Plank Legends & Leaders: Rick Looser

Rick Looser is President and COO of The Cirlot Agency, a leading global brand strategy, integrated communications and business development firm headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, with offices in Washington, D.C. The Agency represents clients ranging from Fortune 100 companies to some of the world’s largest privately held corporations.

Recognized as one of the top PR professionals in the country, Rick has worked with a virtual who’s who of business and industry, including Northrop Grumman, Bell Helicopter, Textron, Raytheon, Sherwin Williams, Boeing, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Sanderson Farms, among others. Rick was also the lead communications strategist for the competition to win one of the largest defense contracts ever awarded by the U.S. Navy, the DD(X) program, valued at more than $60 billion.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> I think leadership in public relations is the willingness to make hard choices. I think it’s the willingness to kind of lay yourself out there bare to your boss, to your client, to whomever it is. To say things, they may not want to hear. Leadership is having the depth and breadth of experience to then have that boss or that client listen to you because you’ve been there and done that. Sometimes even leadership of a large communications staff is an issue. To where at some point you do have to kind of be the one that says, I’ve listened to everybody’s opinion and here’s what we’re going to do. And so, it’s lonely at the top, isn’t just a phrase that said tongue and cheeks sometimes. Sometimes it’s the gospel truth that it is lonely sometimes being a leader. If you’re being a good leader, not an isolationist, but sometimes making decisions that people don’t agree with makes it kind of lonely.

It’s easy to make decisions that everybody agrees with and everybody thinks is good. But if you know in your heart that it’s not the best for the organization, even worse that it’s not true, I think the thing that makes leadership hard is that you have to have a bigger vision for what happens next and so it may be easy to make a decision that seems like it’s going to be a good decision, and it is, maybe for the next hour during that crisis or the next 24 hours during that crisis. But leaders have to know that that decision has bigger implications, has bigger implications to your employees, to your investors, to your communities.

So a leader has to look with a broader view than just what’s right in front of you. And sometimes, that makes leadership not only hard but lonely.

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

>> I think to be an excellent leader in public relations, you have to possess a few qualities that are universal. I think, first of all, you have to be curious. You have to want to know more than just the facts you’re given. You’ve got to want to know why, and how. And you got to make sure that somebody’s has convinced you of those before you’re satisfied. I also think you have to be I think you have to be enthusiastic, in public relations to be a real leader. I think probably the most important is that you have to have a passion. I think you have to have a passion for, from the agency side, for the clients you represent. From the corporate side, I think you have to have a passion for your product. You have to have a passion for your employees, your process.

I think you have to have a compassion in all those for your competitors. To know who you’re up against, and to know what you’ve got to do to succeed; to know what you’ve got to do to be better than them. I know there’s the textbook answers which I’ll talk about process and other parts of it and I think we’re not talking about even being a leader if you don’t have that now.

So to me it is, I think you got to have a passion for knowledge and then just a passion to do good work.

What factors most contributed to your personal success? 

>> I think the factors that contributed most in my personal success are the factors you would hear at a Miss America contest, which is the answers of my mom and dad and world peace and those kind of answers but in this case, it’s actually true and that I got my passion for public relations early on.

Both of my parents met as reporters at the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama for a newspaper. And so when we sit around the table at supper, the evening meal for those of you that aren’t from the south. And we didn’t talk about how your day was at school, we talked about the issues of the day, and what I thought about them. And how I would phrase them, and what I would say about them. My dad covered George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. My dad had Martin Luther King Jr’s home phone number because he gave it to him to call, because of the way my dad reported on the Civil Rights era.

My dad went on to be a public relations director for a historically black university. So that when I say that my mom and dad gave me a head start, it was more just how they raised me. It was the fact that they gave me a curiosity about public relations.

So I think it was that and the fact that once they started combining numbers and letters in algebra I was completely lost. And so I knew any kind of math or science was out of the question. So, for me, the written word is what inspired me, and then it was just a matter of how I was going to use that inspiration.

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

>> I think the most powerful experience I’ve encountered in relationships to public relations is that because it’s counterintuitive to what we learn in public relations. In public relations, we learn to have statements on events. To formulate talking points, to have those things that we’re going to do to further our calls, to get the most recognition we can get.

And so one of the most powerful experiences I ever had was representing a client at Ingalls Shipbuilding on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi who makes a large percentage of the ships for our U.S. Navy, and it was after the USS Cole was attacked by terrorists in Yemen, and blew a 40-by-40-foot hole in the ship, it killed 17 of our sailors.

And they brought that ship back from there to Pascagoula. And at the time, Jerry St. Pe was for a while and had been the CEO of Ingalls Shipbuilding. But unlike any other CEO I know he came up through the mail room and through the public relations department, which believed it or not in this day of age public relations departments aren’t where they’re searching to find the next CEO of the company.

So I was always impressed that he had achieved that to start with. But then there was a discussion of what do we do once the USS Cole, because people are going to see it, you can see it from the highway as it starts coming into view and it makes its way to where it’s eventually going to be fixed and put back and recommissioned to see.

And there was a lot of talk about the best way to talk about it, and the best way to garner the exposure in the fact that this corporation was called on to fix what terrorists had destroyed. Mr. St. Pe’s decree was we’re not going to talk about it, 17 brave soldiers, sailors died in that vessel.

We’re not going to make this an opportunity for a public relations event. We’re going to honor their service, we’re going to honor their death. When we bring this ship back to life in 18 months, then we will have a celebration to show that terrorist can’t defeat the human spirit or the spirit of Americans, then we will talk about it.

But right now, we’ll honor the dead and we’ll honor what they fought for. And so to me, it was just a great learning experience as a public relations person that sometimes silence can be the most, loudest you can speak is through your silence. And so, that was probably one experience that really had lasting impression on me.

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 think about leaders in the field of public relations today, for me, it comes down to not some much to who is in PRNews or PRWeek or those kinds of publications. For me, leaders are people that I know. I know what they do. I know what they’re up against. I know that the resources they have. I get a lot of compliments on the public relations that our agency does, but people that know, know that there’s a whole great group of staff members that do all the heavy lifting. And a lot of times, I’m there taking the credit, which is what leaders sometimes do as well.

But for me, it would be folks that I know personally. Mark Harris who’s on The Plank Center Board, who is with IBM (now retired) and another would be Keith Burton, who is currently with Brunswick (now with Grayson Emmett Partners). I’ve watched those guys for the last several years and I’ve watched what they’ve done.

I’ve watched what they’re up against and to see guys that are by and large my age, but who came up through the ranks in public relations when there were two reporting AP and UPI for the most part. There were three networks, a couple papers of record and just to see the way they have managed change in their professional career to where it is a 24-hour news cycle with news coming from every direction and with social media and all the other things that they are exposed to.

It’s hard and there’s the gutters are littered with folks who weren’t able to make that transaction, who are still sitting there talking about the next press release we need to do. And I see these guys and just watch what they have done and because I know them and because I see them, I would consider them leaders that I aspire to be like.

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

>> Too often, as public relations people, we sometimes look to leaders that have shown some kind of great PR talent as people who somehow have vice president public relations or of communications on their business card or on their title. In my lifetime, the best example of leadership I’ve ever seen in public relations was President Ronald Reagan and it could’ve been just the age I was at the time. I was just out of college or last year, or so of college. And we had been through the Jimmy Carter years and none of this that I’m talking about has anything to do with politics, it has to do with time and place. And in that time and place, it was very depressing.

We had hostages that had been held for well over a year by Iranians. The interest rates were 18%. I mean, it was just a depressing time and you had Ronald Reagan who was a former actor, who had been a spokesperson to raise money for war efforts, who had done a lot of his career had been in front of a camera. And to me, he knew how to use it better than anybody. And so the first day he took office, you saw him and he had said, it’s been 444 days that we have had our men and women hostage. From the time I say, so help me God. If they aren’t let go, then I’m coming and I’m bringing hell with me.

And before he got off that platform, the hostages had been let go. And so for the first time in a long time, people were inspired. And his yes was his yes, his no was his no. And then to see into his presidency when the space shuttle, the Challenger, blew up 70 seconds into the sky.

And the first time there had ever been a civilian, a female, a teacher on that space shuttle and just to see the look on people’s faces. And again, this was before there were 40 channels to get your news from. This was when people still tuned in at night to see what the news of the day was.

So to turn into our president who in less than five minutes gave the nation great comfort and I don’t remember exactly, but pretty closely at the end of his speech he says something to the effects of, we’ll never forget the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared and they waved and smiled and they left the surly bonds of this earth to touch the face of God.

I mean, I’m 20 something years old, but I listen to him and I cry. He had given the nation comfort and then in just a few 18 months or whatever later to stand with the second most powerful man in the world in his backyard and looks straight into the camera and know what he was doing when he said, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

He knew that he was going around the media. He was going around elected officials. He was going straight to the people. So to me, he probably had the best sense of PR. People forget that that whole Challenger event happened on the day of his State of the Union Address, which he didn’t give, but you can imagine what went into preparation for that and how quickly they had to turn that kind of speech to comfort a nation.

And so his public relations skills, I think the ability to listen to people who gave him good direction was probably from a historical standpoint, the most influential figure of my lifetime.

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?

>> Well, I think that the set of leadership skills you have to have to be in public relations are different from other professions. I think they’re different in that you do have to have a much broader sense of your surroundings and the footprint you operate you in, and the space you’re in. And so I think that other professions may be more forgiving, as far as the ability to make mistakes or to cover up mistakes.

But at the same time, I think we also have the flip side of that, which is a much greater opportunity to affect change. And so I do think it’s different, probably 80% of both of those are the same, but I think that 20% is probably what makes the biggest difference.

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

>> I am a believer that the set of skills and the way you approach different public relations efforts from non-profit to corporate to agency does require a different skill set. I am reminded of what my mother made me memorize when I was a young child which is methods are many principles are few. Methods are ever changing but principles never do. So I think the principles of public relations are probably the same in any of those. The methods are different. I worked as the Public Relations Director of the Alabama Poison Center. I was the Public Relations Director for the whole state.

But I was also the only employee for the whole state and we had a zero base budget. And so the skill sets and the things I had to bring to that job were completely different than the skill sets that I bring to my current job, which we have clients that are some of the largest clients in their particular field in the world, and although they certainly have budgetary restrictions, that’s not always the very first concern, and some of the jobs I’ve been in that’s the only concern. How are we going to do this with no money? And so I do think you have to bring different skill sets and a different mindset. But I think the principles are the same.

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

>> I think the biggest thing that educators at our universities who are teaching our students in communication can do is to come down out of the ivory tower I can say that, to some degree, and that I taught at the University of Alabama the last two spring semesters. So, I drive six hours round trip, twice a week, in order to teach a two-hour public relations campaigns class to those seniors who are graduating in May. And if they don’t have a C or better in my class, then they don’t get to walk and they have to explain to their parents why they’re actually not graduating.

So I’ve gotten to see firsthand for the last two years and I’ve gotten feedback from students. And the way I teach my class is probably less than academic. And that I teach about the things that I left the office doing that day and the methods we use and the situations we face. And I’m amazed at the number of responses I get from those students of wow, this is real world experience. And so, I think our educators are doing a great job. At the University of Alabama, it’s been one of the top two or three schools of communication and public relations for the last several years in a row.

And the students that take PR campaigns from other professors get just as good of an experience because our teachers, the professors there, are dedicated to that. But I think that you have to have as an instructor, you have to have some idea of what’s going on in the real world of what you’re teaching.

I had professors when I was in the school of communications who had not been in an office environment in over 20 years. They taught as if they hadn’t been in the real world in 20 years. They were teaching right out of the book. So it’s hard for me to believe that a professor right now could even go back five years.

When really social media hadn’t become the most relevant part of what we do today and be able to teach it without having some exposure to it. And one of the things The Plank Center’s doing is taking professors out of their normal routine, putting them in a public relations work environment for three weeks during the summer.

There’s a stipend that pays them. They don’t have to worry about that and they get to see what’s going on in the real life of a PR person today. So I think the biggest thing that our institutions can do is to make sure that just like doctors have to have continuing education hours and attorneys that should be required of our current staff in all universities.

That they’re out there seeing what’s actually happening, and how it’s happening, and how corporations and PR firms are handling the challenges of the plethora of information that we’re dealing with day in, day out.

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

>> Well, I think you probably can teach leadership. In the same way that you can probably teach somebody to play the piano. If they, like one of my sisters, if they go to lessons once a week for 12 years. And one of the parents makes them practice for one hour a week for those 12 years, then yes, they can play a piano. But that doesn’t make them a musician.

It doesn’t mean they enjoy, it doesn’t mean they’re good at it, and it doesn’t mean you’d want to sit around and listen to them. But they are piano players. I think leaders are kind of the same way. Yes, you can absorb being around a great leader, and kind of figure out how they do it. You can read books, you can go by the way your corporation actually requires you to do things. And all those things are leadership tools. But I think there’s some part of a great leader that has to have, that has to be part of their DNA, that they have to be born into that.

So I guess my answer is yes and no. Yes, I think you can learn leadership. But I think the best leaders probably started with that quality already part of who they were.

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? 

>> I know there’s a lot of talk about the lack of leadership, leaders in the public relations industry and if I, I’m not sure I totally agree with that. But assuming that it’s true, then I think we have nobody to blame but ourselves. I think that we have to reach those potential leaders where they are, and give them a reason to want to be leaders. And there’s some things that we’re doing a good job of, the Public Relations Student Society of America.

There are those things in place that can, if a student or recent graduate is motivated enough, can begin to actually kind of figure out how to be a part of. But I also think that we need to figure out a different way, as professionals, to reach those young professionals and students to give them a better sense of how important leadership is.

I traveled to Ukraine several years ago and became just friendly with one of the locals there who was actually a medical student and 18 years old. First of all, I was like how do you get to be 18 years old and be a medical student already? And is this what you always knew you wanted to do?

He said here it doesn’t matter what we want to do. By 14 years old they decide, based on your abilities and your proclivity to different things, whether or not you’re going to be a bricklayer, or a scientist, or a doctor. And then that choice is taken out of your hands and they put you on the path to be one of those two.

It has had the good fortune of being on the path of something that I really want to do which is being a doctor. No, I’m not advocating that we should send a 14-year-olds off to the labor camps. But I think we need to start doing a better job just in general developing leaders at a younger age and to also start– it’s hard because I see it in my part-time job as an instructor at the University of Alabama, I see seniors that are two months away from graduating that are sitting there going, wow, I should’ve gotten an internship, or I should’ve done this, or I should’ve done that.

All of those things that they probably should’ve been thinking about when they were in high school. And so I think we need to do a better job there. And then for the young professionals, I think we need to continue, I think there’s a big gap between a student organization and a professional organization.

And, I think we need to develop something in between that gap, that gives them a little more confidence. Cause, it’s kind of hard to be a student and go work at a PR firm even for a few months and then go to some conference to where you’re surrounded by folks that have been in the business for ten, 12, 15 years.

It’s a great learning experience, but it’s not real conducive to two-way communication.

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

>> I think the most concrete example I’ve seen of leadership, in the practice that made a significant difference and really changed an organization, again wasn’t really a public relations person but title but with somebody who knew the power of public relations and that would be a Dr. Robert Khayat from the University of Mississippi. Dr. Khayat came to Ole Miss in 1996. The first thing he did was hire a national public relations firm to gauge what the opinions were on the University of Mississippi. And then he took those opinions, and he took what he knew instinctively and what he’d learned, and he did things that people thought would get him fired or worse, killed.

I mean one of the first things he did was say that we are going to get rid of the Rebel Flag as a symbol for this university. Now he did it in some unique ways which showed great leadership. He didn’t say, and back then you could go to Ole Miss football game and watch it on TV and you would see Rebel Flags being waved. Every third seat in a stand somebody had one. And so what he said is you can’t bring any sticks of any sword with a point on them into this stadium ever again and you can’t bring any material that’s bigger than a 10 by 12 surface. So you can’t bring umbrellas, you can’t bring a corn dog stick and also flagpoles fit in that.

And so he pretty much without saying so kind of legislated towards there was no way, it was pretty hard to wave a flag if you don’t have a stick to wave it with. And he got death threats. He got people that said that he was destroying the university.

Now, he had graduated from the university. He had been the Dean of the Law School. He had been a football star. He had played for the Washington Redskins as a placekicker. So he already had skin in the game. And he already had people who believed that he had the university’s that he had what was best for the university at every decision he was making.

So he did have that traction to start with. But then the next thing he did was get rid of Colonel Reb, which was the official, unofficial mascot which was a, what looked like a plantation owner with a cane walking around in a seersucker suit. All the bad images you’d ever think about the south all wrapped up into one.

And you put a Rebel flag in hand and you’ve got a recipe for all the images that are stuck in people’s minds about Old Miss and so we got rid of those. He became a benevolent dictator when it came to some issues that other people told him were sacred and he couldn’t touch.

And the change he effected by doing that, was when he started as Chancellor there was an enrollment of 10,000 and it was falling. When he left 14 years later, it was over 20,000 students enrolled went for a few million dollars in the endowment over $775 million. And the crowning achievement that we were involved at my agency was when he lured the very first Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain to come to the campus of the University of Mississippi.

And what a moment to have the first true contender for President, African American contender for President, to be on campus for the very first debate of that series. And I think the biggest testament to what happened, and the culmination- because he retired shortly after that- but the culmination of all of his work, to me, was wrapped up in a PR person’s dream.

Our agency spent 18 months working on that event because Dr. Khayat saw what public relations meant. In the end, we garnered almost $33 million worth of earned media for the University of Mississippi. But the one question that Tom Brokaw was given at the end of the debate was who won tonight.

You heard the debate. Did Barack Obama or John McCain win this debate? Tom Brokaw said nobody made a mistake, it was basically stump speeches said in a different way, there was nothing revealing here. But if you ask me who won tonight, the University of Mississippi was the real winner of this debate.

Because for the first time that we’ve seen them in 50 years since we saw police dogs, billy clubs, and fire hoses. For the first time in 50 years since the cameras of the nation were turned back on to Oxford, Mississippi. We see what’s changed and what’s different. And so if you asked me the University of Mississippi is the real winner.

Well, as a public relations person you want to go say, well okay I retire. That’s the best thing anybody could ever say and I’m done. But that was the culmination of 14 years of hard decisions. That Dr. Khayat made, that brought it to that and that’s now made it one of the most vibrant, on the top 25 list of Forbes, it was named the most beautiful campus, the most beautiful people.

But all that became came because of some hard decisions that other people said don’t do.

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

>> The one book I would recommend, and it is a book that’s, actually it was written by Louis Timberlake. And the name of the book is Born to Win and I heard it at one of my, I heard him speak he was a motivational speaker went around and spoke to different groups and there’s absolutely nothing that you can find as a public relations person that has a redeeming value about public relations.

There’s no talk about the four-step process, there’s no great examples of PR. But what it is, it’s a book of inspiration. And it talks about people who either at the beginning of their career or at the very end of their life, found what they were meant to do.

One great example is Colonel Sanders with KFC. The fact that this was his second career. He had retired. He had given up his own life and contemplated suicide. And then it talks about him writing a list of the things that he was good at and one of them was frying chicken, and how that turned from door-to-door, to one of the most successful franchises of all times.

And I say that because I think that young people need to be inspired, and that book made a huge difference in my life. There’s parts of it that are cheesy and motivational speaker type parts of the book, but I’ve read it half a dozen times. And he brings a lot of analogies from religion and from the Bible.

And it’s interesting, one of the few things I remember the first time I read it and remembered ever since is that as children, as babies we’re born with two fears. The fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear in life that we have, we learned that fear.

And he mentions how in the Bible, 365 times, verses start with fear not. And so he talked a lot about fear, and what that can do to you, and how it’s a paralyzing feeling and so early on in my career it made me less fearful of saying things, doing things, of speaking up in meetings where I probably was supposed to listen and not speak.

But I think that could maybe change a young person’s way of thinking. Again, it’s not going to give them some great PR insight. I think all that’s great PR insight if you look at it the right way. But it’s not a nuts and bolts, mechanics book on how to be a leader.

It just talks about a bunch of great leaders and how they got there.

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

>> I think the two, three most crucial issues that our PR industry faces, as practitioners, it’s really content management, and that’s a broad term and maybe not the best term but what I mean by that is that that’s content management about our profession, it’s about our clients or our company that we work for.

I mean it’s coming from every direction. Again, there was a time when there were three network channels, and a local paper and the New York Times was the paper of record, and that was pretty much it. And now there’s Twitter and blogs and Facebook and everything you can think of.

And so I think just to manage content is one part of it, and what accompanies that is relevancy. How do you stay relevant as a PR practitioner? If the guy I answer to has Google Alerts and every morning he or she gets up and looks at Google Alerts and can tell me everything everybody said about me as a PR practitioner, what am I really?

That used to be part of my job was to report what’s going on out there and now they can get that directly. I need to have a set of skills that shows, here’s the contents, here’s the relevance and here’s what we’re going to do about it. So, to me, managing content, staying relevant, and I think, one of the challenges we have is looking outside of our own small world.

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

>> I do think that the PR profession has greater legitimacy today than it did 20 or 30 years ago. Although you probably couldn’t tell it, by the way, we’re thought of nationally, and in opinion surveys. I mean we’re really, and I think we get caught up in a broad brush. But when you talk about PR people, we come in just right above used car dealers in how much people trust what we’re saying. But I think for years, PR professionals sometimes sounded like crybabies. And that we need a seat at the table. We need to be part of the management function. We need to be part of decisions made by the corporation instead of making the decisions and telling us that you made it. Let us be part of the decision.

Well, first of all, I think that’s your own problem that you’ve not done enough to make that leadership team value you enough to demand you sit at that table. Because if you had they won’t have those meetings without you, if you’ve proven yourself. But I think now so for reasons that have little to do with how much our profession has evolved, but more of how much communications has evolved. I think you have, again, the 24-hour news cycle which could now be the 24 minute or the 24-second news cycle.

And because, again, of social media and all the other things that affect reputations and brands then and I think those folks that are now achieving some C-level of leadership in corporations grew up with understanding public relations. They didn’t have to go to school, they saw the effects of what good public relations can do.

Twenty years ago, when cell phones weren’t prevalent and people first started to use them, there were great predictions that that would be the cause of most accidents, people talking on their phone. And for a while, it was because people didn’t know how to do it. But my kids grew up talking on their phone and driving.

And it’s just what they do and they’ve never known anything else. I think you can say the same about those people that are reaching the C-level management parts of organizations today. They’ve seen what public relations can do. They have seen the difference it can make, not only to their company but to their individual careers.

Because I don’t think there’s as much an argument now of we are relevant, too. We just used to be stomping up like spoiled children, let us at the table, we’re relevant. I think that the leaders that are being brought through the ranks today see public relations as a great tool, not as a necessary evil.

And so I think that’s what makes the biggest difference today.

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

>> I tell you the best advice I have to somebody that’s entering the work world is what I tell every employee we hire. It’s the last thing I tell them before we send them off to go to their desk. And that is, you’re now a member of The Cirlot Agency. And you’ve got a lot of expectations but here’s the one thing you need to know, be fired with enthusiasm, or you will be fired with enthusiasm. And that is to say that you have got to show us that you want to be here.

You have got to show us that you have a thirst for knowledge way beyond just what we tell you to read. If you want to be a leader, leaders become leaders because people begin to depend on them. I begin depending on people who know more than I do. And so, if you know more about the companies we’re representing, if you know more about their competition, if you know more about what’s going on in that part of that competitive world, then, I promise you, you don’t have to be invited to any meetings. I’m going to drag you into every meeting because you’re now my resource. And so I would tell any aspiring young PR professional to become the resource. To do the hard work, to get out there and find out the things that other people don’t take the time to find out, and then figure out how to plug in.

That knowledge is no good unless you let people know you’ve got it, but once you know you’ve got it they’ll begin to depend on it. And aren’t those all the things that go into making up a leader? The fact that people depend on you, the fact you’re knowledgeable, the fact that you know things and you become a default leader. I think leadership is somehow today thought of somebody who’s the head of an organization or the C-level in some organization. And one of the best leaders in my agency right now is 26 years old. And she’s been with us for two years and she is a leader because she knows everything about every client she works with inside and out.

She went back and found out things that our own agency did ten years ago when she was still in middle school. She has become a leader. Now, she’s not a C-level, she’s not a vice president but she’s a leader in the sector she works in because she has made herself a leader.

And so, that’s what I would tell whether you’re a student or whether you’re a young professional, is you’ve got to make your own way. Make your own way and then make friends that will help drag you along through that way. When you can’t push through it anymore that they’ll drag you through.

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

>> Experience is king when it comes to hiring decisions especially for those that are without experience, and so you need to convince me that you’ve got relevant experience. Relevant experience isn’t the fact that you were the publicity chairman of the spirit committee for your sorority, for your fraternity. It may look good on a resume, but in the real world, we all know what that means, which is, not really anything.

So if you want to impress that future employer, then it needs to be something that translates into something that they won’t have to teach you and that you can bring to the table. And so when I taught seniors last spring, you know one of the things I told them is, you’ve got a guy like me that’s over 50 years old and you’re sitting down to interview.

You need to pick out what you want to talk about that will make me think I could use that. If you’re a recent graduate looking for that job, then I would pick your battle. I would pick your area of expertise, which isn’t going to be crisis communication or investor relations.

You’re at that age and that stage in your life never going to know anything is going to impress anybody. But if all of a sudden you tell me that you put together the social media plan for a nonprofit organization that has now got, 10,000 likes or something like that you’ve done, then social media is being run all over the world by 25-year-olds.

Most of Washington policy is being written by 25-year-olds. That’s something I can use, that’s something I can trust you with, that’s something you can teach me. So find something that you may not have five years of experience in, but you’ve learned about. And something that might be a weakness, or might not be as big of a strong point for that agency or that organization, in order to help get your foot in the door.

Recorded: July 2014