Plank Legends & Leaders: Julia Hood


Julia Hood is the founder of Pop-Up Media and AgendaZoom.

>> My name is Julia Hood, and I am the global brand director of PRWeek. I’ve been at PRWeek for about 15 years barring a 15-month detour at the Arthur W Page Society. I went to the University of Connecticut, I was a theater major, and then I did my masters in journalism at New York University.

Define what leadership in PR means to you. 

>> What leadership in public relations means to me is standing shoulder to shoulder with the enterprise leaders of any organization that you’re part of. That there is an inherent inclusion of the PR function in serious and significant business decisions, brand decisions, any decisions that will influence the way stakeholders feel about a brand or a company.

There is no funnel down to PR. PR is included in that top-level discussion.

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

>> Important qualities and characteristics of people in PR are that they understand business, that they are courageous, and that they are authentic, and that they convey trust, and create trust, and build trust with their stakeholders.

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

>> I think the factors that contributed to my personal success are that I engage with people at all different areas of the organization that I work for. And that I have worked for in the past. That I am interested genuinely in all facets of the organization. And that I started my career listening more than I would talk.

I have always believed that being a constant student of your organization is really, really important. Showing the curiosity, showing interest outside of your own functional area is absolutely critical. It helps people get to know you and learn about you because they’re expressing themselves and your interest in them is what makes you differentiated in their eyes.

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

>> I learned pretty early on from someone who worked on my team that you really have to try not to freak out. When you’re a leader, people are looking to you to set the tone. And there was a particular issue with a PRWeek article that was going wrong and I was kind of losing it.

And my colleague pulled me aside and said, you have to stop it. You’re the leader and you’re freaking everybody out. And I have to tell you, that was a really significant moment for me, where I realized that I was setting the tone. I was sending a message to my team that we were in trouble, that we were encountering difficulties that we wouldn’t be able to cope with, and that nobody really was in charge.

And that, really, people want somebody to take control of these situations. And from that moment on, I resolved, I can’t say I’ve done it perfectly, but I resolved to always take a breath, try and be calm, even in the most difficult circumstances. And, as they say, keep your head while others around you are losing theirs.

What makes this individual such an outstanding leader?  

>> There are so many outstanding leaders in the profession today. But one person I admire very, very much is Gail Heimann, who is the President of Weber Shandwick. She is an extraordinary person. An extraordinary business leader, as well as a creative leader. She’s a consumer maven. She’s a mentor and she takes a passionate interest in developing the careers of women at Weber Shandwick, and actually within the client organizations that she works with.

She invests her time in that. Especially helping women get through the changes of their lives that may derail their careers or slow them down, and helping them navigate those difficulties. And I think, in a profession like ours, where we need more women in senior leadership positions, for a profession that’s actually dominated by women at certain levels, I think she’s an incredibly powerful and important voice.

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

>> I chose a historic figure who exemplifies outstanding attributes of the profession from outside the profession. Because someone who I have always been interested in and admired from historical perspective is Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was the second secretary general. He was in office during the Cold War at a very difficult time in the 50s.

He died an untimely death, unfortunately, while he was on a mission in a plane crash. But if you read his book which is called Markings, which was really his diary, which was found after his death with a note saying it was okay to publish it. It’s really a very, very humbling and evocative account of the interior life of a leader.

And the difficulties in navigating such an important role. And the complexity of his thinking about all the range of experiences that affect any human. But it’s a reminder that even in the most powerful positions we’re all human beings, and his humility and passion is really quite striking. And a historical figure I think actually all leaders should refer to.

Do you think that leadership skills and values in PR are different in any way from those in other professions? 

>> I really don’t think that PR leadership skills are different for our profession than they are for any other. I think leadership is leadership, and stepping into uncomfortable areas and taking charge is what it’s all about, whether you’re a lawyer, or a doctor, or a PR professional.

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

>> Well, there’s a certain difference between anyone who is working for an organization or a brand in itself and an agency. But in the inherent qualities of PR excellence and PR leadership, I don’t think vary from organization to organization in any significant way. And actually, we used to have quite a distinction between corporate PR professionals and agency PR professionals, and never the two shall meet, but actually, that’s become quite a bit more fluid.

And so I think the differences have really been erased over time.

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

>> I would say that a new PR professional really needs to tap into that authenticity of their own interest and their own personality. It is very easy to fall into a kind of PR persona in this profession.

And to speak in jargon. And not really communicate who you are and how you’re approaching difficult topics, difficult issues within the organization. And actually being a problem solver. People need to know who you are and how you tick. In the early part of your career, you should really listen twice as much as you speak, because you will be taking in information from all different aspects of the organization and finding out things, making discoveries that you’re not even expecting.

You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, you don’t have to solve all the problems. What you do need to do is cultivate an understanding and be able to reflect that back.

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

>> I think that universities play a really important role in helping PR students develop their values and their professional skills.

And a number of ways that I would advise doing that is absolutely focusing on writing. It’s trite and it’s repeated often, but the power of writing is one thing that has helped me in my career. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you can’t communicate them, they will become entrapped or distorted.

Others will co-op them. But when you can express them clearly and apply critical thinking to PR strategies, but actually business strategies, and express them in those ways in that written form, that is incredibly powerful actually, more powerful than ever. I would also tell universities to have their students write business plans.

There’s a general truism in the profession that not enough PR people know how companies make money. Where does the enterprise actually make money? What does P&L statement look like? How do you interpret it? And actually, the best way to learn that is to actually take a practical step and write a business plan.

It can be based on a hypothetical company, but it can also be based on a communications investment that you want made in the company, or you would ask for maybe made in a brand into some sort of technology solution or extra person, or extra people, extra headcount. If you can actually take that initiative to write a business plan and universities can help their students understand what would go into a business plan, that will help them be heard in the enterprise in a way that they won’t be otherwise.

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

>> There are many different types of leaders. Your personality drives your leadership style. The difference is, there are some who simply are not interested in being leaders, or do not apply themselves to the difficulty of being a leader. They want the title conferred on them, but not to take responsibility for the really hard stuff that has to happen with leadership.

So I think anybody can be a leader if they want to do the hard work that makes you a leader.

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 believe there is something of a leadership deficit in the PR profession. And I think one of the reasons for that is because it’s actually possible to never take the steps that you need to make the function more relevant and more tied to the actual business objectives.

There are plenty of companies where the PR function exists much as it did 20, 30, 40 years ago and it doesn’t materially change. And no one really is demanding or expecting that it does in the same way that you would for your product development, for example. So without that pressure coming down from the organization, PR professionals have to have the initiative to make that change.

And if they’re not actually taking that initiative, then the void will just perpetuate. And what happens to their teams is they become disillusioned and may leave the profession, or perhaps they adopt the similar sort of inertia. So what we have to really try and understand is what has made the difference in that, let’s call them an elite group of PR professionals, who are serving at board management function level within their organizations. That are bringing marketing underneath their functions, and that are actually expanding their remit into HR and other areas where traditionally PR never went. Where did that function in that company become, did it move from being traditional to being a more significant part of the business?

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

>> I can give you a concrete example of where PR leadership has made a difference. It’s one of my favorite examples, I cite it all the time, and it’s someone whose name has come up over and over again when talking about leadership in the profession, and that’s John Iwata at IBM. I had the privilege of interviewing him in 2004 for PRWeek, and we had a great conversation about how he and his PR team took on, took the initiative to own the Internet, which was this sort of underwhelming platform in IBM at that time.

And this was during a time when IBM was really emerging or trying to emerge from its difficulties. So, the team stepped up and said, you know what, we think we can, I’m paraphrasing here, but we can make this platform more powerful, more meaningful. And actually a true program for collaboration and innovation within the company.

And fast forward, that’s exactly what happened. And that’s a moment where no one’s asking you to step up, no one’s telling you, no one’s giving you an assignment. But John and his team said, here’s an opportunity, we think we can make a difference. We’re going to stick our necks out and take this on.

And there’s lots of ways that they quantify the success of that. There’s monetary ways and cost savings in the usage by the employees. But to me, it’s just a wonderful example of taking risks. And you can’t make the progress without taking those risks. There are areas in every organization that are underserved, under-resourced, that are orphans, where if a little bit of investment of time and, more than a little bit. A lot of investment of time and strategic thinking could apply and make a difference in the company. So I would look back at that example. In many ways would ask Jon Iwata to explain it again and again, how did you recognize that opportunity, take hold of it, and make a difference for the company?

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

>> I recommend that young professionals read biographies or autobiographies of business professionals. Especially an autobiography, an honest narrative that a career is not a linear progression. It takes many, many unexpected twists and turns. You make mistakes, you run into dead ends, you overcome many hurdles, and sometimes you don’t, and sometimes frustration overwhelms you.

But, in the end, you may end up in a different place than you expected. But if you can be open to the opportunities ahead of you, and that’s one of the themes that I think you see often in the best sort of business biographies and autobiographies. And my favorite is the autobiography of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post.

It’s called Personal History. And she wrote it about her journey from being a daughter, and a wife, and a mother to being publisher of the Washington Post herself, upon the suicide of her husband. And it’s wonderful how clearly and honestly she expresses her self-doubt, her uncertainty, the attacks she had from others, the doubt that others threw at her.

And she actually really triumphed. It’s a wonderful story and a real inspiration.

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

>> I think the most crucial issue confronting PR today is that other marketing disciplines, media planning, advertising, media buying, are co-opting what they perceive to be the fundamental skills of PR for their own purposes. If PR doesn’t strongly articulate and defend the tactics and strategies that are uniquely PR, and why the training and experience of a real PR professional will always be preferable to anyone from a marketing profession thinking that simply by tacking on a press release to a media plan is sufficient, we will lose ground.

And that is a significant risk.

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

>> My advice to young people entering the working world is to strive always to be authentic. Speak in a normal way about yourself. And don’t adopt the jargon of those around you or of the kind of marketing profession that we have so much of.

The people that cut through the clutter are the people who speak plainly, clearly, and authentically. And share their own experiences and ask the questions that they need to ask to find out the right answers.

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

>> The factors that I weigh when I am looking for an entry level person in my organization, in my media company, is passion that absolutely grabs you by the throat from across the table.

Especially when you’re at the early stages of your career. It’s about having the energy and the drive to say, I want to take whatever’s coming in this role. That I’m not looking for a job description that is absolutely to the letter. For a job title that gives me some external validation, but what doesn’t have much meaning.

I’m looking to make discoveries in this organization and then let those discoveries, apply them to my next decisions and my next choices. And it comes in an absolute passionate individual who isn’t afraid to show me who they are. Don’t pretend to know all the answers, but show me that you are enterprising and engaging enough to go find out the answers.

What habits in your daily routine strengthen your leadership skills?

>> Well, I have many daily habits. I think two really help me with my leadership within the organization. One is being an agnostic, passionate reader of all things. I have a long train ride. I am a commuter, and I actually like that. Because it gives me time to just read and digest and take in stuff that I wouldn’t normally come across in my day-to-day life.

It gives you ideas, it gives you connections. I’ve never been afraid to connect with anybody I don’t know. That’s also been very, very helpful to me. Being unabashed about reaching out to somebody, walking up to somebody in a networking event. That’s been a great asset as well. And then I believe very much in the eat your vegetables first.

So get the hard stuff done in the morning, dig in and get a sense of satisfaction from doing some tough annoying, boring stuff. Do the numbers. And then give yourself a little reward for eating your vegetables by enjoying some creative time in the afternoons.

Tips on leadership, mentorship and networking.

>> My leadership tip is, hire people who are smarter than you and let them own the areas that you are not comfortable in.

It will only make everyone look better. My mentorship tip is to be specific about what you want to achieve from mentorship, or from being a mentor, and actually, focus on tasks that you can accomplish. My networking tip is to listen, ask questions, and don’t sell yourself. Every leader is scared to death, but they do it anyway.

What is the lesson that took you the longest to learn?

>> The lesson that took me the longest to learn was that it is kinder, in the long run, to be straightforward with people and be honest, still trying to be kind and considerate of their feelings, but that no good ever comes from obscuring the truth.

Recorded: July 2015

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