Plank Legends & Leaders: Rick White


Rick White has earned a reputation for being a strong and effective spokesperson and experienced crisis manager. As (former) Chief Communications Officer for the Wisconsin Energy Corporation, White has created and managed the company strategy to gain support from customers, thought leaders, key interest groups and the media. He also serves as the company spokesperson for sensitive policy issues.

Prior to his recent post, Richard held various positions with the former Carolina Power & Light Company, before assuming the role of vice president of CORE Communications. In this capacity, he repositioned the company into a consistent and reliable source of information on industry issues with the media during a time of extreme regulatory and legislative change. Richard is a member of the Arthur Page Society, Public Relations Seminar, and the Public Relations Society of America.

He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina and currently serves as the Associate Vice Chancellor of University Communications.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> I think leadership probably is a couple things, courage, often times we find ourselves in situations that are not comfortable for us– counseling the CEO when he wants to do something or she wants to do something, that’s simply not the right thing to do.

Courage, willingness to catch a few errors, willingness to be out front on an issue that’s developing, and may not be popular. Where you need to lead your client, or lead your company, and ultimately, it’s mentorship as well. Bringing the next generation along, the best leaders are the ones that grow their replacements faster, sooner, rather than later, and aren’t afraid to do so.

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

>> Clearly, again, courage. I’ve seen it time and time again where a client or a company takes the wrong direction because someone didn’t have the courage to say the right thing. Or the company was called and caught up in some sort of hubris and just you couldn’t see those things. Willingness ability to not only have courage, but to have a cool head, and to be able to see ahead a little bit. And translate that into okay what’s that mean for us today and where do we need to go tomorrow? The other thing, in terms of leadership, would be that willingness to say, look, I’m not quite sure where you’re going to be headed, but I’m willing to help you get there, wherever it’s going to be.

I can think of examples in my career where someone took a chance on me. Big risk, at that time, and was willing to do it. I respected them immensely. And lastly is to walk the talk, you know who the leaders are when they are willing to do what they say they’re going to do. And you know who you can’t trust when they’re not willing to do what they say they’re going to do. And at the end of the day is probably the biggest.

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

>> I had a CEO who took a chance on me at one point and was willing when, I’ll describe it this way. He was willing to let me fall down, and stub my toe, and learn a lesson, but he caught me before I went over any cliffs. And then, that meant a lot to me, and that taught me, now I have an obligation to do the same thing, but that enabled me to learn and to grow, which was just very important in my career.

The other thing is that I’ve been able to be a generalist for a long time, and if you find yourself going down a narrow career path, that’s you may be a leader in that particular area but at the end of the day in the field whether it be in the agency work or the corporate side you’re going to want folks who have broad experience and leadership experience over a whole variety of situations, whether it be internal or external or public affairs, or community relations, or social media, you name it. Whatever it is. So my counsel always is, don’t get yourself boxed into early and to a specialization. Show your willingness to be a leader there, but then go lead something else, as well. And sometimes that means going outside your comfort zone. Obviously, but it’ll pay dividends in the long term.

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

>> When I was given a responsibility for a program that was either going to be successful and the company would continue or we would fail and the company would go bankrupt.

We had a bet the company tie for situation at one point. Ran into some unanticipated opposition and unfortunate unplanned circumstances. And this wasn’t because anyone wasn’t doing their job, just something happened that you couldn’t control. There was an external event. My job was to enable the regulatory authorities at the time to make the right decisions to allow us to move ahead with the project.

We could move ahead with the project, we had basically bet the company on it, and there was no out force. Well, I was in kind of a daunting situation because all of a sudden I was leading people throughout the company in this, doing this. Folks who normally didn’t work with me or for me, who had various disciplines from engineering to customer service to whatever.

We’re now being called upon to help us out with this effort and I was leading that effort so it was a great experience dealing with folks all throughout the company. Dealing with folks with different backgrounds, dealing with folks who were unlike me, a right brain person. I was dealing with left brain engineers on a daily basis and trying to get them to accomplish what we needed to have them accomplish.

And it was a learning experience for me almost like running an election campaign. It was a learning experience for me. But beyond that, it was a bonding experience where everyone worked on the project. And it was probably one of the most successful things I’ve done. We were successful, the company was able to go ahead and do what it needed to do and boy was that ever a good feeling to turn around and say look what you were able to help the company do but look what you were able to help enable a lot of other people who didn’t think they could do it either, get done and at the great satisfaction of then stepping aside and letting them tell all sorts of war stories about boy, were we. And that’s probably one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.

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

>> It’s hard to name one. So I’ll give you two. One on the agency side and one on the corporate side. Probably, on the agency side, I’ll say Richard Edelman. And on the corporate side, I’ll say Roger Bolton who recently retired from Aetna. But the reasons are the same. They are both thought leaders in the profession. It’s one thing to be a leader to go out and say, we have the best media relations, or we’ve got the best social media.

That’s completely another thing to lead the thought of the profession. These two individuals do it very well. They challenge us constantly to ask ourselves is what we’re doing the right thing to do? Is what we’re doing out, and should we be doing it a different way? Are there different approaches, or should we be more open and more receptive to things?

They both blog on a regular basis. And they’re both very, very thoughtful individuals. And from that standpoint, I think they’re both excellent examples of the types of leadership and leaders that we really want holistically looking across the profession.

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

>> Yeah, for a couple reasons, I would say Arthur W. Page. And the reason I say that, first of all, he’s a Carolinian by birth, as I am. That doesn’t necessarily that all great PR people come from the Carolinas. But, in addition to that, I think he was the first one who really exemplifies the thought leadership, we talk about.

He wasn’t a publicist. There are great examples of Edward Bernays or others who look at came at public relations from a publicity standpoint. Page was much broader than that. He looked at things from a thought standpoint, from a strategic standpoint. He counseled us as professionals to be broad in our thinking.

Not just to be solely focused on public relations, but think about the business, which is critically important. So, from my view, I think Arthur W. Page is a person that we should look to, even today, for direction and leadership.

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?

>> Actually, I don’t. If you’re going to lead in the military, if you’re going to lead in public relations, if you’re going to. We’re really not talking about public relations, we’re talking about leadership. And leadership crosses all professions, all boundaries. You know a leader when you see that person, no matter what they do.

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

>> I think they probably do a little bit. And I’m on the corporate side and so I look at my agency brethren and say, okay, this is what I think they’re doing.

And they probably look over here and we talk obviously. But I think probably the requirements might be a little different simply because of the business model is different. You’re motivating folks, you’re leading folks to do what may appear to be the same thing, but the way you’re approaching it from a business perspective is a little different.

There are also leadership issues internally within an organization, within on the corporate side that you might not have on the agency side. I’m not talking about managing people necessarily, but I’m talking about how things interact within the organism or the organization itself, that may not be there in the agency.

So, I think a leader is always a leader but it’s situational as well and you need to look at the situation that you’re in. So there may be some differences.

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

>> Observe, observe, and observe. Get as close to a recognized leader as you can, and watch what he or she does. Try to within the bounds of your own personality, try to emulate the good things that you see there. That’s why internships are so important and finding a mentor is so important. Now, some people come by that a little more naturally than others. Their personality trait is more outgoing, what have you.

But I’ve seen leaders who are very quiet, but they lead in a very, you know they’re a leader. They don’t have to say much. And other leaders are very outgoing. And do it within your own comfort zone, but observe and see what those others are doing and then recognize, okay, how can I apply that learning to situations that I’ve had.

And then, there’s nothing better than to get yourself thrown into a situation where you do have to apply it. So raise your hand, volunteer, get out there, take the lead, force yourself, get outside of your comfort zone a little bit, and force yourself to do those things. And you will learn how to do it.

You’ll fall a little bit. That’s part of learning, too. But observe and then put into practice what you can.

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

>> I think so. One is, bring in as many leaders as you can to expose your students to that sort of thing. Kick your students out the door and get them in internship programs.

Now the reality is, and I say this without hesitation in knowing that I’m on the campus of a fine institution of higher education. I learn more off campus than I ever did learn on campus. So, the more that faculty can expose their students to the real world, and, the better off they’re going to be, absolutely the better off they’re going to be.

And at the end of the day, they’re going to take those real-life experiences and bring them back to the classroom and that’s a great opportunity to discuss and learn and talk with other students. But the more you can get them out or the more you can get leaders in, to expose them to students, the better off they’re going to be.

Do you think that leadership can be taught? 

>> That’s an interesting question. I think it can, but I also think that there are born leaders. An example I will give you is I brought on board, I call this the best hire I ever made. I brought on board a writer from the local newspaper. She was an outstanding writer, had a wonderful personality, didn’t know squat about business, and really didn’t have a lot of self-confidence.

So fine, she wrote, she did what she needed to do, she learned the business a little bit. And what I tried to do, was to expose her to some other opportunities. And that’s probably putting it mildly. I forced her to take some assignments she otherwise wouldn’t have had. She was very uncomfortable, very reluctant at first. I literally threw her in the lion’s den on one assignment where she had to sink or swim. I knew what would happen, but it was ugly for the first four months. But because I put her into a male dominated environment where everything was black and white, by the book, and engineering driven.

And she obviously didn’t have an engineering background. Within about six months, because of her personality and her intelligence. Basically, she had them eating out of her hand, and she was telling them how to improve their organization, how to improve their internal communications, how to not be surprised, when these issues came up in the plant.

And to cut to the chase, when she left the company to follow her husband out of state to another job, she was the chief lobbyist in the state legislature for the company. So, some people have it naturally, some people have to be brought out, but it can be brought out, and that’s why mentoring is so important.

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 will disagree with that premise. I don’t think they are, I see a lot of leaders in PR. I see perhaps an unwillingness to step forward and take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself. I see perhaps a lack of opportunity to again to demonstrate that. But I see a lot of people I know, I know just in their daily interaction in the office, whether it be in an agency or in a corporate environment.

I see people who have the potential to be good leaders. I don’t think there’s a shortage, I think there might be a shortage of opportunities for them to demonstrate that. So once again I don’t put the onus on someone who is aspiring to be a leader, I put the onus on some old guy like me to find those opportunities to say okay, here’s your career development chance for this year.

I may not have many but here’s the one I’d like you to do this job. I’d like for you to do and help them get through that and give them some confidence and do that. Nine times out of ten, those folks know exactly what to do instinctively, and you may want to help them a little bit through the rough spots, but by large, I think there are a lot of bright talented people.

Small agencies big agencies, corporations, small business I see them all the time. It’s just finding the right opportunity for them to shine. So in my case, one of the things that I try to do in my organization is to move people around all the time. I want my shop, as silly as it sounds, to be the go-to place where someone in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who’s looking for a good PR professional, knows they can come and get a leader who’s well-trained and has a broad background.

And I say this, I think truly, my folks have the best resumes in town. And the reason for that is they’ve been given those opportunities but you have to really work at it and those opportunities don’t come along by themselves sometimes you have to create it so that’s what we can do.

I don’t think there’s any shortage of people at all.

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

>> I can, I can and I’ll go back to an incident having to do with a very tragic circumstance where I work for a large utility, as you know, and sometimes people get into our service, get into electricity in the way they shouldn’t be.

And without going into too many details, basically, we had a situation where a young man was injured. The CEO has been counseled for illegal reasons. Don’t acknowledge anything, don’t talk to the family, let the lawyers do the talking, the operations people are scared stiff. They didn’t want to, they wanted to go down the same road.

They weren’t saying anything. And my counsel to him at first was, this is bad advice and you know what I had counseled him to do. To cut to the chase here the CEO by his actions that day, by visiting the hospital, by taking accountability, even though in reality, we didn’t do anything wrong.

There was some vandalism involved with the equipment. And unfortunately, because of that vandalism, it was exposed to this young man. It’s still our responsibility. It’s our equipment that’s sitting there. By that very act that day and willing to talk to the parents and take accountability and say we’re not leaving you, we’re going to be here with you changed the whole tenor of the of the legal proceedings that followed which certainly there were reach out of court settlement. The parents were happy, caused us much less than it would otherwise, there were no nasty articles in the paper. In fact, the parents publicly praise the company for what we were doing.

All of those things and internally what that told the company it was always more important internally than externally because what it told that company by that CEO’s action was saying look we have a responsibility here and we’re bigger that are running away from it. I’m proud of what we do. I’m proud of each and every one of you and when something bad goes wrong we’re going to own up to it and we’re going to do the right thing. That in of itself sent a message through the entire organization that’s much stronger than anything I could have done. And it really sort of, best way to describe this, employees were just terrified this thing happened, but so damn proud of what the company was doing and that made a world of difference for us.

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

>> I would say, John Adams. Now, it’s certainly not on public relations. And there are a lot of good books on leadership out there, but one of the things about public relations and leadership, in general, we have to understand is number one I don’t think it’s a PR-specific thing. I think it gets across all disciplines. Number two, as public relations professionals we better be fairly broad about what we do. We better understand the business and how the business works. We had better understand psychology. We better understand research. We better understand media relations, all these things. But at the heart of it, we have to be knowledgeable about a lot of different things. So when I look for examples of leadership, I’m not looking just in PR, I’m looking at a fairly broad spectrum.

I say, Adams, simply because here was a guy who reluctantly was thrust into a leadership role. But once he was there he tenaciously went after it, his values were rock solid, he had some rough spots and there were times that he was very disappointed and just wanted to quit but he didn’t. So, the books on leadership, I tend to look to books about people and what they did, how they overcame adversity and how they made the world a better place. Whether they got credit for it or not and there are a lot of leaders that don’t get credit. The good leaders don’t care.

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

>> Diversity is a serious issue for us. It’s frustrating and it’s hard. There’s so many bright, talented people that are out there. When I come on campus here at Alabama or back at Chapel Hill, I am just blown away by how bright people are. But I also, when I go on campus and I’ve had the chance of, just recently at another university, and I was saddened to see the lack of diversity in the classroom. And that’s our future. So I think diversity is a real issue for us. I think we’ve got to stop talking about the proverbial seat at the table. You earned the seat at the table. If you got to talk about it, you haven’t earned it. So let’s get off this talking about a seat at the table and go on earn it, and the way we earn it is by being professional counselors. One of the challenges I continue to see are folks in our profession who are very good at media relations, very good at some specialization, internal communications or social media, whatever. At the end of the day, though, our job here is broader than that. It’s really about helping the business move forward.

Well, if we don’t talk the language if we don’t understand the business, how are we going to be in a counselor’s role? I still see a lot of folks in the profession who aren’t ready to counsel yet, because they’re they’re too narrow in their worldview. You got to get over that.

You’ll never be in that role, you’ll never be at the table. You’ll be in the corner at best if you can’t bring value to the business. And the value you’re going to bring to the business at a strategic level is the ability to counsel, and the ability to counsel comes from knowledge.

Well, our knowledge is still sometimes pretty narrow. So those are two things that I worry about.

Recorded: December 2009

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