Plank Legends & Leaders: Maria Russell

Maria Russell is professor of public relations and the Director of New Initiatives in Public Relations Education at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. She joined The Newhouse School in 1986 after more than 16 years of professional public relations practice.

Her professional accomplishments have brought her numerous national awards and recognition from United Way of America; the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE); the Chamber of Commerce of the United States; and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). In 1992, she was inducted into PRSA’s College of Fellows and was named PRSA’s 1997 “Educator of the Year.”  In 1998 she was elected to a two-year term on PRSA’s National Board of Directors, served as Secretary for 2001, and 2004 Treasurer of the 20,000-member professional society. In 1999 she was selected for membership in The Arthur W. Page Society.

Maria serves on the governing boards of the PRSA Foundation and PRSA’s College of Fellows. She also sits on the boards of directors of the United Way of Central New York, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, and OnCenter, Onondaga County’s Convention Center.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> I think leadership means the ability to rally others around a task, a common goal, a common problem, a challenge. And that little definition is very, very simple but as we know, it is very, very difficult to execute. In public relations, I think there are so many wonderful opportunities for public relations practitioners to actually lead.

And in so many organizations, the public relations person, traditionally, has been the order taker, but I think in recent years, there is this movement to say that we are the conscience of the organization. We are the collaborators, we are the conveners, we are coalition builders. And so, when we take on those roles, it moves public relations from basically being in-house journalists to working on higher level with our senior managers, with industries, with governments in order to really make change happen.

Leadership in public relations can really help leaders in all types of organizations and can help our organizations overall.

In your view, what are the three or four most important characteristics or qualities of excellent leaders in public relations?

>> I think to be a leader in public relations, the person has to be smart, but smart enough to know what they don’t know and constantly be looking for ways to improve themselves, smart enough to bring smart people around them including interns.

I think perseverance is another trait of a leader in public relations. Being challenged, but not giving up in that challenge. I think the person should have great self-confidence, they should be self-assured and they should be articulate and well spoken. I think curiosity is one of those innate traits that really helps the public relations person.

Why does this happen, why have we always done it this way? Why can’t we do it a different way and finally, I think they are ethical practitioners, they trust others and they themselves are trustworthy.

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

>> Well, there may be a bit of assumption in your question, but I think what has helped me become successful in my field of public relations, first as a practitioner and then later, as an educator.

Was the incredible number of fabulous mentors that I had. Both in Syracuse, at Syracuse University and nationally. I think the people who put their trust in me, that I could do a job was invaluable to me. And so, often what would happen, I didn’t put out a resume and say, I’d like to apply for X job.

I was referred for various positions. So that’s a great compliment, I think, that people trusted me to be able to do the work. And they would recommend me to others.

There’s been so many people who really pushed me forward and I’m very grateful to them for doing that. The late Larry Foster and of course, our Betsy Ann Plank, were two people that I could think of on the national level who when they called, you didn’t say no, but it was a great feeling that they would trust you with a national project, or a committee, or even an idea.

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

>> When you ask who is the most outstanding leader in public relations today, I have a really hard time with that. I think there are several people. I think The Plank Center has gone to great lengths to think about them and to honor them in recent years at the annual dinner that we’ve created.

So, I think there are many people out there that we could name, but I think, unfortunately, I’m going to give you the name of someone who’s deceased. And that’s Pat Jackson, and Pat Jackson taught us to be servant leaders and I think if we keep his words in mind, we weren’t suppose to be going for national offices or leadership in organizations, whether they were local, professional or national it was so that we could serve.

And that whole term and the whole concept of servant leader has really been instrumental to me and I think that’s the kind of person I would like to be, thinking of Pat Jackson’s words.

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

>> From a historical perspective, I always go back to Arthur W. Page. And sometimes I think my students think I spend too much time talking about Arthur Page.

This is an individual whose very simple way of practicing public relations, of practicing leadership, really said so much to us. Number one, tell the truth. And when I make this an assignment for my students, they have to read the Page principles the night before the class and come back to discuss them the next day, they look at me kind of like, duh, isn’t that pretty much common sense?

And it is. Tell the truth? What a simple mandate, but so many organizations today and governments, get into trouble because they don’t tell the truth. So to be a leader, I think Author Page in his writings, made an emphasis of telling the truth, he was also very prescient, and his writings in the 30s and 40s are still things that are very, very relevant today.

The whole thing about listen to the customer. This is so important when we talk about social media as a way to listen to the customer. When he talks about the fact that, your people are the best expression of your company. I think in recent years, we’ve been paying much more attention to employees.

So, that whole body of writing from Arthur Page really can take us well into the 21st century.

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 don’t think the skills and leadership in public relations are any different than any other profession. I think it’s obviously very, very important. But what’s important is that we have to take on leadership positions within our organizations.

And for too long some public relations people have been order-takers. Whether it’s to a boss or to a client. And so I think this is really an area where we need to step up and be true leaders within the organization. I don’t think it’s any different by specialization.

I think leadership positions are very, very important. Whether it’s agency, corporate, or not-for-profit and throughout any of those specializations, I think the word is to be the conscience of the organization and that helps us rise to positions of leadership in any of those organizations.

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

>>  I think that young people going into the profession of public relations should take the assumption that even though I’ve just graduated perhaps from a great program in public relations, I can’t stop learning.

I think they have to take every opportunity, whether it’s in-house training that is available to them. Or taking professional development seminars, nights and weekends. You have to invest in this as a profession. And I think another bit of advice I would say is to watch and observe. Really watch the people in the organization, watch their styles, watch how they lead.

I think you cannot replace that and I think this is a way for young people to really continue to grow. But often, they get, I think sometimes get bogged down into their own work and they don’t see down the road where this could be taking them. So sometimes I have students who come back from an internship after a summer and they’re very disappointed that they didn’t get a quote, unquote, great internship.

It wasn’t a great experience. And my comment to them at that point is that you can learn from watching a bad leader as much as you can learn from watching a good leader. So, keep watching, keep observing. When you see bad practices, the message to yourself is don’t follow that, do better with your employees or with your interns in the future.

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

>> I think we have a major role in helping our students understand leadership and their future as leaders in our profession. First of all, I think we should educate them that public relations is not just an art. It is an art, but it’s also a science, and it’s also a management function.

And I think that is our role as leaders to teach them that. I think that we should teach them that theory is not a four-letter word, that theory is the basis for any true profession. And if we’re going to become a profession, by the true definition in the dictionary, definition of public relations, we have to embrace theory.

I think that we have to teach them that strategy is far more important than 50 great tactics. And right now we’re all caught up with the latest social media tactics and they’re very exciting and they’re making our jobs easier and more effective and even fun. But at the time we can’t just focus on the tactics, we have to also make them part of our strategy.

So I think those are some things university professors can do. I think it’s important to encourage them to become active in PRSSA in their student-run agencies. Because these are learning opportunities. They are leadership opportunities. And even if it’s as simple as doing the quote, unquote, newsletter, where we all started, I think that helps them be around leaders, watch leaders, and take on leadership roles for themselves.

And of course, finally, I think it’s our responsibility to make sure that we bring to our campuses the best practitioners and leaders in our industry, that we help them mentor our students, make the match. And that we keep up the standards for good internships so that these people really are in opportunities to watch leaders on the job.

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

>> I think leadership can be taught. There are many, many courses in leadership, there are many, many professional development programs. There are many opportunities for people to come together and hear from experts about leadership. But I think it has to be combined with some personal attributes that we talked about earlier with the ability to think strategically, to be curious, to be sympathetic, to be empathetic, to be very ethical in one’s dealings.t, o be trusting, but also to be trustworthy. So those are the lists of leadership traits and skills is very, very long. And every book you read has a different list. But I think there are innate abilities that people have that can be honed and improved through classes, professional development, and by watching and observing.

I tell my students that if they’ve come back from a summer internship that didn’t go well, or they didn’t learn much, or they felt that they didn’t get the attention of their sponsor, I say think about how that person ran the organization, ran the agency, ran the department.

You can learn from those who are bad leaders, as well as you can by watching those who are good leaders. And hopefully, that gives them something to think about. So that when they are in a leadership position, they can think back and remember how it felt when someone didn’t lead, or when someone didn’t manage well, or when someone wasn’t a good mentor.

And I want them to take those examples and say to themselves, I’ll never be that kind of leader, or manager, or mentor.

Some have argued that there is a shortage of outstanding leaders in PR today. 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? 

>> Well according to Bruce Berger in his new book, reporting on the research, throughout the world, there is a shortage of leaders or there’s at least a gap between what leaders think of themselves and what their followers think of them.

So I find that book quite challenging. It was a magnificent piece of international research with people from all over the world participating. But if that’s true, I think we do have an obligation to look at these issues and help people move from these order takers, that I mentioned earlier, to being very proactive in our careers.

Again, if public relations is to be seen as a management function, we have to step to the plate and be very, very proactive in leading our organizations, making suggestions, looking around those corners, doing the kinds of things that leaders do. And I think universities have a real role in helping our students understand this, that we’re not just there to write news releases all day long, or pitch stories to reporters.

That was a long, long time ago in another place. And I think we really have to think about being the corporate conscience of an organization. Thinking about social responsibility. Thinking about issues like sustainability. More and more the corporations in our country are going into those areas and so I think public relations could really play a role there if we were to step up to that plate.

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

>> When I think about examples of leadership in the practice, I think of so many people, so many colleagues who have had an idea for a new program in their communities, in their organizations and have brought that to the forefront. I think one of the things about public relations is that we should not be in the forefront, we should be behind the scenes.

And if we look in any of our communities at some of the not-for-profit causes, some of the great fundraising that’s going on for political causes, for social causes, for community causes, so much of it is the brain of a public relations person behind that. And I think historically we take for granted things like PRSSA, which Betsy Ann Plank was a leader.

What a great concept. Now we have more than 11,000 students who are involved in PRSSA. But this was really nothing until people like Betsy and her colleagues came forward with the idea for a student organization. And in the same vein, I’ve mentioned Betsy before, but I think so much of our leadership in our society of PRSSA and in our practice today comes from people like Betsy.

The whole idea for the National Commission on Public Relations Education came about because people were worried that we needed to put standards around the burgeoning growth of public relations programs around the country. And that was in the late ’70s and ’80s. We’re facing a similar challenge today with burgeoning online programs.

So public relations people behind these kinds of issues, or concepts, or challenges, or gaps have always made a difference on the local level and on the national level, on the professional level and on a societal level.

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

>> Well, if I’m thinking about books for young professionals to read, I have three that come to my mind.

Maybe it was because I’m on vacation and I’m reading things that I never get a chance to read during the academic year. But some of those, The Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I think is a great book on leadership. And then right now, The Bully Pulpit, which is about Theodore Roosevelt, and I think that’s another great book.

And these are historical novels and historical documentaries. But I think this is something that by reading biographies of great leaders, it really helps our students see how the world has evolved to where it is today. Well, how leaders stepped up to the plate when it was necessary. I also think of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation.

And these were very, very simple people who took on leadership positions when they needed to, and then came back to a country to start their lives, their families, their industries, their careers, and really were true leaders. Very humble, but very effective leaders that built this country after World War II.

What are the most crucial issues confronting the PR profession today?

>> When I think about three issues that are facing us in public relations today, I think the one that comes up frequently, not only from me, but from lots of other people in our profession at various conferences, and that is the search for talent. I’ve noticed that in several agencies they no longer call their department the human resources department.

They call it the talent department. And I know that when we go to conferences, there is this constant discussion about generating talent. So, I think that leads to my second critical issue, and that is the need to bring a tighter relationship between our practitioners and our educators in unifying our standards for the profession and helping each other prepare that talent that they say that they need in their workplaces, and they certainly do, whether it’s agency, corporate, not-for-profit.

Where is that talent going to come from? What does it look like? What are the needs that they have? How do we get there from the practitioners’ side and the educators’ side? And I hope that the National Commission on Public Relations Education is one organization that’s helping push that forward.

And probably the third issue is that I think public relations is probably at the best point in its history to take the lead among all of the communications disciplines. Because of the power of public relations, the ability for us to build reputations, to do socially good things for our organization.

So, I think hopefully that is an issue that we can all get behind and make sure that our profession is moving forward.

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

>> I think it really does have greater legitimacy today and I think it’s being earned. I think that’s very, very important so that we again, are not just the order takers, that we’re not just in-house journalists, that we really have skills, and knowledge, and abilities that can help every organization whether again, agency, corporate, or not-for-profit.

All have tremendous challenges today. So public relations coming from the kind of direction given to us by Arthur Page and the Page principles. Those can be almost like the ten commandments for public relations, for organizations today, that help us become leaders in our own companies or agencies or not-for-profits.

And I think that I think right now we have to be very careful that we’re not going to revert to becoming in-house journalists. The term brand journalism has gotten so much attention these days, I think it’s an unfortunate term. I think we need to really pay attention that public relations is far beyond just being the in-house journalist.

We are storytellers, we’re sense makers, we are leaders and so to go back and focus so much on journalism, I think, while those skills got this profession forward in many ways, we have to go beyond just in-house journalism. And really move the profession to a much more role of being the corporate conscience, of being the collaborator, a consensus builder.

And so all of those are leadership skills that public relations practitioners can take forward. And we can’t just focus on some of the basics that will never go away but they can’t remain just stagnant there.

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

>> My advice to students just entering the work world is make lifelong learning your personal mantra. I think you have to walk away from the idea that, I was an A student, I have a wonderful degree, I have a wonderful education, because that education is already getting old in this very fast moving world. So lifelong learning, take advantage of every learning opportunity, be inquisitive, always be asking questions.

That’s our journalism background that we bring to our profession. The ability to be very, very inquisitive. Why does that happen? How does that work? Who started that? So those questions are very, very important. And I think sometimes our students need to take more risks. I think sometimes the safe route, is a good route, but perhaps it doesn’t lead to as many opportunities.

And I think that public relations, one of the great things about it as a career, is that every type of organization needs public relations. Don’t stay with the ones that are safe. Try some different things and see where that might lead you.

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

>> I would like to see examples of their inquisitiveness and how it helped them either in internship or in an early job. I like to know what they read every day. What newspapers or other news sources they use every day. What blogs they’re reading. I want to see the curious person, the inquisitive person and I want to see if they can approach problems that are perhaps done in a very untraditional way.

Coming at it from a different perspective. And I think this comes from not only the textbook learning of our classrooms, but from internships, and from taking leadership positions in student organizations, campus organizations, community organizations. So those are the kinds of questions I’d like to ask them.

Recorded: July 2014

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