Plank Legends & Leaders: Pat Ford

Patrick Ford serves as a Professional-in-Residence at the University of Florida and formerly was a senior advisor for Burson-Marsteller. In 2012, Pat became Burson-Marsteller’s vice chairman and chief client officer, following six years of driving extraordinary growth in North America as Burson’s regional president and CEO. He also served as chair of the firm’s Asia-Pacific region for nearly three years (2012-2015).

Pat specializes in corporate reputation management, senior executive communications, media strategy, and issues and crisis management. His clients over 26 years at Burson-Marsteller have ranged from world-class companies in industries as diverse as automotive, energy, express delivery services, financial services, food and beverage, management consulting, technology, and telecommunications, and also government clients in the U.S. and Asia.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> Management is doing things right, but leadership is doing the right things. And I think in PR, as much or more than any other profession, that’s something we always need to keep in mind. This is not a business that’s about wordsmithing or spin control or other things. It’s about leadership in the great kinds of behavior. Leadership in the right kinds of engagement with various parts of our constituency. And leadership is really, I think, more than anything about more than great performance yourself, it’s about bringing out a great performance in everyone around you.

When I look at great leaders in history and great leaders in our business, they’re people who follow the advice of Abraham Lincoln. Who said that towering genius disdains the beaten path. So they’re always looking for new paths and how they can help others get on those paths and succeed.

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

>> Having the core values that really are exemplified in the page principles and some other leadership mattress in our business. Be honest. Be forthright. Be engaging with your stakeholders and I think especially understanding what the full dimensions of communications really are. It’s not just about how we frame things to say them the right way. It’s great listening and understanding of the full dimensions of the mission of whatever our organization is, whether it’s a company, an educational institution, a non-profit organization, a government agency. What is that mission? What are the values of that organization? And how can we best exemplify them in both words and deeds?

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

>> First of all, I started out as a newspaper reporter, and whether you start as a reporter or in any other field, I think some of those principles that make a good newspaper reporter, strong writing, not just that you write well but that you care about writing. I wish I saw among some of the emerging talents in our business, and what I try to stimulate is more discussion just about what makes for elegant writing. And what does that mean, and first of all, it requires being very inquisitive, doing a lot of reading yourself, and recognizing who’s the most successful people in our business and ask, either ask through research that you do or ask them directly what matters most to them and how they end, what paths they follow in their career development.

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

>> Perhaps the most important for me, and I think it’s something that everybody goes through in their development as a leader is that ability to trust that others can do things as well as you can, or maybe even better. And to recognize that the great maestros in history in many cases, were outstanding musicians themselves.

So Leonard Bernstein was a great pianist, and Mstislav Rostropovich from the National Symphony Orchestra was a great cellist. But what made them great conductors and great maestros was not their own personal musical virtuosity. It was what they brought out of the rest of the orchestra, how they channel the creativity and vision of the composer and then the way they communicated and with both the musicians and with the audience and made for a transcending experience.

And I think in everyday business and in certainly in public relations that ability to recognize not only what things will make the difference between success or failure but also inspiring and motivating and demonstrating those behaviors and principals for those that you really need to count on to deliver that wonderful symphony.

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

>> Probably, the person that a lot of us in the profession have benefited from, and been inspired by in recent years. Is John Iwata of IBM, who not only is an incredibly accomplished professional himself. And became not only the CCO but then eventually CMO of IBM. In the spirit of leadership, he’s helped all of us to really think about what the role of the Chief Communications Officer in an organization is. And how companies should and can aspire to be more when it comes to, to their engagement with stakeholders. And really how all of the changes that have come about because of the digital age and otherwise, even if they haven’t changed the fundamental principles, they’ve changed a lot of how we operate day to day.

And I think he’s been an inspiration to all of us.

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

>> For me, it would be impossible to answer that question without pointing to somebody who’s a great historical figure but also happens to still have the office next to mine in my New York office. And that’s Harold Burson who at 94 years old still comes to work every day and still sets an example for all of us.

And I think, what makes great leaders in this business that ability to see beyond the obvious and continually ask the both pertinent and impertinent questions. Sometimes you need to ask them in different situations. His non-unending inquisitiveness. He still seeks out mentors that could teach him about the social media and about other new developments that are happening today but also through the years he’s been incredibly generous in how he’s shared his insights and experience with others.

And when you work with Harold, it’s always very obvious that he’s not sitting there trying to make himself look like the most important person in the room or the most smartest person in the room. He’s asking those questions that can help everybody in the room to think about things in a different way, and maybe come on those solutions themselves.

So for me, it’s Harold Burson.

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?

>> While they’re implemented in different ways, I think the principles of leadership and I think they’re the same in every field. It’s like asking if once you drive your car differently on this street versus that street and there are going to be things you’ll encounter on one street that won’t be on another.

But what really makes successful leaders is going to be similar. And those are that ability to understand what’s the right thing to do to not only assess that out yourself but be really a strong multiplier effect for everybody around you so that you’re bringing out the best of everyone around you and being forthright with your feedback. So, in other words, giving strong direction, but also helping everybody to adjust that as situations unfold. So that, many of those principles are the same in any kind of business. They just get applied differently in different ones. And one other point, the great leaders at the CEO level, or the CFO level, or the CMO level, or the CHRO level, in whatever organization, or great professors, all of the great leaders in every field at the core of that is very much the leadership aspects of public relations.

In other words, they are first and foremost great communicators. They inspire, they motivate. They’re not just passing along information. And so I think that those principles which are very important PR for applying to any business.

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

>> The approach, and again they get applied in different ways, but the approach is different. When we think about what makes a great client relationship, a leader in our business, in an agency, what I always try to impart to our teams is, it’s the same thing that we find valuable in a client. So in other words, inside that company they are focused on the understanding the business, they understand the competitive set of that business, they understand, appreciate and love the brands that they’re dealing with.

They are thinking strategically all the time; not just how do I respond to what’s here but how can I think about this in a different way. They’re developing ideas creatively, and then always, always, always executing flawlessly, or aspiring to. And so in each of these areas that apply, there are some differences in the business model in each of these, but the leadership principles are I think constant.

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

>> I think the number one, figure out who is doing that well and find out why. And that was if they’ve written books or there have been books of. I think when I was first getting into this business, it wasn’t related to this business but I’ve probably read a dozen or 15 books on Abraham Lincoln because I thought of him as the most effective leader in our country’s history.

And really early in my career, I spent a good deal of time reading biographies of great people through history which I think tells you what they found important. So first does that let you know, figure out where the best practices are and what you can do to adapt those or adopt them.

Second is, ask questions, be inquisitive. Everyone wants to be able to, even if they seem busy and they don’t at first respond in maybe the way you thought they would. Great professionals, great leaders want to be able to share the qualities of leadership. So be persistent and figure out ways to do that, and sometimes you might be surprised. You go and approach or write to a very accomplished leader and they’ll take the time and respond. And then third, I think to learn and be dedicated, especially early in your career to the fundamentals of the business. It’s not in your first few years, don’t be overly focused on what does this assignment mean to the rest of my career or how do I get this title to be better today because what you do in those first few years Is really setting up when the real leadership opportunities are going to come, and when the real accomplishments are going happen.

When I was starting out as a newspaper reporter, they assigned me, as my first assignment, was to be an obituary writer. And I thought that was going to be this dead end. I really, I went home, and I told my wife, I think maybe I better go find another field because they think all I can do is write obituaries.

But instead, I thought about how do I make myself the best darn obit writer papers’ ever had. And that was the goal I set for myself. And whether hubris or self-delusion or anything else, every step of the way in my career I’ve thought about What’s the best way to do whatever this assignment is?

How can I be the best at that? And then I set out to do that, and there are a lot of implications in what that means to figure that out. But if you’re focused on that, you’re focused on the right things rather than, is this the best use of my time, or do I want to do this for the rest of my life?

Whatever you’re doing right now in the first few years, you’re probably not going to do that for the rest of your life. Don’t sweat it. Focus on learning, focus on writing, focus on asking the right questions.

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

>> The ability to write clearly and effectively, and again, all the aspects of effective communication which is really more than ever about engagement, right?

And it’s about listening as well, virtually listening or directly listening. So number one, the fundamentals of effective communications. Number two, I think some of the programs run by The Plank Center, by the PRSSA, by the PRSA Foundation. And by a number of other organizations are highly effective. If they had existed in the way they do now when I was a student, I didn’t know it or I didn’t know that I was going to be in PR, frankly.

But I think, there are a lot of effective organizations that one can either directly participate in and/or virtually participate and by all means, jump into that. When we look at entry-level professionals, we’re looking at somebody that’s already, when you show up, essentially for one of our internships and you’re a junior in college, we’re expecting that you’ve already demonstrated some commitment to this field, some capability in that area.

And it can be anything. It can be doing something in a neighborhood organization or it could be doing something at the school. But show that seriousness and think about that, how that’s going to help build those fundamental capabilities and skills that you will then translate as experience develops and knowledge develops, into true leadership and true professionalism.

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

>> Are there naturally great leaders? Of course. There are naturally great musicians, there are naturally great people in every profession. But the ideals, and principles, and elements of leadership are learnable and teachable. And, frankly, it is our responsibility as professionals, and as students, it’s our responsibility to be constantly in that 360 process of learning and teaching.

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?  

>> From my perch of more than 30 years of working with so many different companies and with so many different people throughout the PR profession, I can absolutely assure you there are great leaders in this business in many cases people have just not had a chance to see it and maybe, maybe too many of us allow the urgent to overtake the important, as someone once said.

And we’re not spending the time to really demonstrate and define what that leadership is. Now, that said, there are perhaps not enough things being done to support exactly the kind of program that The Plank Center runs, and a number of other organizations to couple leaders in the business with students and with emerging professionals in a ways that can more deeply enable them to share ideas and to teach some of the principles of leadership about having strong values, about the fundamentals of communications, about the right kind of engagement with the stakeholders, and the right kind of listening.

And so, I think that would be the best step but also, for us to maybe do more to celebrate and recognize where they are great leaders in this business.

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

>> I think a good place for starting on leadership in any profession, I think certainly in ours, is a book called True Professionalism by David Maister.

And he has very good ideas about what the elements of great professionalism are, which are also coincidentally many of the characteristics of great leaders and I think he’s got very helpful, practical advice in that book. I think it came out in the late 90’s.

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

>> I think the best advice is, first of all, focus on your writing skills and some of your other basic communication skills.

Be a voracious reader, especially of media writ large. All media, traditional media, social media, and the various emerging elements of media. And focus on where your particular interests lie. Because I think if you have a passion about what you’re working on, that comes through in your work. It comes through in how you dive into it and in the effectiveness of the skills you develop and the expertise that you then demonstrate.

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

>> We want most of all to see someone who has already demonstrated a serious commitment to this profession. And that doesn’t mean that you’ve had PR jobs because you’re probably coming for an entry-level job but it means that you’ve done internships in college and you can show how those apply to challenges my organization might face, or our clients might face.

So you’ve done some research first of all on what those challenges might be. You’re asking questions. You don’t have to come in being an expert on everything. You should be asking questions and showing an inquisitive nature and some insightful observations or questions that will let us then see how you’ll apply that, those skills and those tendencies toward the work you’ll do with us.

And most important, focus in that period in school but also in your early professional years in developing your core communication skills, especially writing but also active listening and trying to understand the greater world in which our clients are operating. Because that’s going to, and they then use that to apply their skills.

This will be a really successful career.

Recorded: October 2015

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