Plank Legends & Leaders: T.R. Reid

T.R. Reid is the vice president of global communications at Amcor. Previously, Reid was formerly Vice President, Global Communications, of CHC Helicopter, a global leader in helicopter transportation for the offshore oil and gas industry headquartered in Vancouver, B.C., and previously held the same role for Dell.  From 2005 to ’08 he led Corporate Communications for Dell in Asia-Pacific and Japan. In the course of his 28-year career in public relations, he has also worked for Whirlpool Corporation and The Upjohn Company.

T.R. is a former six-year member of Georgetown (Texas) Library Foundation, the last four years as president. He conceived and directed “Yes! Library” advocacy campaign that helped secure voter approval of a bond referendum to build a $9.8 million library that opened in 2007.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> I think the things that define leadership in public relations are the same things that define leaders really in any professional line of work. They include things like understanding and working toward a specific purpose for an organization. Pretty essential is making and keeping commitments on behalf of yourself, on behalf of your function and certainly the organization that you’re representing.

And good leaders inspire others. And that, I think, is particularly important for public relations, because we’re fundamentally in the business of influencing how people think and behave and inspiration is a big part of that. I think it’s also important to keep in mind that leadership isn’t, leaders aren’t specific to a certain level in an organization. Leaders can and have to be present at all level and in parts of the organization if you’re going to be successful. We rely only on the most senior people, the people at the top of the organizational chart for leadership, then we’ve got problems.

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

>> I think the leaders in public relations have to define some qualities that are relatively specific to what we do. One of them is knowing what the outcome we want to achieve on behalf of an organization is ahead of the what we’re going to do. It’s pretty easy in public relations, perhaps in other disciplines. I’ll have to take the word of others for that, haven’t spent my entire career in PR.

But it’s easy to get distracted by the things we’re doing rather than why we’re doing them. And if you start with the outcome that you want to achieve, and work back from there, and then use that as your guide all along the way to see whether or not you’re successful. Then I think would be massively more effective on behalf of the organization. In the moment and over time I think there are behavioral characteristics too that are very important. One of them is maintaining a calm, at least projecting a calm and a competent demeanor as you go about your work.

There’s a real opportunity for public relations professionals to pretty deeply assert themselves as critical to an organization when things aren’t going so well. And when we’re effective in those moments I think that has huge implications for the degree to which organizations rely on us all of the time.

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

>> It’s pretty important for somebody in public relations, and I like to think that this is what I did along the way, to invest an awful lot of time and effort in understanding what it is our organization is about in the first place. It’s not necessarily about having a master’s degree in business administration, although I think that can help.

It’s not necessarily about also holding training in the law, although I’ve seen people who have that who have excelled as a result of it. You can pick it up along the way. But it means focusing not on our discipline first but on the business whether it’s a profit-loss business or not-for-profit or another organization entirely.

Understanding what the business does and then seeing how we can influence the thinking and behavior of people to enhance that business. When you take that orientation, you can be a leader in public relations, as I have been, regardless of the business that you’re in. You can move between different kind of industries. I haven’t done it but I think you can move from for profit to not-for-profit tell the kinds of organizations.

If you follow those kinds of principles of understanding what it is your organization’s about, that purpose, and then using communications to help fulfill that purpose, I think you can be a leader anywhere in public relations.

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

>> I use the term crisis very specifically. It’s not today’s everyday nuisance. It’s not a project or a demand that’s weighty or spans over a period of time necessarily. A crisis for me in a for profit organization means we have a product or service that may be putting people at risk.

Maybe we’ve lost a senior leader, maybe we’ve lost one of our facilities, maybe our stock prices threaten in a pretty significant way. Those are real crisis and there’s no training, no classroom that can prepare you fully for those moments. But when you maintain the confidence and the calmness associated with that.

And use the skills and the techniques that you’ve learned along the way. You can, perhaps, surprise yourself the first time and win the long-term reliance of the organization on what it is public relations can do to help fulfill a purpose.

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

>> One of the real influences for me during my public relations career has been a person that Planks Center people will know very well, that students and faculty members of the University of Alabama are pretty familiar with.

But that I knew first as a business leader and public relations leader, Professor Bruce Burger. I had the good fortune of working with Bruce early and then again in the middle of my career. And still look to him really as an example, as something of a standard for recognizing that ours is not a narrow corporate discipline. Ours is not a service function, ours is a strategic role for any organization. And when we establish ourselves as real business leaders, business thinkers within an organization, like I saw him do on behalf of two different organizations. Then the rest of what we do it doesn’t become easy, but it becomes less about advocating for ourselves within an organization, more about advocating on behalf of the organization.

In ways they are far more expansive, it’s my impression, then some public relations functions are within their organizations.

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?

>> Leaders and leadership, I think, are rooted in the same fundamental qualities no matter what kind of business or organizational discipline that you’re in. What’s often significantly different about public relations is that ours can be on display.

Either within an organization or when we represent a business or a not-for-profit or a university to the general public. We’re on display on behalf of that organization and so even inadvertently the idea of sort of relaxing those leadership qualities has implications, not only for me as an individual, but for the company I represent.

And so I think the basics of leadership if you can learn them and, perhaps, even bring them from another profession into public relations, I think are applicable. But I think that they’re on display and scrutinized commonly a lot more closely in our discipline then they may be in some others, where you can at least figuratively hide within an organization.

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

>> My experience is the people that I’ve hired for jobs whether they were very young or somewhat well long in their career, is that they when I see leadership qualities the types of things that as I interview them and get to know them if I manifest themselves not just in the workplace but any place and not necessarily, in fact often not just later in life, but from early on.

And so students, I think, can and should think about and look for opportunities to demonstrate that they’re leaders in whatever it is they are involved in. If it’s a student organization, if they’re on campus and may be involved through a dormitory or some sort of residence association, there’s no shortage of PR student leadership opportunities.

And I’ve got a 24-year-old young man on my team right now who is very early in his career and has no formal public relations training, came to me from a business sales job. But I remind him all the time that leadership doesn’t know organizational station. And the kinds of the qualities that I expect of myself I’m looking for him to demonstrate, too, albeit in different ways.

And so, I’d encourage students to just look around them and look at what they’re involved in right now, and exercise those leadership muscles now, and live on the edge in doing so every now and then if they’re inclined.

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

>> One of the things that’s pretty essential I think, as we’re developing sort of the next generation of public relations leaders is that they get experiences whether it’s leadership opportunities, technical opportunities, a mix of them, outside the classroom, both through their participation, but also through perspective that’s brought in from elsewhere.

I think that the faculty at the University of Alabama does an exceptional job in not only encouraging and helping to create professional opportunities, whether they’re through internships or other means, for students. But also and The Plank Center helps here, by bringing people in to share their experiences, and to broaden the perspective, even if it’s at an arm’s length for students, before they get into those situations themselves.

When that’s done, students can’t help but go into their careers with a perspective that others don’t. And I think that sort of technical versus leadership, inside versus outside kind of combination, is a pretty essential role of universities in developing those students.

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

>> I think some people may be put in situations and be surrounded by people that start them toward leadership behaviors earlier than others. But if leadership isn’t necessarily about who’s the loudest or most outspoken for example, and I don’t think it is. If it’s not necessarily about your age or your time in a role, and I don’t think it is. If it isn’t about when you acquired certain skills, and I don’t believe that it is.

Then, I think anyone can be a leader. And it isn’t necessarily something that requires people to aspire to a certain level in an organization or a certain scope of the job. Somebody may be quite thrilled with a very well defined and specific role in public relations or any discipline, for a long period of time.

And can, and to my way of thinking, has to be a leader in that role, too. I’m looking for people all the time who understand what it is we’re working toward. Not the communications or public relations function, but the larger organization, and then how communications can help do that.

I’m looking for people who are willing to, and able to make and keep commitments and then deliver on those in a consistent way, and other qualities, for me that define leadership, regardless of their role. Given all that, I think some people may have a head start as leaders, but I don’t think it’s ever too late for the rest of us to catch up.

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 don’t know whether we have more or less leaders today in public relations. I don’t know if it’s easier or harder to be a leader. I do think it’s easier to be distracted by the tools that we have at our disposal. We’ve got more ways to communicate information within an organization and on behalf of it than ever before.

And, so I think it’s naturally easier for us to become fixated on what we’re doing rather than why we’re doing it. I think if anything, it underscores the need for one of those leadership behaviors, understanding the purpose we’re working toward. And then focusing, especially in public relations, on the outcome first and last, and then the means in between.

It’s more important for that than ever before. If we do that, the things we do in carrying out public relations, whether through a conversation, through a Tweet, through a blog post, through old-fashioned media relations, those things will find themselves and we’ll manifest ourselves as leaders on behalf of our profession and our organization more consistently.

But that notion of purpose for an organization and the related outcomes for public relations, those I think are pretty critical anchors. If we let go of those, I think that the environment of public relations is maybe more easily to drift, makes it more easy to drift from those fundamentals than ever before.

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

>> Leadership in public relations, I think, is most profound when an organization is going through change. The company that I work with is pretty significantly changing the way it does business. In short, from a series of 30, or 40, or 50 individual locations, they did things as they saw fit to wherever it makes sense doing things in a common way with geographically and figuratively global tool systems and processes.

That requires a change in mindset for people in the organization. And public relations, in this case, internal communications, can, I would argue, has to play a huge role in trying to change that mindset. At its most base for me, public relations is about influencing how people think and behave.

And when we can, and in this case as we do, help people understand my company’s purpose and how these changes in organization, these changes in tool systems and processes, and to enable those changes in our individual behavior can take us further and more quickly to that purpose, public relations is invaluable. And we’re doing that right now within CHC Helicopter, and we’re going to be a better company because of it.

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

>> I’m not sure there’s one good book, only one good book on leadership. One that I’ve read recently, that fits pretty nicely with the things I hold most critical to leadership generally, including leadership in public relations which is near and dear to me, is a book by John Cotter called A Sense of Urgency.

And among other things in the book, he talks about and cautions against false urgency, which can be characterized a variety of ways. One that strikes me is the notion of doing things with great effort and with great passion and with short deadlines, in many cases, but without clear purpose on the other end.

Public relations is something that occupies time and consumes resources in an organization when it isn’t working toward a specific purpose. So, the purpose gives us the destination of leadership, that sense of urgency helps to keep us focused and get us there more quickly. And I think Cotter’s got some important things to say to leaders, whatever their discipline, including for those of us in public relations.

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

>> I think among some of the issues that are most important to public relations right now are those related to making sure that we don’t lose technical skills that I think are pretty basic to what we do. In an era where there are more people saying more things in shorter bursts by more means than ever before, there are a broad number of things that we can use for huge benefit in public relations at our disposal.

We need to not only be able to select the right ones at the right time but then we’ve got to be able to put thoughtful, well-organized content through those channels. And so, for that reason, things like journalistic style writing to me is a critical capability that in a Twitter universe can be easy to lose.

Writing in 140 characters for certain applications is pretty important, but it’s not singularly important. And I would argue that if you can write good, solid, thoughtful, very clear journalistic style, you can translate that into a speech script, tweet, or thoughtful, much more relaxed, very informal blog post. So I think writing is something that we must maintain with our folks.

I don’t know whether it’s a new development, but I think as companies and organizations generally look for value from their investments, whatever form those investments might take, I think being able to demonstrate the value, the role we play in fulfilling the purpose, is essential. And so, whether it’s by training or by experience, and I’m an example of the latter, understanding a business or understanding at least the basic nuts and bolts of your organization, I think’s pretty essential as well. It doesn’t have to be deep and involved. But you can separate yourself in a small way from some public relations people just by being able to read and understand a profit and loss statement, an income statement, for example.

Those kinds of basic understandings of the organizations that we serve are at least as important now as ever before.

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

>> The potential for legitimacy of public relations, I think, is greater than ever before. It isn’t conferred automatically. It isn’t conferred universally. But the opportunity to define it and grab it, I think is wider today than when I started a new career.

And it’s because as business becomes, and organization’s vending type become more challenged, whether it’s by resources, by the environment, by the people they serve, by the technology that they apply in their business and through their products and services. I think our ability, our unique role to influence how people think and behave carries a huge value.

The people that I deal with and this has been true for some time, decreasingly see public relations as the internal announcement and press release people and more as a true strategic partner in the business. In the same way, that yes sales and marketing and product development are, but that legal is, human resources is, finance is.

And, in fact, I think our ability to create and sustain legitimacy is enhanced even further when we join up with those other corporate functions, and we share our perspective with them. We learn from them. And in our organizations when we guide our leaders with a consensus approach that reflects the best of all of those disciplines and with it a recognition that we not only understand what it is the organization’s trying to achieve but that we can define a best way to get there.

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

>> One of the qualities of leadership that I haven’t talked about is one that I think is relevant at any point in somebody’s career but particularly for somebody right out of school, right into the workforce. And that’s intellectual curiosity. The willingness to ask questions about almost anything, whether it’s the underlying business of the organization, the thinking behind public relations, strategic plans, the tools that we choose and the reasons we choose them to accomplish certain things on behalf of the organization and about the world around them.

Because if we’re trying to influence how people think and behave, we’re doing that with deliberate and inadvertent influences that are swirling around us all the time, whether they are our colleagues within an organization, our customers, our investors, people in communities where we reside. They’ve got lots of things coming at them from lots of different places.

If we don’t understand that world, I won’t say those worlds, but that very complex world, in which the people we’re trying to reach go about whatever it is they do from day to day, then our ability to influence their thinking and behaving is going to be significantly reduced. When we do, and the opposite’s true, it’s enhanced. And the best way to understand the world around us is to ask questions, be curious, to read and to get to know, at a starting point, to get to know the organization that hires me first better than some of the people who’ve been in that organization for five or ten or 15 or 20 years.

Recorded: July 2013