Q&A: Tom Martin, 2021 Legacy Honoree

The Plank Center recognizes and promotes the critical role mentors play in helping to develop leaders and advance the profession and honors leaders throughout the profession who, by word and deed, have demonstrated a superior commitment to mentoring others, and who are committed to accelerating the success of others in the field at its annual Milestones in Mentoring Gala. Our question and answer series introduces the 2021 Milestones in Mentoring award recipients.

Meet Tom Martin

Thomas R. Martin serves as Executive-in-Residence in the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. He was named to the position, the first of its kind, in 2007. In this role, Martin works with the students, faculty, and administration of the College to enhance the relationship between the Communication Department and the business community and to help its students successfully transition into the business world. As EIR, Martin teaches undergraduate classes, organizes student trips, mentors students, and works with the Department’s Advisory Council of which he is a past chair. In 2016, he launched the Martin Scholars program, a selective mentoring, networking, and learning program. The program develops a select group of rising seniors majoring in Communication, through classroom instruction, exposure to experienced

communication leaders who serve as mentors, networking opportunities with Communication Department alumni and Advisory Council members, and experiential learning. A total of 55 Martin Scholars have participated in the program and they are now living and working in New York, Washington, Boston, San Diego, Atlanta, Nashville and elsewhere in a wide range of successful positions in the communication field. There are an additional 15 students participating in the 2020-21 school year.

What makes a successful mentorship?

I would say patience and persistence. Mentor relationships can be challenging. I currently manage the Martin Scholars Program, and as part of that program, each of the Martin Scholars is assigned a mentor. We’ve been doing that since the beginning. And I’ve been in and around mentor situations for years. They don’t all work. Usually what happens is, the student is reluctant to contact the mentor, or they get intimidated by the mentor. The might feel: ‘Oh, they’re so busy, I don’t want to bother them.’ It takes a lot of patience on the mentor’s part to understand that intimidation factor and to try to really compensate for it and go above and beyond to make the student feel comfortable and give them the freedom to get in touch with them. It takes persistence, too, because these relationships don’t happen overnight. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. So, I think it’s important for both individuals in the relationship to just be patient and keep trying. If one set of an agreed-upon framework doesn’t work, then just try a different one. If texting isn’t the best answer for setting up meetings, then just establish a schedule, or if Zoom is better then use Zoom. Do whatever works best. Some of our mentor relationships are not in the same city. So that requires virtual meetings. But we’ve all found over the last 18 months that virtual meetings can work just fine, especially in a mentoring relationship. Whether you’re sitting across the table having a cup of coffee, or you’re sitting on Zoom, you can still talk about things that matter. So, I’d say just patience and persistence. 

How do both parties set goals for professional improvement?

One of the most important things is establishing a regular communication process. It’s similar to when you’re a parent. I have two sons and when you’re raising your kids, you at some point in parenting discover that the conversations have to take place to some degree on their terms, not on yours. As a parent, you can’t just set the time and say, ‘Okay, now we’re going to talk about something really meaningful.’ But there are times when your children do want to talk about something really meaningful, and you have to be listening for the cues that tell you when that is. It’s the same in a mentor relationship; you can’t always schedule when a life event is going to happen. They tend to happen on their own schedule. It’s important for the mentor to be listening, to sense when a student is feeling down or anxious or worried about an upcoming event, whether it’s a final exam or an interview. It’s important to establish a regular pattern of communication; and, typically, the more frequent they are it’s usually better than less frequent. These relationships don’t really work if you’re only talking every three or four months. It’s hard to maintain much contact that way. When the relationship is beginning, both parties should set some goals. The mentee should state what she/he hopes to accomplish during the year. The mentor can weigh in on that and say, ‘Well, those all sound like good goals, but have you also thought about XYZ?’ Sometimes, from their perspective as an established leader, they can see things that the mentee may not see as clearly in terms of what might be needed for development.

How can mentors be most effective in their relationships with their mentees?

Having a sense of empathy. We’ve been through college as mentors, but it may have been a while. We have to put ourselves back in that mindset, and remember that college is a fun time, but it’s also a very stressful time. I think for the mentor, they need to remember what it was like to be facing a midterm exam, and studying all night, and then waking up and having a sore throat and not wanting to go to class. Just be empathetic and allow adequate time for the relationship. You’re not usually asked to be a mentor unless you’re a pretty busy person anyway. But if you agree to act as a mentor, you have to make sure you set aside some real time to devote to the student.

What advice would you recommend for those who are interested in a mentor-mentee relationship?

I’m asked that a lot by people in the profession who would like to get more involved with a university. My recommendation is go meet with a department chair or faculty member at the college where you would like to get involved. The need is great for practical experience to come into the classroom. Go to your alma mater, or if that’s not geographically convenient, go to whatever local college is convenient. They may or may not have a mentor type program there, but many places do now. I actually started out mentoring in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and that’s a great mentoring program. A lot of the public schools have mentoring programs in the high schools and middle schools. There are tutoring programs and reading programs; there are many opportunities out there. Find an avenue that works, give it a try and see if it’s something that you like. I’ve certainly met mentors and had mentors in my program, who have gotten busier and have had to step back. It does happen, and that’s okay when that happens. Life events intervene sometimes. But I’ve rarely had anybody say, after they’ve done it, ‘I don’t want to do it anymore because I just didn’t like it.’ It’s usually more that something happened; they got a new job, or they moved, or they have a new baby, or something happens that causes them to reassess their time commitments. But most everybody that I’ve worked with has really enjoyed the experience.

What have you learned personally from a mentorship experience?

I learned mentoring by being mentored. I had a college professor who helped me discover a love of writing. I had another professor after I graduated from college who was a local columnist for the newspaper in Memphis, who, first as a teacher, and then as just a friend helped teach me how to take academic writing and turn that into practical writing to get published. The most meaningful mentoring relationship I’ve had is with the person who’s going to introduce me at The Plank Center awards dinner, Robert Wilson. Our relationship has lasted a long time — 38 years. It’s been very meaningful and Robert is like a third son. I guess what I really learned from it is that you don’t know it all at any age or stage and you learn from each other. I’ve learned as much from those I’ve mentored as I have from those who have mentored me. So, it’s definitely a two-way street.

What actually inspired you to mentor others?

Well, the person who encouraged me at the very beginning was my wife. Before we were married, we were dating and both working at FedEx. She was working in community relations and she had worked with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Memphis. She said, ‘You should think about doing that.’ And I had not really given it that much thought. Based on her recommendation, I got in touch with them and that’s how I met Robert. He was 12 at the time. We just clicked and even after the match formally ended when he was 17, we both agreed to keep it going. Robert ended up being an usher in our wedding and I was the best man in his wedding. He has been like a big brother to our two sons.

Why are mentorship relationships so important in our industry?

They’re important for several reasons. People come out of school with a great deal of theoretical knowledge, and possibly some internship experience. But students often lack the advice of someone in the practice who can show you the ropes about how to become a good team member, how to handle criticism, how to be courageous, and how to speak up when you need to. Those subtle keys to success are difficult to teach in the classroom, and don’t really make as much sense until you’re out in the workforce. When you talk to successful people, almost every one of them will tell you that there were one, or two, or three people early in their careers who really made a difference. Many of the leaders in our profession have served as mentors over the years. I think it’s really essential to develop the next generation of talent.

Would you please summarize your professional career and its high and low points? How did you work your way up the ladder? What have you learned along the way, and what factors most contributed to your personal success?

Probably the low point was when I graduated Vanderbilt with my English degree and my first job was as a busboy at a restaurant. My second job was as a cashier in the same restaurant. And I couldn’t decide, should I put my Vanderbilt diploma behind the mints at the checkout counter or put it beside the Health Department certificate for the restaurant? I decided neither was appropriate. It was humbling to graduate from college and really have no job or prospect of a job in sight. I’m sure it caused my parents a great deal of worry, in addition to my own. But thankfully, within about three years of graduating and doing a lot of different jobs, I was able to go to work for a company that I’d never heard of called Federal Express. They were headquartered in Memphis and they flew packages by night. I remember thinking ‘What a crazy idea?’ They were a tiny company at that time in 1978. I was lucky because I joined a company that cared about communication, that was growing rapidly and that offered many opportunities for me in the 18 years I was there. I started there on my 25th birthday and left when I was 43. I really grew up at the company. In the time I was there FedEs went from being a virtually unknown company, even in Memphis, to being a global icon. I was very fortunate to have several different positions within FedEx that ultimately led to my final position there, which was vice president of corporate communications and chief communications officer. Who would have thought that somebody starting out as a training development specialist would end up as a vice president — one of the youngest officers at the company? I had a wonderful run there, but I didn’t really want to stay at the same company my whole career.  In 1996 an opportunity came my way with a company called ITT  in New York. It was tough to leave FedEx. It was arguably one of the best communications jobs in the entire industry. But I didn’t really want to stay at the same company my entire career and I didn’t want to raise my children in the same city all their lives. So this offered an opportunity to move the family to Connecticut and my job was in White Plains, New York. I was there for 11 years. It was a broader position that included public relations, corporate advertising, branding and government affairs. It enabled me to be on the senior management team, directly reporting to the CEO, which I had not been at FedEx. But more importantly, it gave my family, particularly my two sons, a new window to the world. Living in Connecticut, they learned to sail and ski and to do things that they wouldn’t have necessarily done if we had stayed in Memphis.

One son now lives in Colorado and works for a cybersecurity firm in communications, and his brother lives in Connecticut and works in New York as a geotechnical engineer. I think our time in the northeast broadened their perspective. After 11 years at ITT as their CCO, I elected to retire early. But I was only in my mid 50s, so I didn’t want to fully retire. I’m a terrible golfer, so that wouldn’t have been a good answer. I had gotten involved with the College of Charleston, in 2004, as a member of their Advisory Council. I went to the department chair and told him we were moving to Charleston and that I would like to get more involved at the college. He came back a couple weeks later and said that they would like to offer me a role as their first executive-in-residence. The Department of Communication had never done that before but it worked well in the business school. I worked with them so that I could get me certified to teach in the classroom, as well as continue to work with the faculty and the advisory council. In 2007 I joined the faculty and developed my own course, which I started teaching in 2008. I’ve now been there for 14 years.

Leadership in any field seems crucial to success and the future of that field. But leadership is technically a broad term with many dimensions and connotations. Please define what leadership in PR means to you.

I think it means a couple of things. One is having a vision for the future. Whether it’s working on the internal side–at a company like I did at FedEx and ITT–or the external side, working at an agency, it’s vital for a leader to have a clear vision. Where is this department or this agency going? How do we get there? In our field, leadership also means being the voice of the people who aren’t in the room. Some people feel we should be the “conscience of the company.”  To me, that sounds a bit lofty. But I do think it’s important for leadership in the field to represent the voices of those who aren’t at the table. The senior management of any organization can be somewhat insulated. It’s important for the communications leader to bring the perspective of the customer who’s not in the room, or the employee who’s not in the room, or even the investor who’s not in the room. Their issues and concerns should be heard before key decisions are made. That happens in the best organizations, but there are myriad examples of when it just doesn’t happen, and when poor decisions are made because the people affected by those decisions don’t have a voice in the outcome. Leadership means having both a sense of vision and being the representative — the steward — for the person who’s not in the room, so that better decisions are made.

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

Well, there are three that come to mind. One is humility. When you get to be a senior leader, it’s sometimes challenging to remain humble. You have to keep your feet on the ground and remember that your success has been enabled by many people, both those above you and below you on the organization chart. You have to realize that even though you may have worked hard to achieve success, it’s not all about you.

Second is decisiveness. People look to leaders in any organization, in any field, to ultimately be able to make a decision. Do we go left? Do we go right? Do we stop? You clearly have to depend on a lot of different inputs to make those decisions. And that’s why remaining humble is important because you don’t want to just make decisions on a whim. People want leaders who are decisive and who, once they make a decision, they stick to it; they own up to it; they stand for it; and they are accountable for it.

That all relates to the third principle, which is courage. Communication leaders in particular have to be willing to take a stand, even if it’s unpopular. You need to listen to your critics, because sometimes they’re right. That’s where humility comes back into play. But you have to also be thick skinned. It’s hard sometimes to be courageous. To tell the CEO that something isn’t working can be tough to do. There are times when the messenger gets killed. You have to have your facts straight, and they must be based on facts, not just opinions. But once you make a decision — once you know that something needs to be said — you have to have the courage to say it. 

Do you think that leadership can be taught? Or are you born with it?

I think it’s a little of both. Certainly, people are born with a certain mix of IQ and EQ. Sometimes you get some of that from your parents. I think parental influence is extremely important, especially in those very early years when you’re figuring the world out. I have two grandchildren now and I’m watching my son and his wife as they grapple with those really tough issues in the early stages of parenting. Children are born with a certain degree of intellectual capacity, and they’re also born with a degree of emotional intelligence, and both can be developed. You’re going to learn many of the skills you need to do a job on the job. You will also need innate qualities like curiosity, empathy, humility and listening ability and develop them further.

What is the most powerful learning experience that you have encountered with respect to leadership in the field?

I was very fortunate to be present in the early days of FedEx. I got to learn from one of the best leaders ever, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx. He’s still the CEO of FedEx, which is amazing after 50 years. He founded the company in his 20s, and was leading it when I got there in 1978. He had the courage to take an idea that he first developed in its very rudimentary form as a student in college, and actually go raise the money to put it into action. He didn’t succeed right off the bat; FedEx struggled in the early days. He built a company based on an idea that no one had ever thought about and he ended up creating an industry that everyone now depends upon. I got to see firsthand how he developed as a leader. It’s rare to have a founder remain the leader for as long as he has. He has a good blend of IQ and EQ. He could be tough. But, by the same token, he had a real sense of taking care of people in meaningful ways. FedEx is not perfect; no organization is perfect. But they did a lot of things, especially in the early days. They called their philosophy ‘People, Service, Profit.’ Take care of your people, deliver great service, and you’ll be profitable as a result. And while that didn’t always work perfectly, by and large, it worked to grow that company into a global icon than it is today. Smith also was very interested in communication as a function. He recognized the role it played in turning strategy into reality.

In your view, is there a historical figure who exemplified outstanding leadership in our field? If so, why?

One person is one of the icons who you recognized already with the Legacy Award, Harold Burson, who passed away not too long ago at age 99. Harold was a great force in our profession. We both were born in Memphis. He influenced countless people in the profession. Many of those who were mentors for me had been mentored themselves by Harold. We were working with Burson-Marsteller when I first joined ITT, and he had me over to breakfast as he often did with people and clients in his office on Park Avenue. He was a leader who really had the common touch. He was certainly an imposing figure, but he also could be down to earth and was able to laugh at himself. He was an amazing leader. 

More recently, a much younger person who stands out is Jon Iwata, who was the head of marketing and communication at IBM. Jon is important to me because of the strategic role he played at a global icon like IBM.  Jon also has been very influential in both The Seminar and in The Arthur Page Society. He has been a major thought leader in both of those organizations over the years as well as many others.

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

I don’t want to miss the opportunity to speak of another person who I count as a close friend. And that’s Roger Bolton. Roger is the current leader of The Page Society. He’s been its president for several years. I think Roger is one of the true leaders in the profession today. He has worked for President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; and he helped lead the cultural turnaround at Aetna. But it is his role in The Page Society that has really set him apart and what will define his legacy. He has led Page as it has grown from being mostly a membership organization to now being a major thought leader in the profession.

What can the profession do to help new professionals or those with experience in the field develop greater leadership skills?

Yes, we absolutely need more leaders in the field. Many of the major firms already have leadership academies and that is definitely helping. That focus on continuous learning needs to continue. I also think there’s opportunity for both companies and agencies to continue partnering with universities. There is abundant shared knowledge that can be very important to both parties. The universities certainly have the reservoir of academic research knowledge that can be helpful. The agencies and corporations offer on-the-job practical learning that can be very useful to the universities. Those kinds of partnerships, along with an ongoing focus on continuous learning by the employers can be very helpful. 

Can you think of an instance where someone else’s leadership made a difference in resolving an issue, causing a significant change to be made, inspiring a group or introducing a new program? So, basically, what I’m asking is, could you give a concrete example or illustration of leadership at work in practice?

There are a couple that come to mind. One is Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors. She had a really tough issue that she had to deal with a few years ago involving the electronic ignition on some of their vehicles. She took a very courageous stand by opening up the books at GM and letting objective third parties come in and look at everything that was going on with that issue. She made their findings–some of which were quite critical of the company–very visible both internally within GM and externally. That took a lot of courage and she took a lot of heat for that at the time. But that’s the kind of thing leaders have to do, to acknowledge when mistakes happen, to listen to objective opinions about how to rectify those mistakes, and then to implement the fixes and move on. If you look at GM today, they’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in the last decade, but they’re still around, and now they’ve committed to being clean and green for the future. Southwest Airlines also comes to mind. I think the late Herb Kelleher, the founder of that company, did a great job of growing a company that was very focused on its people and the whole notion of servant leadership. There are many examples, but both Herb Kelleher from Southwest and Mary Barra from GM are good ones.

What is one best book on leadership that you would recommend to young professionals?

I don’t think there’s a single holy grail. But I would say most of the books Peter Drucker wrote are still relevant. Just pick one by him and read it to get a sense of general leadership. I think Tom Friedman is also an excellent writer. While he writes about things that are more global in nature, I think any of his books are useful. It’s important for potential PR leaders to be worldly-wise, to have a sense of what’s going on in the outside world, because they need to bring that perspective into their organizations. Friedman is one who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about those subjects and trends. There’s another book by Ken Blanchard that’s called The Heart of a Leader discusses not just the tough business skills that a leader has to bring, but also the more empathetic, more humble, more personable part of leadership. I think it’s good to have a balance in both of those areas.

What is your best advice for PR students who are just entering the work world?

Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and do the work that nobody else wants to do. When you’re an entry level employee, the way that you distinguish yourself from all the other entry level employees is to be the one that is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. You shouldn’t be the person who is just looking at the clock and waiting for five o’clock to come so you can leave. You shouldn’t be the one who’s just asking about when people go to lunch, or if there is going to be a Christmas party. You should instead be the person who really is focused on the work. If you are the one they want for a critical job that is how you grow in an organization. In the early days of any job, you’re going to be the one who sometimes is working late, or having to work on weekends, or having to come in early. Just do the work that’s in front of you to the best of your ability. That’s how you advance.

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

I think people are looking for a track record of results. The more quantitative those results are, the better. When I advise students on resumes, I encourage them to highlight the actual results they have achieved. Don’t just say, ‘I worked on the social media account.’ What did that achieve? Did it increase sales? Did it increase attendance? Did it increase awareness? What were the end results you achieved because you were occupying a chair at some place for six months?’ I recognize that’s not always easy to do. But when you go into an internship or into a first job, think about how your results are going to be measured. What you’ll find is that when you go into the next job, or when you’re interviewing, the more you can demonstrate that you’ve accomplished something at whatever level you are, that becomes your track record. That’s what people are looking for, someone who has a proven record of results. Numbers talk, especially when people are looking at resume after resume. If they can see one that has some quantitative results, that jumps off the page. Focus on achieving a record of results. 

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

They should be doing more to teach networking skills.. What you know is important, but who you know is also important. If you look at the people who really have succeeded over a 10-year period, the ones who end up succeeding are the ones who both know a lot and also know how to read a room, how to keep contact with people and how to work with a team. Schools can also do more to partner with practitioners to help bring the practical side into the classroom, whether that’s guest lecturing, executives-in-residence like me, adjunct professors, field visits — whatever you can do to get that practical side into the classroom experience. Students don’t necessarily know how these theories work in the real world.

Discuss the importance of diversity and inclusion in public relations, including the best practices that you and your team use to develop and implement strategic programs to grow, mentor and retain diverse populations within the field.

I’ve seen progress, real progress in the 25 years since I first joined the Page Society. When I was the president of The Page Society in 2004/2005, we were predominantly a male organization. The membership was close to 70% men. Today, it’s 50-50 and the current chair of the Page board is a woman of color. That’s wonderful because women are leading in so many areas throughout the profession.

As far as ethnic diversity, we still have a long way to go, although there has been improvement. There are CCOs at big organizations who are people of color, so there’s progress there, but it has not been as rapid as it could be. The profession still does not look like society in general in this country and around the world. We have to each find our own ways to do that. I’ve been very deliberate in my own work to make sure each of my Martin Scholars classes is diverse. This year, a third of our class is made up of people of color. Initiatives like the Diversity Action Alliance are beginning to yield meaningful results and we just have to maintain our focus.

It is the year 2025. What top three expectations will CEOs have of the public relations profession?

I think 2025 isn’t going to be too different than 2021. That’s not so far away. What CEOs are looking for from our function is first and foremost to know the business. In other words, communication is not some appendage that’s only important when you need a press release. It should be fundamental to the success of the business itself. So, it’s important for the communicators to understand what is driving the business. Where does the revenue come from? Where does the growth come from? What’s our market position vis-a-vis the competitors in the industry? Who are the innovators? How can we be more like them?

In addition to knowing the business, you also must be courageous and represent those voices that are not in the room. 

Finally, I think what CEOs are looking for from every executive is to be a team player and to be supportive of the other members of the C-suite. Knowing the business, being courageous enough to speak up for those who aren’t in the room, and being a true team player — those are all vitally important.  

If you’re graduating with a PR degree, or communications degree of some sort, and you’re going into an agency or a corporate setting, and you’re looking to understand the business and know the business. What are some ways that you can kind of go about that when you’re kind of on the other side of things and don’t exactly have that same experience in the business area?

Start by subscribing to The Wall Street Journal online, and actually reading it — not every day, necessarily, but every few days. It only costs $4.00 a month and it’s worth it. Stay in touch with what business people are focusing on and what the issues and challenges they are facing. Look at the business pages of the New York Times, look at CNBC, Fox Business News or Bloomberg Business News. Pay attention to what’s happening in the business world and what people are thinking about and talking about. Understand the fundamentals of business literacy: how to read a balance sheet, understanding how market cap is calculated, what determines operating profit versus net profit. Become generally familiar with how business is measured and reported on. Why are quarterly results so important? Why is it that a company can miss or their earnings forecast by a penny and have their stock drop by 5% in one day? Then, just know a little bit more about the specific area, either the company that you’re joining, or if you’re joining an agency, just know who are their top five clients and what are the main industries they’re in. It’s not essential that a communications person have an MBA, but they ought to be able to talk to the person with an MBA and not feel totally intimidated by that.

There are a myriad of changes around us. What issues have or will become a wake-up call to the PR profession?

The huge change since I left ITT in 2007 is the explosive growth of social media networks and the change in lifestyle and how people use social media now versus how they used it 15 years ago.  2007 was the year that Facebook was opened up to the broader general public and the year the iPhone was introduced. It was a big year. And what I’ve seen in the 14 years I’ve been teaching is that social networks have sort of taken over everyone’s lives, in sometimes positive ways, but in sometimes very negative ways. We’ve gone from Facebook, to Snapchat, to Instagram, to Tik Tok. In each iteration, I see students getting further and further sucked into that world where they sometimes have trouble getting out. I tell students to get away from their screens, leave your smartphone at home and go take a walk or find something that you can do that does not involve a screen. Read an actual book. Take dance lessons or bowling lessons; sing in a choir or act in a play; go play golf, tennis or basketball — whatever it takes to get you out and away from the screen. We all spend a lot of time on screens. But it’s important to find moments where you can break away from that. You certainly have to know how those social channels are being used by companies, brands, political figures and movements. I’m not saying you should or can ignore any of that. But try to keep it in perspective and give it a balance. What I find is that students are often not using TikTok to find out how brands are being marketed. They’re using TikTok less for educational reasons and more for sheer entertainment. Monitor your own usage of these platforms, and acknowledge that you’re using them for recreation, which is fine, but can you also use them to become smarter. These social channels have affected the profession in big ways. A single unhappy customer now can take over a company or a single unhappy investor can cause mayhem, both good or bad. A single unhappy employee can rally other employees to their cause, and suddenly you have a walk out. So, these are big, big forces that have to be reckoned with. That’s going to continue to change the profession for the foreseeable future.