing what people want, you need to know what they need. And that goes again to the vision aspect in terms of formulating what are the important elements. What are the important objectives and opportunities as well as challenges that exist in the public relations fields, for example. Now, I’ve tried to do that currently in terms of expanding our field and its vision globally and in terms of corporate social responsibility. And I’m finding that there is a growing acceptance of those kinds of opportunities and challenges for public relations people.

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

>> I’ve been very fortunate, and I think you do have to be fortunate to achieve in any field. It obviously starts with the roots, as it were. The family upbringing, the values in terms of integrity so to speak. And it goes to your educational formation as well. I went to a school here in New York, Manhattan College, which is run by the Christian brothers, and those values were expanded in that area.

I think I was also fortunate in terms of my colleagues being very supportive, both within the firm, that I worked for, and also the colleagues in the public relations field. So all of these things contribute to the opportunities that are presented. And then, a little bit of hard work, of course, and a few breaks along the way. You need that. But you also have to be resilient and I think I’ve been somewhat resilient in terms of dealing with the ups and downs that come in any career.

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

>> I think the overriding valuable lesson that I have learned, and it’s not a matter of relating to a given event, but it’s the experience over many years. And that is the ability and the commitment to share the glory. Too many leaders obviously because of ego trips and so forth are quite willing to take credit for various achievements and so forth. But I think it’s very important to be sure that the people who are indeed supporting you in your leadership, share in what the positive achievements might be.

And that goes to right down the line in terms of being sure, as time will allow, to see to it that everyone involved on the whole team all the way down has some feeling of accomplishment as a result of what you have achieved. So it’s not so much a matter of a thunderbolt event as it is this kind of experience over many years.

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 you have to parse that because there’s the practitioner individual, and there’s also the educator or scholar individual. Clearly, how a person stands out, even now, after all of his wonderful achievements over the decades, he’s still an inspiration. He still delivers what is required in terms of leadership, for example, he’s raised the issue of whether or not we ought to be looking at licensing for public relations practitioners at this point.So that’s one of many, many examples for Harold.

In the educational field, there is a professor named Judy VanSlyke Turk who has done some wonderful things and is doing wonderful things. She’s in China, as we speak, and she has traveled the world. She has taught, for example, in the Middle East.

She has taught Muslim women. I believe it’s the University of Dubai, taught public relations there. She’s now had of Public Relations and Mass Communication Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. And I’ve been very pleased to work with her on the Commission for Public Relations Education, which sets the standards for undergraduate and graduate curriculum.

So I think a practitioner, Harold, certainly. And an educator, Judy.

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

>> I think the first thing to be said about that is that regardless of who you’re working for in public relations, it’s very important to keep in mind at all times that you’re working in the public interest. And so, that goes to certain values of truthfulness, obviously, and integrity.

And bearing in mind what indeed the public interest might be on a given issue. The difference is in working from an agency and a let’s say a corporation or non-profit organization or government, are somewhat substantial. For a counseling firm where I’ve spent my career, one has to not only work in a public interest but also in terms of the client’s interest.

We are really, arguably, a profession and so there are professional ethics that go with that in terms of advocating for a client, justifiably, in protecting the interest of that client. And at the same time, working for the benefit of your employer, the counseling firm, which is probably a for-profit organization.

So to that extent, one has to deal with questions like who you represent. Obviously, everybody has a right to communications counsel in our system. But you are known by the company you keep. So a counseling firm obviously has that to keep in mind and the individuals within it.

Corporate people, non-profit people, government people, they all have similar parallel and individual additional ethical commitments as well.

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

>> I think anybody entering the field or in it for a short time would benefit greatly by finding a mentor and that mentor might be on a direct one-to-one basis within the organization. Someone who obviously is relatively senior and can answer some of the tougher questions that come up from time-to-time. And it’s also a matter of finding a what will we say, a virtual mentor or mentors, who might exist through writings in various publications periodicals, and in other communications periodicals as well.

In other words, learn as much as you can as fast as you can by people who have tread this or who have trod this path before you. And the second aspect of it is, I would say, that a lot of young people, being ambitious and creative, are very hungry to grow very fast in their careers and that’s admirable.

But the second piece of advice would be to make sure you do well the job that has been assigned to you, and then perhaps take on some additional work beyond what indeed is expected of you. Finally, I would add, be collegial. Make sure that you’re working very cooperatively with your colleagues.

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

>> One would be to encourage these young people to be very active in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities so that they are well-rounded in terms of the various elements of society. More particularly, in the co-curricular area, surely involvement in the Public Relations Student Society of America, both on a local level, and hopefully beyond that on a national level can help prepare these young people very significantly in terms of what public relations is really all about in practice. And can even make some networking connections that will be valuable to them as they enter the field.

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

>> I think leadership in public relations is another illustration of the great discussion of nature versus nurture. Nature obviously being inherited skills. Nurture being how one develops those by taking advantage perhaps of the mentor or other experiences and developing what nature has given you. The bottom line it would seem to me would be that. We all have various levels of capability in terms of leadership and other qualities and it’s a matter of exercising and doing the work necessary to develop that capability that potential.

And if you’ve done that you will find that you will eventually arrive at a level whether it be the top level or something, perhaps, a little bit beneath that that is reflective of the nature-nurture in your particular personal profile.

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

>> Perhaps an obvious answer, but nevertheless, one that I find very inspiring is what Martin Luther King accomplished in terms of giving, true momentum to the Civil Rights movement. I’ve often thought that, in addition to his personal contribution, he must have been supported by a number of people that sought to it that the media coverage of what he was attempting was very much was presented in a very dramatic fashion across the country for quite some time.

So I think that, again, living and operating at the interface between society and an issue of the time is very important. And truly what Martin Luther King accomplished in this country in terms of making it a better country and the benefits for both African Americans and for whites, actually, and for all of us. I think it’s truly inspiring and something that we can learn from in the public relations field.

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

>> I would say that a book I read recently is intriguing in terms of leadership, not just in public relations, again, but in life. And the name of the book is Franklin and Winston: The Intimate Story of an Epic Friendship. And of course, it relates to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Now, why would I cite a book like that? And incidentally, it was written by Jon Meacham who is now the editor in chief at Newsweek Magazine. I cite that for three reasons. Number one, these were national and international leaders who were faced with tremendous challenges, and lived up to those challenges, and conquered those challenges.

Number two, they each had very serious setbacks in their development as it were. With Franklin Delano Roosevelt it was physical for the most part, but it did interrupt his career and it could have caused depression as it were, but he was resilient. Winston Churchill took an awful long time to reach the prime minister’s level and really had to conquer a great deal of antipathy along the way.

And then, finally, it speaks to the friendship of these two leaders, and how important that was in conquering Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers. And that’s not to be diminished, this business of personal contacts and personal chemistry and friendships, and it’s by no means a pejorative to talk about contacts.

What we’re talking about are people who can relate to each other, and work cooperatively, and complement each other’s capabilities. So I think that’s an interesting book in terms of leadership.

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

>> My advice to young people interested in this profession, hopefully, they’ve studied it somewhat while undergraduates and been active in an organization like PRSSA, would be, first of all, become what I call, again it’s not a pejorative, a news junkie. And by that, I mean that by whatever means you collect your news, whether it’s the Internet or whether it’s more traditional media that I favor the newspapers, etc., and more traditional television, PBS, NPR on radio and so forth.

Be a news junkie because you really do have to understand, not only where we’ve come from, but where we are today, and that changes almost moment to moment. And if you’re going to represent an organization in public relations, you really need to know what context you are operating in and what context that organization is operating in. And what are the factors out there that might influence the future of that organization. So that’s clearly very important. I would think that in addition the experience of educators and scholars on campus who have perhaps practice in public relation at some point that’s worthy of some extra time I know that the guidance hours are not very numerous on campuses.

But I would say take the initiative to really spend a little time, beyond the classroom time, to get an understanding as to where your various teachers are coming from. And they may not have had to have experience in the practice. Research is very important these days on the campus and in practice.

So what kind of research projects are going on that will push the needle or open the envelope, whatever the cliché, would be very, very helpful. And then, finally, I would say students today need to be very realistic in terms of their careers and the opportunities that are presented.

But the need for their creativity. They need also to understand that there is such a demand for entry level positions that they must be a little bit patient in terms of pursuing that first opportunity because it may take just a little while for the stars to line up.

But I can say to the young people that it’s certainly well worthwhile, and in that respect, I kind of wish I was just starting all over again in public relations.

Recorded: July 2009

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