Plank Legends & Leaders: Ofield Dukes


Ofield Dukes began his career in journalism, then opened his own firm in 1969 with Motown Records and Lever Brothers as his first clients. Throughout his career, Dukes has been a role model for black public relations students and professionals across the country. Dukes organized the first congressional black caucus and has served on the boards of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Change, and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

In 1993, he founded the Black Public Relations Society of Washington and currently serves on the Diversity Committee for the Public Relations Society of America. Dukes won the National Public Relations Achievement Award from Ball State University’s department of journalism. And received the Gold Anvil Award in 2001 when he was inducted into the National PRSA Chapter’s Public Relations Hall of Fame.

He was born in rural Alabama and earned his degree in journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit. Dukes passed away in 2011 at the age of 79.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> First, I think we need to deal with the qualities of leadership and it represents an individual’s ability to know what he knows and to convince other people that he knows what he’s doing.

And leadership also requires a progressive vision, and the ability of a person to be effective in communicating. Also, leadership really means producing results and having the ability to inspire others, and to have confidence in one’s ability to make prudent decisions. So when you take those qualities of leadership and apply them to public relations, they’re very, very clear.

And a person who has those qualities can be very effective, whether it’s in public relations or any other industry.

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

>> One is having a progressive and clear vision and second is a strategic plan of action and number three is being able to take the initiative and having the courage of one’s convictions to proceed and implement whatever plan of vision you have. And the last is being productive, leadership really demands positive results.

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

>> I remember when I was in Korea during that Korean conflict, and I spent 13 months there. And it was, for me, a period of introspection. And I read Socrates who suggested that the first principle of life is knowing thyself, then Aristotle said be thyself and Shakespeare said to thine own self-be true.

And for me, it was a matter of becoming intimately aware of who I was and having a sense of what I wanted to do in life and I developed the vision. And it’s important for a person to be very much aware of one’s self because many of us are introduced to ourselves by the people and we go through in life needing to be validated by the people.

And when you know who you are, you have the sense of confidence in your ability to deal with all kinds of challenges. I remember when I was teaching as an adjunct at American University. I invited Michael Deaver to speak to one of my classes and what he said about President Ronald Reagan, I think, was most compelling.

He said that Mr. Reagan got up every morning and knew exactly who he was, and that’s very, very important for young people in PR, to be aware of who they are and what their assets and liabilities are. And they have a sense of confidence in their ability to deal with all problems and challenges.

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

>> In 2001, Kathy Lewton, then President of the Public Relations Society of America, called me the first of January and asked if I would be willing to chair the first task force on diversity for the Public Relations Society of America, that was 2001. And I accepted that challenge and it involved reaching out, getting input from others, and then spending quite a bit of time developing a mission statement for the first time for what PRSA in terms of diversity and then developing realistic objectives.

And then I spent quite a bit of time traveling tens of thousands of miles throughout the country speaking to different chapters and explaining to them that the 2000 U.S. Census indicated that our country, America was more diverse than ever before. More multi-racial, more multi-cultural and more multi-ethnic and that the job market requires the kind of diversity that reflected the demographics and the psychographics of the consumers.

And that was very, very challenging and I think we provided a pretty solid foundation for PRSA and the chapters to move into the 21st century in dealing with the challenge of diversity.

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

>> That’s easy. My dear friend Betsy Plank. Betsy has been an amazing, a remarkable, an insightful visionary person in terms of public relations.

The fact that she was the first female to be president of the Public Relations Society (of America), but her record and history at the University of Alabama in terms of all of the things she did there. But she continues to be very active in providing a foundation for young people and her worked through the (PRSA) College of Fellows, and the various things that she’s presently doing.

And she’s really inspired me to become more active. But I can’t think of anybody else in the field of public relations who has the passion, the interest, and the compelling desire to improve the standards of the field of public relations, and that’s Betsy Plank.

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

>> Yeah, since I’ve taught the subject as an adjunct for 18 years at Howard University and eight years at the American University here in Washington, I think there’s one person in particular who stands out.

And that’s Edward Bernays, whose career in public relations span three-quarters of a century. And I think in 1923, he did his first book that defined the means and methods and techniques and social responsibilities of public relations. And then, later on, I think in the 50s, he did another book refining the practice of public relations.

And I think he, in the 20th Century, did more to provide the foundation for the modern practice of public relations, that was Edward Bernays.

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’m not certain that the leadership skills are different, but the set of circumstances is much different because public relations is one thing in Washington. It’s lobbying, it’s public information, it’s public affairs, it’s media relations, and when you move to New York, it’s media relations of publicists in Los Angeles and the important thing is that public relations people are highly visible. And we have to deal with all kinds of communication, different levels of communication, whether it’s employee or government relations, or international relations.

So public relations people are very visible. And we have to deal with the integrity of communication. We have to deal with certain ethics. So, there is incumbent on public relations practitioners to be transparent and to be honest and open and that is very, very, very important.

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

>> Well, the first is having a passion to be excellent in the field of public relations. And in addition to that, developing the time and interest to become involved in the various issues of public relations beyond one’s work responsibility. And investing the time and becoming involved with the local chapter, whether it’s the PRSSA, the school chapter, or the local professional chapter, and becoming involved in the local activities, volunteering for a committee and from a committee, moving to be chairman of a committee and becoming one of the officers.

And eventually, becoming involved in the national office of the Public Relations Society of America. So, there’s an evolution and the evolution is based on the extent of one’s interests and the level of one’s investment of time.

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

>> There’s a big difference between the classroom and the world of work in terms of PR, and there are some highly qualified educators in journalism and public relations who have not had an opportunity really to be out in the field, to practice, to understand what it is to be a practitioner.

And when you have that level of experience, it becomes more insightful and your knowledge base is expanded based on the reality, the real issues, the challenges of PR. And I would suggest that for the professors, the educators in journalism, public relations, in addition to writing and researching, to take a little time to get out in the field and to work on a project on behalf of a client to get the feel, the real feel, for what it is to be a practitioner in public relations. And then that person would be able to share those kinds of experiences with his students or her students.

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

>> I just think it depends on the individual and a person’s own interest. And it goes back to a person’s feeling of security, of his ability to relate to the public.

And some people are shy, and other people have a good sense of who they are. And they have the courage of their convictions, and they would like to assume leadership. They volunteer and they are doers. They have the ability to initiate action, and they have the respect of their peers in terms of their ability to make prudent judgments.

So there are characteristics of leadership that a person can learn and some learn from their parents. And some learn from their mentors and some may even learn from other instructors who are not only very good instructors, but they are active and very much involved in the Public Relations Society of America.

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?

>> It’s an interesting question because I don’t think the problems are peculiar to the PR industry. And if you look across the spectrum of life here in America and people can suggest there is a shortage of political leaders that could be a deficit in terms of religious leaders or civic leaders.

These may be the worst of times for some categories of leaders. And when you look at the polls in terms of the popularity of the President or the disapproval of the President, it is a record low. And the same for the Congress. And it is true that there may be a lack of leadership in PR now compared to 10 or 15 years ago, but I’m not really certain that it’s peculiar to the field.

I think that are any number of circumstances contributing to that and I don’t think I would have enough time to explore all of those circumstances. Haven’t been very much involved in the Public Relations Society of America and that society is going through its own challenges in terms of its ability to inspire senior people in public relations to become actively involved in leadership positions.

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

>> I remember a few months ago when Jet Blue had to cancel a number of flights and people sat on the runway for hours. And then its president came out the next day to accept responsibility for the problems of the airlines and to apologize. But then, the second or third day, he came out with a new set of program strategies and incentives for the customers not to leave Jet Blue.

And he was on TV, he was on radio and there were full-page ads in newspapers throughout the country. So, an outstanding example of a crisis situation and the president, a CEO of Jet Blue Blue responding in a very positive and productive way.

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

>> One can think in terms of the Bible and the Bible reflects, whether it’s Moses or David, all kinds of leaders in the Bible.

But one of the contemporary books that I appreciate so very very much, and I’ve bought dozens of copies of, was Dr. Richard Carson’s book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. And it was so insightful, so informative. And it provides so many insightful and inspirational gems that would be helpful for people to deal with the challenges of life.

And it’s just wonderful and it reminds me of my favorite book in the Bible, Proverbs. And Proverbs, third chapter says that in all of thy getting in life, get knowledge, wisdom and understanding and Richard Carson’s book reflected that type of common sense approach to dealing with the daily problems of life.

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

>> When I opened my public relations firm here in Washington at the National Press Building in 1969, I got up every morning with a passion to be excellent. Also, I developed a type of work ethic, and I had a vision to achieve certain goals. So my advice to students, first of all, is to develop a passion, not to be good, not to be outstanding, but to be excellent, not once a week, but every day.

And also to develop a vision, a five to ten-year vision of what they want to do, what they can contribute to public relations, what they can get out of it. And then to identify some type of leadership responsibility whether it’s in the next five years as they develop a foundation for their own knowledge, and experience, and expertise, and using that as a springboard in the next five years to give something back, and to share the things they have gained from public relations with high school students, and college students, and whatever.

But, I think that type of commitment to excellence and to the field of public relations would be a wonderful foundation to produce the kind of leadership that we are discussing in this interview.

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