Plank Legends & Leaders: Kevin Saghy

Kevin Saghy is the senior director of social media for The Ohio State University and is responsible for planning, implementing, measuring and optimizing a social media strategy that furthers brand building, engagement and lead generation across the university.

Formerly, Kevin was the assistant director of communications for the Chicago Cubs.

Hi, my name is Kevin Saghy. I’m the manager of communications of the Chicago Cubs and a Plank Center board member. I started in public relations at Ohio Northern University as a freshman majoring in PR. I was lucky that that’s what I wanted to do and have stuck with it ever since. Became early involve in PRSSA and rose to National President there. Did some internships, started out in Chicago with Ketchum Chicago for a few years, and then made the jump to the Chicago Cubs.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> I think leadership in public relations is especially important because not only do I have to lead our own function but we also have to connect all the various functions within our organization to make sure they’re aligned. So leader in public relations, not only does that connecting but they also figure out who on their team and who on other teams can help achieve that end goal that they have in mind.

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

>> Some qualities of excellent leaders in people in PR, first of all, I think they need to be big picture thinkers because everything we do impacts the organization’s reputation that we work on. So, to have that big picture in mind and everything that we do in the day-to-day can impact that larger picture. Then to think strategically on how to implement a day-to-day to reach those goals. I think in PR we work very hard so you have to have a strong work ethic.

You need to be truthful, honest, and then you have to listen because we have to work with all of our different colleagues, different functions, as well as our own team. So, we really have to process information before we act on it.

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

>> As a leader in the field, I suppose, I think one thing that’s really brought me here is the desire to learn, and competitiveness to contribute. But with that, I also have, I think, a level of humility that tempers those strengths if you will, so not on overdrive by trying to do too much.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this field, and I learned it early on, was to take risks. I remember coming in as a freshman, sophomore in college, and a little overwhelmed and then realizing that someone’s got to step up and lead, and why shouldn’t it be me.

So, it started in college, volunteering for PRSSA, and going for national roles that I thought I had no business getting but wound up getting them and then filling that role as a leader. And then continued on. Where I moved from a small town in Ohio to Chicago and didn’t know if the city was gonna chew me up and spit me out or if I’d succeed here.

And then once the job opening came for the Chicago Cubs that was another big risk that I took. And I’m really glad that I did because now I’m in the dream job, proud to be here.

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

>> My most powerful experience for leadership in PR came very early on in my career. I actually had an internship that was not a great experience for several reasons, many of them being on myself because I was just learning and probably too eager to speak and too eager to contribute and not listening. And I think there’s a disconnect if you’re not experienced and trying to contribute too much.

So I learned to listen and contribute where I could and be the person that would do the work that no one else wanted to early on in my career. And that’s always suited me well. And then, to be honest, I learned from a leader who did not admire too much, and how he treated me when I was contributing too much, as a young person. And kind of took a negative experience and turned it into a positive, and decided I would never be that kind of leader. I think one of the leaders we have to recognize in our industry is Richard Edelman. He’s a very strategic thinker and he’s leading that agency to new heights every year, it seems.

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? 

>> I think one of the leaders we have to recognize in our industry is Richard Edelman. He’s a very strategic thinker and he’s leading that agency to new heights every year, it seems.

And something that he’s done is he’s established a brand for Edelman with the trust barometer. And every year that event, just in that study, perpetuates Edelman’s reputation as an industry leading agency. So, I think when you’re looking at someone who’s really built a brand and continues to build that legacy, Richards one of the first that comes to mind.

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

>> As we think about leaders in public relations historically and to me, it’s Betsy Plank, who we’re all here to honor for The Plank Center. Betsy was not only, she had this fire inside of her. She was competitive. She was the first woman President of PRSA. First woman corporate head of a public relations function.

But, that fire didn’t impact her ability to connect with people one on one. I’m one of those folks she connected with very closely and felt like we had a very unique relationship. It’s a tribute to Betsy that after she passed and all of her mentees and colleagues and friends and loved ones are getting together and telling stories about her that everyone felt they had this strongest connection in the room with Betsy.

And for a little bit I think we’re a little disappointed that we don’t have that strongest connection out of everyone. But then we all started to realize what a powerful person this must be to make every single person that she interacts with feel like they were the most important in her world. And to be able to do that with so many people and in individual basis really is something to try to model after.

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

>> I think there are some similarities between different functions and professions on what a good leader might do. I think all leaders should communicate well. They should listen, should be strategic.

But there are some aspects of what we do that we’ll come across more so just because of the profession we chose. So as communicators we should be good at communicating within our teams and with other functions. And we should be able to communicate verbally or the written word much better than some other professions.

So, I think those skill sets help us lead a little better within our functions. But overall integrity, honesty, communication. Those are qualities that all leaders should exhibit.

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

>> I think different leaders will find different roles in organizations that they’re most comfortable with. So that’s the beauty of our profession is that you don’t have to be stuck in one role throughout your whole career and you can find that niche where you can succeed.

If you’re in a nonprofit, you may be passionate about a cause and that drives you to lead your organization. Where if you’re in an agency and you have a depth of experience that you can share with many clients. You could lead a totally different way than if you ran your own function and had autonomy, and knew something very well, you know very deep, in a certain skill set, so, I think our different skill sets will help us find roles within organizations that were better suited for.

But again, those core qualities, integrity, communications, honesty. Those should transpire across any organization you work for.

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

>> So as a young leader in PR, I think it’s important to start right away learning the organization’s goals that you’re trying to help and then build your team goals and individual goals off of those. I also think it’s important to volunteer. Take on the work that no one else wants to do, because suddenly you’ll build a reputation for yourself as the hardest worker on the team. And you only get more and better opportunities as a result of that. And then networking is really important in this industry perhaps more than any other because it’s a small world in public relations.

A lot of us work together and once you identify a rising star you really want to help them out and place them where they belong. And really as you’re honing your skill set, as a young professional, learn where you’re strong and continue to pursue those opportunities which let you use your strengths, but also identify your weaknesses and if you’re a weaker writer that’s something that’s going to be really important in the industry.

If you’re doing those four things I think you’ll be set in our industry.

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

>> So the thing about the public relations industry is it’s changing so quickly. So I know we learn certain theories in school, and we apply those theories when we become practitioners, but because it’s changed so much, especially with evolution of digital media.

I think it’s really important for educators to bring in practitioners and find out what are they worried about today? What are they worried about next year? What do their long term plans look like? And facilitate those conversations with students to make sure that they’re learning about what we’re working on right now versus, maybe, what we worked on five years ago because I think the industry has drastically changed just within the last decade.

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

>> I think leaders have inherent qualities within them that make their leadership style different and more comfortable. So some will lead by example. They may not be comfortable going up in front of a room and delivering a long speech, while others are gifted with prose and they can write or deliver a great speech and lead a room.

So we all have different inherent qualities that may impact the way we lead, but I think there are plenty of qualities that you can teach, and that’s the role of mentorship and why we focus on it so much at The Plank Center.

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

>> So leadership, obviously, is core to The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. And that’s a big task we’ve taken on to identify ways that we can help build the next generation of leaders in the industry. And one way we do that is to find the excellent leaders that we have, and use them as role models. What are they doing correctly?

And we honor them at a banquet, sure. But we also get stories from the people that they lead. And find out, why are they so successful? And then we help share those stories and also give young people resources to learn how to enact on those qualities. So we still have a lot of work to do but I think by showcasing best practices and then giving them folks the resources that they need to be able to implement them themselves we’ll take a big step in the right direction.

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

>> So one case study that always stands out to me in our industry in terms of making a difference was in 1982 Lawrence G Foster was running the corporate communications function at Tylenol and Johnson and Johnson. And there’s a string of people dying from taking Tylenol and Lawrence was adamant that the company be transparent, honest.

And it really impacted the company’s strategy to recall millions of pills and taking hundreds of millions of dollars of losses on that recall to do the right thing by the consumers, and then communicate openly and honestly along the way. And if they didn’t know something, they would say, we didn’t know.

Ultimately wound up being a series of murders that someone laced the pills with cyanide, wasn’t necessarily the company’s fault. But that could have doomed the brand had they handled that incorrectly. And Tylenol went on to be a trusted brand because of how they handled that crisis.

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

>> So this will be a mighty task in terms of a reading assignment, but the book that impacted me the most personally in terms of taking charge of my own future was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and the book is about that thick. So it takes a little while to get through. It’s not related to public relations specifically. But in terms of a philosophy where you take on your own destination and get yourself there to those really helpful. In terms of industry publication that identifies and exemplifies the strong leaders in our industry.

Achieve a little bit instead The Plank Center published the profiles of industry leaders that recommend because we’ve given them to students and really takes them as leaders that we should all consider as role models and learn more about how they go about their work.

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

>> Couple of issues that our industry faces. One is a continued issue in terms of the measurement of what we do and how it impacts the bottom line for the profession. We have to prove our value as communicators and that something that we faced for a while and continue to solve and I know I do it in my own job.

Another one is the timeliness of our communications. The new cycle’s changed and we’re forced to react immediately to a crisis or anything we’re working on so not only do we have to communicate well and efficiently but we have to do it very quickly.

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

>> I think this profession is needed before than ever. The reality is, now consumers are bombarded by hundreds of messages a day. That’s not only advertisements that they pass but social media messages from brands and peers, so it’s important to cut through that clutter. The other thing we face is self-selection because now as consumers you no longer have just dozens of channels that you can reach people, but you have hundreds or thousands.

And you have the ability to select what you want to watch, which can make it harder or easier to target your consumer. So PR practitioners can do that.

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

>> I think a good piece of advice for a student that’s just entering the work world in our profession is just to stick with it. The first couple years can be challenging. We have a lot of work that’s very rewarding and very strategic and it’s fun to contribute, and then we have work that just needs to get done. And if you exhibit the qualities of someone who is willing to take on that work, do anything that needs to be done for the team, your team will quickly identify you as someone they want to rise above that level of work and get working on more meaningful projects.

Stick with it, it can be tough early on, but as you advance through your career and gain more senior roles it’s really rewarding when you can get a seat at the table and really impact a business’s strategy.

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

>> So we’re hiring someone entry level for our field. Honesty and integrity is number one because you have to be able to trust who you’re working with and you also have to convey that trust to our publics for our organization.

Writing is a skill set that we depend on heavily, so that’s a ticket to play in terms of getting an interview, getting in the door. I think work ethic is very important in this industry. We work hard. We work long hours sometimes, so you want to know that that person you bring on board is gonna be next to you late at night.

And then large picture strategy. Ultimately, you want to know that, as practitioners, whatever we’re doing ties to the larger organizational goals. And they should be a strong practitioner, but they should also have a little humility to know that we can always learn. So you never want to bring someone on board that’s resistant to constructive feedback, and not able to grow.

What habits in your daily routine strengthen your leadership skills?

>> Something I’ve focused on in my career, to strengthen my leadership skills, is getting better at listening and asking questions to solve a problem. So if a team member comes to me and has a problem I try not to project my answer right away. But instead, listen and gather all the information, ask questions so that we can reach a solution collaboratively instead of just trying to project what I think is the right answer.

Tips on leadership, mentorship and networking.

>> My leadership tip is, to begin with, the end in mind. My mentorship tip is to pay it forward because I think when we pay it forward you’ll never know what the immediate payoff is going be. But I think you get much more of reward down the road.

So my networking tip is to offer mutual value. So often we asked help from our mentors but throughout the years you can help them as well.

Every leader is…

>> Every leader is in a position to make a difference. And I think it’s on each leader to figure out how they can make that difference and do so responsibly.

What’s the lesson that took you the longest to learn?

>> The lesson that took me the longest to learn was not only my strengths but the counteract of those strengths, so. I think you need to know yourself really well and where you can contribute and then also where you may have some shortcomings and how you can lead knowing both your blind spots and your strengths.

Recorded: July 2015

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