Becoming a Public Relations Leader: The Art and Science of Mentorship


Having a mentor is often encouraged and touted; however, knowing how to find and effectively engage in such relationships is not necessarily easy or intuitive. This panel draws on primary and secondary research funded by The Plank Center, the expertise of an employee engagement expert, and a public relations professional with experience in both corporate and agency settings to help attendees better understand and navigate mentoring relationships.

The presentation defines what research tells us about mentorship’s value to PR practitioners in both the U.S. and abroad and its link to public relations leadership; reflects on the different kinds of mentors and will learn about the importance of mentorship in growing diverse, inclusive workplaces; and analyzes the 10 best organizational and interpersonal mentoring practices and will receive practical tips and advice for building and fostering them.

Panelists include Dr. Diana Martinelli, West Virginia University; Alicia Thompson, now at Edible Arrangements; and Keith Burton, Grayson Emmett Partners.

Access: Slide Presentation

DIANA MARTINELLI: Welcome to today’s session, Becoming a Public Relations Leader, The Art and Science of Mentorship. This webinar is based off a presentation given at a recent PRSA conference. And we’re grateful to The Plank Center for giving us an opportunity to share our insights through this webinar presentation. I’m Diana Martinelli, a former PR professional who now works full time is a professor an administrator at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media.

Joining me are two amazing professionals and people Alicia Thompson, who’s accredited in public relations and is the Managing Director Porter Novelli in Atlanta. In addition to high-level agency work, Alicia often has executive-level corporate communications experience.

And Keith Burton is principal of his firm, Grayson Emmet Partners. And during his storied career, Keith founded and was president of InsideEdge, and was formerly a senior executive with such international firms as Golin, Hill and Knowlton, and Ketchum. Keith also serves as the advisory board chair of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, which is what initially brought the three of us together. And it’s truly an honor to be a part of that board and to be associated with them.

During today’s session, you’ll learn what some recent research tells us about mentorship, the different kinds of mentors, and their roles, the importance of workplace mentorship for ourselves, our organizations, and the profession, and tips, advice, and additional resources about best mentoring practices.

I mentioned The Plank Center, which, of course, is hosting this webinar. And it’s a legacy of this amazing woman, Betsy Plank. In addition to being a high-level public relations executive in an era when women typically weren’t in those roles, she was a pioneer as the first woman president of the Public Relations Society of America and an early and ongoing champion of the student organization PRSSA. So, Betsy, who passed away in 2010, leaves many legacies. However, one of her most significant is that of mentor to countless professionals, many of whom are now mentoring others to not only help them further their careers, but also to help further and improve the PR industry itself.

There are many examples of the power of mentors, and I suspect you recognize most of the people pictured here. Shown is Oprah and her personal mentor, Maya Angelou. Bill Gates with his philanthropy mentor, Warren Buffett. Mark Zuckerberg and his professional mentor, Steve Jobs. In a 1960s picture of longtime mentor Ray Charles on the right with his mentee Quincy Jones.

So, as you can see from these high-profile examples, there are many different types of mentors. And these examples demonstrate, and our first research confirms, that even highly-successful people want and value mentors in both their personal and professional lives. In addition to providing various resources for students, educators, and PR professionals, The Plank Center also funds research related to public relations leadership.

A white paper commissioned by The Plank Center last year used more than 100 sources, including those from academics popular in the trade press to compile the latest information about mentorship best practices. The paper notes that mentoring activities can take many forms, and some of the most common are listed here.

Counseling, which is really just listening, encouraging, and helping with problems. Coaching, which is helping someone acquire particular skills and knowledge within an organization. Tutoring, or instructing on a specific subject, and sponsoring, which is so important. It’s about really helping someone find appropriate networks to grow within an organization and helping them in leadership positions. Advising is really matching interests with someone’s career aspirations. And then befriending is about developing informal supportive relationships.

The white paper also discusses the importance of educators in mentoring students. And our research found that mentoring builds students’ confidence and provides an important sense of belonging. Research also indicates that mentoring relationships have normal life cycles and that it’s OK for them to end when they’re no longer serving mutual needs.

Other Plank Center sponsored research has looked at millennial communication professionals. And a survey of 420 millennials found that more than 70% were interested in becoming organizational leaders, but they rated their organizations low on professional development opportunities. And the greatest area where improvement with mentoring. So, millennials are hungry for leadership opportunities, but they’re not necessarily being mentored or groomed for them.

A qualitative study that was completed last year explored the idea of a leadership development cycle, meaning the stages through which PR leaders pass. One of the few unanimous findings across the 51 professionals and students from Russia, Brazil, US, India, and China, was that both having and being a mentor are beneficial to leadership development. The study also reinforced the idea of having various types of mentors over our lifetime.

So, if you think about your own mentors over the course of your life thus far, your mentors may be similar to what you found in this study. We found that relatives were one of the most common mentors during childhood, followed by teachers and coaches, professors, and ultimately, bosses, former bosses, and colleagues. I’m going to turn it over to Alicia now to talk about mentoring specifically in the workplace. Alicia?

ALICIA THOMPSON: Thank you, Diana. The research in support of mentoring is absolutely compelling, but let’s take a look at some of the practical applications of mentorship in the professional world. What does it look like, and why is it so important? Let’s be honest. Few of us can objectively identify our strengths and weaknesses. We all have blind spots. Mentors can help us address those blind spots, both positive and negative, and help us make the necessary improvements.

Mentorship is about sharing knowledge and skills. When you have a mentor, you benefit from learning from someone who has already reached the point where you are trying to go. They understand the sacrifices that need to be made, the pitfalls that should be avoided, and the challenges that can arise along the way. Mentorship is about providing guidance. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my career, it’s that good things are rarely accomplished alone. Success often hinges on getting the right advice or support from the right people.

And additionally, mentorship is about contributing to the overall success of the industry that we have all chosen. John C Crosby said mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction. All of those things are required for us to continue to develop leaders for the PR industry. And that will ultimately continue to drive the success of the industry as a whole.

At the end of the day, mentoring is an essential leadership skill. And developing it is a critical component of any young or more senior level professional’s growth.

I’m often asked, how do I find a mentor? I wanted to offer a couple of tips. First of all, ask yourself what you want in a mentor. What are the things that you need from someone that can help guide your career? Find great mentors through the inspiring people you already interact with and work with now. It could be a supervisor. It could be a manager. It could be someone in your church or your community.

Find someone with different skill sets than you that can ensure the best range of insights and perspective. You want to make sure you’re working with people that can continue to push you outside of your comfort zone. Don’t feel like you have to find someone in your industry, either, because time getting that outside perspective on your industry and your workplace is even more important.

And have multiple mentors from diverse industries, diverse backgrounds, men, women. It’s all very important. But the most important thing about finding a mentor is to be someone who can be enjoyable. You want to find someone who listens. You want to look for people who have walked the walk. You want to find someone who’s willing to push back when needed. Because if your mentor agrees with everything you say, you’ll probably have some really pleasant conversations, but you won’t make any forward progress. If you are truly serious about growing, look for someone who can both support and challenge you.

And now I want to give you a few best practices for mentorship. First, be authentic, open, and honest. A mentor can’t ask the right questions or guide you correctly without you being completely honest about your situation– what your objectives and goals are. Secondly, set expectations and relationship guardrails at the onset of the relationship. Have conversations about what you need and expect, and what the mentor needs and expects, and how the relationship will actually operate.

Third, expect to drive the mentoring relationship. Mentors sometimes are busy, and they are going to look to you to help guide the relationship so that you get what you need from the dialogue. Ask for very specific feedback. The more specific the feedback, the more actionable the activities and the things that come out of that conversation. And remember, the best mentors ask lots of questions rather than give answers. They guide, but they don’t do the work for you.

And finally, we live in a digital world, so you have the benefit of mentorship across many forms of technology. Leverage that so that you can tap those mentors that could be of greatest value to you, and they may not be in the same area. Ultimately, being willing to stretch and step outside of your comfort zone is the best practice that you could ever have as it relates to mentorship. And now, I’ll turn it over to Keith to talk about mentoring further.

KEITH BURTON: Alicia, thank you very much. And I want to thank both you and Diana for being such wonderful partners as we work together, both in Boston, as we originally delivered this session, as well as last week when we completed our Annual Milestones in Mentoring dinner as a part of our work of The Plank Center.

While we’ve talked about young professionals, I want to speak for a moment just about mentoring emerging leaders. And by the way, we changed our annual award last week publicly from The Young Professionals award to the Emerging Leader Award for mentoring. Megan Parker Newhouse from General Electric was our first honoree under this new name for the award, and certainly someone who is clearly a great leader coming up in the profession.

Through the years, Alicia, Diane, and I have mentored many young men and women who are coming up as educators and professionals. And while, as students,health care I think we think about the importance of having a mentor, it’s even more important, I believe, as you’re in the workplace thinking about what you may do. And I want to talk a little bit about some insights I’ve gained over the past few years from some work I’ve done on behalf of one of our clients. And we’ll move to our next visual and talk about that.

As a part of the did withealthcarecompany, I sat down with the leader and he asked me at the time what I thought the best skills and competencies were as best in class models for future leaders in the public relations world, what they would need over the next five years. And so, we set about putting together a study on this. And I interviewed the chief communications officers at General Electric, McDonald’s, Cargill, Toyota, Chevron, IBM, and Southwest Airlines to ask them these very questions about what they look for in the men and women who are in their companies, and how they can develop these capabilities and skills that are essential to the success of their teams. And I got some incredible insights on this around a number of areas that I’ll show you right now.

First, I was told that, while there are over two dozen skills that are often cited that are important to these leaders of global organizations, they rate most highly several that I’ll talk about here. Strategic thinking, for example. Not just thinking about communications as a discipline, but more important about the business, how the function works and integrates with the various areas of the organization from IR to information technology to HR. It can go across all of them. But having a knowledge of the business is very important in this.

Creativity, collaboration, working again across the various populations that are part of an organization. Being a great writer. And by the way, I was just at Loyola yesterday and talking to a class of young people coming up of students there. And I mentioned to them, if you can’t write, you can’t work in our profession. I think we all would say that. So be excellent in your writing skills.

And then finally tactical implementation. As you look at this list, however, and we move to the next slide, one thing is missing. What about mentoring? We didn’t hear, as I did this work, anything about mentoring. And I asked these leaders about it. And while they had thoughts, it didn’t come up as their first natural reaction as an important part of the work that is done. And I suspect that it’s due to one primary reason, as I’ve thought about it through the years.

It’s really not about the ability of people to mentor, as Alicia said earlier. We can do this if we’re given good guidelines. It’s really more about the mentee feeling comfortable that they’re willing to open their heart, be very transparent with others about their areas of development and vulnerabilities, rather than the fact that they can’t find those who can mentor them. We can find great mentors. It’s really being open once we do find those men and women.

We’ll move to the next visual, here. Let’s talk a little bit about how mentors help emerging leaders today. I think it’s first and foremost about gaining perspective. In the work that I’ve done with many CEOs, I remember one in particular who looked at me one day and said, can you tell me what good looks like? And I think this is an area that young men and women often look and want to learn more about. What does good look like? Mentors who have experience can tell them what good looks like because they have perspective. They’ve been a part of the work with organizations over some time, and they can provide insights around this area.

Understanding the power of curiosity– really critical in the work that we do. I think that most leaders in organizations today look for others who are interested and curious about where the business is going, what’s required to make it successful, and how they can support the work that is done as they develop as leaders.

Third is developing critical thinking, as I mentioned earlier, around understanding the business and what it requires to move forward and grow. Next, is turning new ideas into solutions. We can be creative, as I mentioned earlier, as one of these great skills or competencies that can be attained. But I think we have to also– there’s Gary Sheffer, who was the former CCO of General Electric, said to me, while we all want to have great ideas, in the end of the day, it’s all about doing the work, and having solutions for the needs that we have in organizations. I think mentors can help us to understand how to be more pragmatic and practical with our ideas.

Helping others to see a rapidly changing business world in new ways. One of the things that I spend most of my time on today is thinking about the future of our profession, but also the future of the clients that I serve, and what kinds of issues will come up for them, and how they will need to address these issues as they come up. I would encourage emerging leaders to do this, as well. To look into the future, not simply from a communications standpoint, but to use the more transformative ways of thinking that relate to sociology, to anthropology, to emotional intelligence. Developing this is a critical skill in what you do, so that you can understand the world in a larger perspective. From a liberal arts standpoint, as well as from a communications standpoint.

Driving collaboration across multiple platforms and staying abreast of the information flow while accepting any responsibility that comes with collaboration is all about how we work in a more integrated world. And in particular, in organizations where populations today work in teams that are cross-functional, how they work together, even though there may not be a part of the same geography. And so, I think we have to understand today that we have to drive collaboration in new ways, and not simply be driven by others.

Becoming more agile, keeping pace, for example, shifting gears often and quickly, and staying current with the information flow– so important in this 24/7, 365-world that we all live in today. I think our leaders expect that, and mentors can help younger men and women understand the importance of agility.

Being patient when the pace of progress is slower. Brian Price is one of the top young leaders in the profession. And I have had this conversation as a part of his work at Starwood Retail. And as he said, this for me is a major issue. To understand the importance of being patient, and knowing that while I want to push harder and more assertively to greater responsibility, sometimes I have to wait until the right moment. I think mentors can help us to do this. Developing new behaviors and building new strengths. Mentors can help you to understand what behaviors you really do need to spend time working to develop that will serve you in the work place that you are a part of, but with those audience segments that you have to help support.

And then finally, learning how to accept, interpret, and act on feedback and criticism. Both Diana and Alicia talked about the importance of listening. I think listening is one of the critical skills we often overlook. I think, often we should look at feedback as a true gift, as someone once told me. And that gift is to help us gain greater insight on how we can improve as a professional as we advance.

So, what do mentors need from those they counsel and guide? You’ve already heard from Alicia talking about developing that relationship. And I’ll quickly close on these. First is context, to understand why the relationship matters, and what the mentee needs and expects, and how they’ll work together. I just had an email this morning from mentee that I met in our Challenge for Emerging Leaders in Tuscaloosa, getting greater insight on the work she is now doing in a new job, and trying to understand, as we have our next conversation, how I can be of greater support and help to her as she develops as a young leader.

Knowledge about the subject matter in the mentee. I think what is most helpful to me and should be helpful to a mentee is to know what I need, and how I can be most helpful in that relationship. And so, getting to know the areas that I may work in, the areas that I like to support as a leader, I think these are all important things to know. And then that way, I think someone who’s being mentored can understand how they can get more mileage from the relationship.

I’m looking for opportunities to become better as a coach, to be a better counselor, to be a better listener myself, and a better leader by learning how I can advance the goals of other people. I love having, as I know my two colleagues today do, having relationships as a mentor to others to create these new learning environments for both of us. And I think it is important that we both do this.

And by the way, the term reverse mentoring is, in my mind, a term that has passed us by. There is reverse mentoring, but we don’t refer to it as that. We simply refer to it as mentoring. And as a leader today, what I look for in my relationship, and I’ve said this to others, is information around for example called [AUDIO OUT] of a new generation, both the millennial and Generation Z, as well as insights on technology, and trends, and patterns that they may be aware of that can help me to be more effective in my relationship with them, as we do our work that can help me in this idea of mentoring from the other perspective.

By the way, in some companies today, as we close on this topic, we are seeing these new generations live men and women who are working at the grassroots level to condition and lead leaders who are more senior than them, as they do work and redesign the various structures of the organization and work products that are being developed. So, it really works inside of many organizations, GE, FedEx, Johnson & Johnson, that I work with. I see them at work doing this. And it is a natural extension of the work we do as mentors.

So finally, out of all of this, as we think about this work, I point you back to a great quote that I think about from Winston Churchill. Beth Ford and I have talked about this. “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” And I think that’s so important as we consider the role that we have as mentors, as well as mentees. So, I’ll turn it back to Diana, and she’ll take us through some additional findings before we close.

DIANA MARTINELLI: Thank you so much, Alicia and Keith, for sharing your insights and experience. I want to end by quickly providing some guidance for those people who may be looking to start, or perhaps improve upon a formal mentorship program. The first best practice is to identify the program’s purpose. Is to grow leadership? Is to retain young talent? And you need to ensure there are resources to support the program.

Secondly, management must visibly support the effort. Training has to be provided to mentors, and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council guidelines give a really good start. And they also include the ethics of mentoring relationships. You need to hold our parties accountable, and this includes mentees, for the outcomes. And you need to provide time for mentees to not only watch and listen, but also to act and to do, so they understand the strategic why of how things work.

You want to encourage mentors to always model professionalism. And both parties should be comfortable with constructive criticism. You want to remember that mentoring takes time, so programs should be structured for the long term. And don’t forget to mentor leaders, because they often crave opportunities to grow and to practice new skills. And finally, give an out for mentoring relationships that just aren’t working. Build in face-saving protocols for ending those kinds of relationships.

And by the way, these best practices are available in the mentorship white paper, as are all of the research study findings that we’ve talked about today. They’re all for free, and they’re available on The Plank Center website. There’s also a free Mentorship Guide for Young Professionals that’s available for download via the link that’s shown on the screen.

And we really hope you’ve enjoyed our webinar, and that you will share it with others who you think might find it useful. Thank you, again, so much, Alicia and Keith. And thanks to those who work for and support The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. And finally, thanks to those who mentor others.