Plank Legends & Leaders: Keith Burton

Keith Burton has been one of the leading industry practitioners in employee communications and change management. Keith runs his own PR consultancy, Grayson Emmett Partners, which specializes in employee engagement and working with major brands in sectors such as banking and finance, manufacturing and consumer products.

Leadership in any field seems crucial to success and the future of that field. But “leadership” is a broad term with many dimensions and connotations. Please define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> It’s a really interesting topic. I’ve been thinking deeply about this in the last several months because of the change that we’ve had in the economy. And what that’s meant for many of our clients and the companies that I work with, and it really goes to the precepts of this Arthur Page report that came out in 2008 called the Authentic Enterprise which I really believe deeply on.

It talks about the importance of values, and beliefs, and mission statements, and charters of organizations in using those as a compass for what they must do. But more individually beyond the enterprise level, it also means being true to your values, and doing the things that are important on a very consistent basis so that the people that you work with, and who look to you for leadership see you as being a role model for these areas, and that’s been my belief for many, many years.

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

>> Excellent leadership, in my opinion, starts with listening. I’ve long believed, and that’s when I first moved into my role in 1991 with a great organization Ketchum Public Relations. I learned early on in my work, that the people I worked with and served within this agency, had things to say to me that I didn’t always hear.

And so, I went off as a part of my work with the Center for Creative Leadership and participated in a 360-degree review in which I heard their feedback. I actively asked for it and heard it. And they told me things that I really needed to know about how I lead, and how I could be more effective in that leadership.

And I’ve tried to practice through the years, great listening, number one. Believing in a consistent set of core values, that really help to guide in what I do and to be accomplished in that respect, those two things were important. But also executing in a way that is consistent, so that people see you living out as values and doing the things that you tell them are important, yet really walk the walk in those values rather than just walking tall.

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

>> I think it’s having some great mentors in the process. There are several people who have had deep influence in the work that I have done most recently in the past decade. I’ve had ten years now with the GolinHarris Agency as a part of their work. And the person who was most influential to me is a man by the name of Al Golin who founded the agency.

And I’ve often told the story to people who ask me about that agency, that before I accepted my position one of the conditions was I wanted to have lunch with Al Golin because I’d participated against the agency in Chicago for many years and do business pitches. And I’d heard how great the agency was and when I met him I understood why.

Because of his beliefs and his, the power of his personality and his style and frankly, just the calm nature in which he leads day in day out. What he started over 50 years ago, he’s been very consistent in modeling through that time. He was another great leader that I worked with in the Ketchum Public Relations organization when I came up.

Always enjoyed working with him because he had the energy, the passion for the business but was consistent in his beliefs and defended those beliefs both inside of our organization and also with our clients when the need existed. And I think those are important principles. Not just to believe in great leadership, but also to practice it, and to show others, and to mentor them in that process, and I’ve taken a lot away through the years in my work with people like these two people.

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

>> Probably there are a couple of them. The first would be a few years ago when I was in Seattle, and I said in a board room, not dissimilar from many board rooms that I go into and we worked over the weekend with a company that’s known well,

And the executive leadership of that company was there working with the CEO Jeff Bezos who I admire greatly. And as we sat and talked about a major action that was required in their company, the downsizing of their organization, the first such downsizing in its history, to help it realize a pro forma profitability in the company.

So that it would have greater credibility with stakeholder groups like the investor and financial community. There was a great conversation that existed around how do we reduce our headcount in these key locations and shut down major centers that we’ve developed in recent years for distributing our products.

And break convenance, not only with employees but also in these communities where we’ve gotta easements and the kinds of things that are required to operate. The commitments that we’ve forged in these communities, how do we do that and still hold true to our promise? And we sat for a minute and Jeff Bezos said something that’s never been lost on me, he looked at that group of people and he said I want you to remember one thing, we’re gonna be true to our value.

And you have to keep in mind that you always want, in terms of reputation, people to say about us when I’m not in the room with this individual around this company. People are always consistent in their view about the organization. Your reputation is what people say about you when you’re not in the room with them.

And I always remember that, because it’s so true. We wanna be true to those values and have people say, regardless of what happens in the life of our company or an individual, we’re doing the right thing in that work. The other person was the head of HR of Boeing.

And as I was doing work for Boeing in Seattle and we were looking at their distribution of their operating sites and their manufacturing centers, I went in one day to talk with him about a major labor relations issue, because they had contracts coming up. They were very difficult to contract discussions that were going to result in strikes in their company.

And he looked at me and said, Keith, you need to remember one thing about your work, and it’s a good lesson for any young professional. Your work is not here in the corporate office. Your work is out in the centers where people do work. Where you can see them interact.

You can hear from them directly and understand what really is at the heart of their work and their beliefs about the company. And so, going out where we do our work. Remaining consistent around corporate values, or the values that we hold personally dear, are two very important practices. And those two men have been at the heart of a lot of the work that I do when I think about those belief statements.

Please name one individual whom you believe to be the most outstanding leader in the field today. What makes this individual such an outstanding leader? 

>> Today there are a number of people that I look to. We can look at some historic people who have both help to forge what our businesses today like for example. I’ll also point out Harold Burson who recently I went to a new business meeting in Washington and as I left that meeting in the hallway, I saw Harold Burson who at 87, still has a great passion for this business and I met with him and talked with him.

In the past, as a part of my work, he always tells me that you have to believe but you also have to demonstrate what you believe. And he was there doing that. So Dan Edelman, Harold Burson, and certainly Al Golin, I always have admired these men for the work they do.

But outside of those men, in today’s world, there’s some great people practicing. One of them that I have great admiration for as a man by the name of Jon Iwata, who’s the Chief of Marketing, Communications, and Citizenship Officer for IBM. I first met Jon back in 1992 when I was working on the re-engineering of IBM during the earliest period of change for that company.

And he has been one of the consistent practitioners. And greatest voices for the role of corporate values and leadership in the work that we do as practitioners. These are some of the people I look to in addition, by the way, to the men and women really who are on the front lines for a lot of the places that I go and work inside of our clients, who have belief and courage, and do the things that are important.

So leadership is not always at the top, sometimes it’s down in the grassroots levels and in the front lines, as well as with our students who are coming up who have these beliefs and these precepts, and simply need others to help them bring them forward.

Do you think that leadership skills and values in PR are different in any way from those in other professions? If so, how and why?

>> I really don’t, I think the leadership skills that we have to use today must be consistent in the organizations in which we represent. There’s a great need for transparency that really has developed over the past decade as we’ve gone beyond the period of Sarbanes-Oxley when we had the difficult periods for Arthur Andersen and Enron and WorldCom. Not just in our country but also if you go globally into Japan for example where they had similar issues.

So on a global basis, we’ve seen a greater need for transparency, a greater understanding that the myriad stakeholders that we serve today are changing dramatically around the world. And therefore, they require a greater sense of transparency and consistency in how we represent ourselves. And frankly, the public relations profession and the men and women who lead it inside of organizations today must also be frankly represented in the way the enterprise must a same single voice.

I called it one voice, one look. Whatever the organization does must be consistent in the way we help to present it internally and externally and among these myriad stakeholder groups that we have to deal with today. So I don’t think it differs. I think it should be one in the same, and if we’re not doing that work, then I think we’re not really serving our many stakeholders well.

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

>> It’s a very interesting question whether these requirements differ. I think it the core of it, if you look at the precepts of how we have to do our work today, the competencies that are required, dealing with the multiplicity of new media that have emerged to change our world.

The values that may be at the heart of each organization, whether it’s a not-for-profit, a governmental body, an academic body, or even a corporation. While we may think about segmentation and how we deliver a message, at the truth, at the heart of all of this is trust. And so I think you really have to be consistent regardless of which of these organizations you serve to understand what matters in terms of trust.

To use that as a mechanism, or frankly at the heart of the work, use trust to help guide you in what you do. But I don’t think it really differs in any of these organizations. I think it’s the same if we’re doing our job well, that a young professional coming up, a young man or woman, can go into any of these enterprises and practice at a very high level and be successful if they remember these principles of leadership.

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

>> Today I always, I’m asked this question often, how do I lead in this profession? How do I get the experience to lead? And I always say start by, while you’re still in your undergraduate program, start by interning. And start by volunteering in the communities in which you live and operate, either on a college campus or back in your own home setting if you go back.

You just have to start there. What separates in the course of GolinHarris as an example, we may receive 4 to 500 resumes for a summer internship. And I make the point often to young people that resumes are great because they can tell me a lot about what work you’ve done.

But what I often look first for is what has been your commitment to leadership in those communities in which you live and serve on campus and beyond. And if I don’t see that leadership first, then you may not move beyond that initial conversation with me. Because it’s important for me to know that you’re connected in these communities, that you understand the role that you play and the fact that we must give more than we receive for our work.

We must give back to these communities. So I start there, and I also ask them to think about being connected to the industry even though they may not be serving clients yet, to be connected to the industry. And that means reading and being versed on the issues that we face.

And I would start with the issue of culture. There are some great treatises on culture. You have to understand culture and the role that it plays. You have to understand that often art imitates life. And so what we see in society and in culture and in politics and in our environment has a lot of influence on our work as public relations practitioners.

So be a great student of the liberal arts. Make sure you’re connecting to the areas that we are most interested in today around culture and values and the changing face of the global business. And be able to prepare yourself to have conversations with people about these various areas so that you can be as communicative about them as we expect you to be.

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

>> I would encourage educators today to do one thing and a very important thing. And that is to find a role, whether it’s a residency role for a summer or a tour of duty that they can do inside of an organization like ours or inside of a corporate setting.

The men and women who teach have to be versed on what kinds of things are happening in an agency and corporate settings. And get out of the classroom and work with the men and women who hire the young people that are coming into the business so that they can affirm the curriculum that they are using.

They can affirm their teaching practices. And they can in point of fact say, as I have had this interaction with the professional community, here’s what I’ve seen in terms of closing the gap among academic studies into the reality of this work to make sure there is no gap, that there is alignment in that.

So I think that’s really important. Find a role, because we’re very open to this, find a place in one of our agencies for a summer. Come spend time, watch how the account teams work. Understand the kind of factors and the forces that client teams are facing. And help us to then bring this back into the classroom so that you can better inform and educate the students on the role they must play when they leave the class setting.

The second thing is, I think, give students good guidance and counsel based on what they learned. Counsel them on what they must do to prepare themselves beyond simply learning from these textbooks that may be used and from their own experience as educators. Learn as well from the agency professionals by inviting them and the corporate leaders to come into the academic setting to do work.

I’m currently serving this semester as the executive in residence for Northwestern University’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. And I’ve really taken a great deal away from that work that I’ve done during this period of time about the student population, about how they see our work, what questions they have about it.

And that, in turn, can help me as I interview these students to be more effective and to direct them in their future careers.

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

>> I had a conversation about leadership this past year with Bill George who is the former CEO of Medtronic, currently teaches at Harvard on this very topic of leadership and has written two great books, the most recent of which is called True North.

And as I was with him for a week on this very topic, he made the point that leadership cannot be taught. The principles of leadership can be affirmed, and I think we can point out what’s important in leadership. But on the concept of True North, when you’re squarely centered on doing the right things, when in the heart of your work you’re guided by the core values that frankly make you a unique individual in the practice of leadership.

You can then learn from others as role models, what works and what doesn’t work. You can take away and integrate into your own being these very things that make you a better leader. But he makes a point, and I believe that point myself based on what I’ve seen through that years, that we simply can’t open a text and show someone this is what’s required to be a leader.

But I do think we can take our own leadership forward and be a role model for others and help them in doing this more effectively.

What can the profession do to help new practitioners, or those with experience in the field, develop greater leadership skills? 

>> One of the things that we’re doing more in our agencies is a better job around performance management. And that is on the human resource front.

Helping to train and develop young men and women who are coming into the business. I think, clearly one of the things we have to do is to make sure we’re giving great feedback to people. This is a hard thing for practitioners to do often, I find, because practitioners are hard to do work.

They came into the profession because they wanted to be counselors and trusted advisors. And as they ascend in their work, they can’t disconnect from the teams of people that they work with. They have to give them great feedback and demonstrate to them what leadership is. Which means telling them about the good things and bad things.

The performance management process is also, today, helps us to understand how others that they work with and their team, their clients. And in the broader agency, in our case, see their work and see the contributions that they make. Feedback is one of the greatest gifts you can give anyone, in my experience. And so we’re using more live, 360 feedback with people, so they have a great sense of who they are. We’re also showing them today, based on core beliefs, the new value systems that are being put in organizations, how they must perform and what is expected of them. When you can show them, then they can take what’s inherent in their leadership and then model these things, as I pointed out earlier, on the question of can leadership be taught?

I think it’s taught when we are guided in the right way and can reinforce based on what we see and hear about the organization from others who are the mentors and models. So young people are learning through the new performance management models. They’re also learning from other men and women who have ascended into these roles because of the very practices that I mentioned, who can use a process to help them do that.

Can you give a concrete example of leadership?

>> There are many, many different examples now, over the past two decades for me, where I’ve seen, just from the most innocent examples of where an agency or a corporation started downsizing. And you’ve seen a leader, frankly, who has the empathy and the compassion to sit down with someone on a one-on-one setting and explain to them why a change is being made.

And to separate the personal issues from the professional requirements of a company. And so I see that often in the different companies that I serve, where you have individual leadership at so many different levels that’s being demonstrated. At the higher level, obviously, we see CEOs who are great leaders, men and women who lead in great ways.

But the truth is that the greatest form of leadership goes well beyond those people who are at the top of the organization. It really is, frankly, strongest and most evident in frontline settings. Where we see frontline managers and supervisors, where through the years we’ve been taught and have learned that trust is more than 90% in those relationships.

It’s where the rubber meets the road. And so when people ask me, can you tell me where the greatest example of leadership is, I often say it’s in those front-line managers who are the heart of the organization, who have the highest number of conversations every day about what matters in the company.

What matters in the association, what matters in that academic setting. How to translate that so that you can respond to it in the right way, rather than overacting to something that may come up. And what is expected of you as an employee, what you should do in your work.

And I would say that if you really want to learn about leadership, find your way into an organization, go sit down with a group of managers who have come up from the front line. Who have interaction with the senior management team, and often with clients or customers on the outside, and talk with them about leadership and they will tell you what matters to them and how to help in that process every day.

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

>> There are several great books on leadership. I’m gonna tell you the one I really like the most is the book True North, which I’ve just mentioned to you, that I read most recently.

But outside of that, I would also counsel that students and others would go online to the Arthur Page website. Take a look at the Arthur Page study known as the Authentic Enterprise. That should be almost a treatise, really, on thinking about our profession beyond The Plank Center for Excellence in Public Relations and the Institute for Public Relations and the Public Relations Society of America and the Council of PR firms.

All these great organizations that are furthering the interest of public relations today, can take some key learnings away from the study on the authentic enterprise. And what’s important about it is that that particular treatise has been developed by people who are from each of these organizations, that I’ve just mentioned.

And who have a belief about the practice and how it will change. So I think that’s an important paper as well. If you’re really a student of reading and learning about what affects leadership, I would also encourage you to look at the works that have been done as long as back to the 1980s by Dillon Kennedy known as Corporate Cultures and The New Corporate Cultures. Those are two great readings. And beyond those readings, if you wanna think about what change means and how employees receive it, the book called Communicating Change. It was written in 1991 by a great husband and wife team known as the Larkins.

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

>> There are about four issues that I think are confronting the profession today.

The first is how organizations can first report to their populations and develop a new set of beliefs and values, and a mission that will drive them in this new economy. As we conduct this interview today, we know that our economy, frankly, has driven the global economy into a very difficult position in 2009 as we move through 2009.

I think beliefs more than anything become, frankly, a roadmap for us and how we do our work. If a company is true to beliefs then employees know what to expect. They know in times of difficulty or even in times of great prominence what the organization will do. We have companies like FedEx for example, and IBM and others that we can look to, who have their core values, and their mission statements.

And their belief systems that have guided them through all of the economic change that they’ve seen over 20, 30 and more years. So we can take great faith away from having the right belief systems in place, number one. Secondly, myriad stakeholder communities are certainly affecting us. And that is because with the new media, which I’ll talk about in just a minute, frankly, anyone can have influence over how a corporate reputation is developed today.

And so I think we have to think more differently today about stakeholder groups than we ever have. And that doesn’t just simply mean thinking about internal versus external. I have to go much deeper and say within an internal audience, for example, how many segments are there in that population all the way down to a population of one in some cases.

I’ve been in some organizations like the NASA, which is well-known for its work in the United States government, and seen as many as 2500 websites in one location. Which means that you have a segmented population that likes to work together sometimes in small groups. To hear the way information is presented to them differently than it would as a large population.

So, We have to think about segments of populations inside the organization, and then externally beyond the investor and financial community, beyond the legislative affairs and public affairs communities, going out to NGOs, third parties. And as we go out in this global community, beyond the multinational community today, we have to think about what are the groups in other parts of our world that we haven’t really accommodated in the past that will influence us.

On the new media front, I find that the new men and women, the young professionals coming in from the academic communities as they graduate, often become mentors themselves. They’re doing reverse mentoring because the new social and digital media that are sweeping our world are having such a profound influence on the work we do and on our leadership.

I used to believe that it was very easy to build message platforms and to control the dialog with communities that we support and communicate with from a public relations standpoint. That is more difficult to do today because often we find that bloggers, for better or worse, have more influence than trusted third parties would have in helping to represent our solid product in a community.

So we have to accommodate these new influences. And that means that we have to understand the new media, how to use them and be able to guide the executive leadership team, who will ask us what do you think of Second Life? Should it be part of the world that we use here?

Or how does this fit in with the traditional vehicles and channels that we have? So that’s important. And then I would also tell you that trust at the heart of all of this is really a very, very important component. Where we do not have strong levels of trust inside of an organization or in these communities that companies serve, we will not be successful.

And we’re seeing today in this more difficult economy that some of those industries that are most deeply affected, whether they be in the financial services area, or in the automotive manufacturing field, or whatever they may be, we find that when studies are done on these organizations that trust levels are lower than they must be.

And so we have to do a better job of instilling trust inside the organizations so that we can present a united front, but also in how these companies and organizations are represented.

Does the profession have greater legitimacy (or credibility) today than it did 20 years ago? Why or why not?

>> I’ve thought about this often. When I came to Chicago in 1991 from Dallas, where I spent my life and grew up, I remember thinking that the people, the men and women who were in corporations during that period of time who led public relations, were some of the great leaders on the corporate front.

We don’t have those men and women in place today. That does not diminish the role that corporate leaders play because I think our world is much different than it was then. And point of fact, I think that if you look at today, I think we have a greater opportunity to become more influential than we may have been even 20 or 30 years ago when our profession really was evolving.

Because today we can move from the historic role of being in the back room into being in the boardroom, based on some of the factors that we’ve already talked about, to make sure we’re a part of the decision-making process. And that we can, in fact, shape this world for the future more than we ever have in this profession.

Given some of the influences that we’ve talked about. I don’t think that we can compare the two and in closing, I think that they’re very different. But if you look at each period of development from the very beginnings in the United States back in the very early 1900s all the way through this period of time, each has been marked by a point of change or an inflection point.

And we’re now in one of those inflection points, I think, for our profession.

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

>> I get calls regularly. In fact, I had two last week. While I was on campus here this week, I met with a student and talked with a young student here. And I enjoy doing it because I always try to place myself in one role.

I understand that the men and women who are leaving the college campus are concerned about their ability to find a position in an economy like we have now. They’re concerned about being credible. They’re concerned about-about career choices and being able to do in their lives what they want to do and what they’ve studied to do.

And so I try to place myself in their role. I understand that having a conversation with somebody like me is important for them, to be able to have that conversation and to get guidance. And so therein is the heart of leadership, you know, to be able to understand that and to make the time.

It’s one of the most important things we do. We have had in our profession I think in recent years, and I’ve talked to a number of professionals about it, a crisis of leadership. And the reason we’ve had a crisis of leadership is that we often as professionals focus on our client work, we focus on getting through the day and on our lives, and what we believe is important without making time for the other things that really matter.

And what does matter is knowing that we have much to offer people. And if we will sit down and make the time to have a conversation, or to take the call, or to respond to the email regardless of how busy we are, and I’m as guilty as every everybody else with schedules.

It really, really matters greatly and I often am asked by students who come in, what can I do to help you based on what you’ve done for me? And what I always say to them is the same thing, and I did last night. When you find yourself in your job, and you will, I only ask one thing, that you keep the circle unbroken, that you do the same thing that you may find others do for you, either here on this college campus or beyond, so that our profession will advance, and you will be a part of that process.

So great leadership means recognizing that you have a role in it, whatever that role may be, small or large, that you can make a contribution. And I would encourage students to realize that. And to, as they come to us, ask great questions, listen, and be able to do their very best once they’re in a position to make a difference.

To in fact do that, make a difference with someone else.

Recorded: July 2009