The Eight Truths (of Public Relations Leadership)

Ron DeFeo, senior vice president of Global Engagement at American Airlines and member of The Plank Center Board of Advisors, spoke to a group of students at Southern Methodist University about his leadership journey and “The Eight Truths (of Public Relations Leadership).”


Ron: Well, my name’s Ron. Thanks for having me here. You guys are studying airlines this semester?

Students: Yes.

Ron: Oh, what have you learned? Who’s going to join an airline? Nobody. No. One person.

Students: I would. Yeah.

Ron: Nonstop action. Well, thanks for having me here. I’m going to walk through a couple of things. Even though you have it, I’ll give you a little bit of my background, just my journey, and then go into a couple of pieces. One, it’s actually about 10 years ago, I was at a great conference, and there was like this two-hour piece where I just learned so much, and jotted it down and used it as my roadmap for my career. And then something, we call it The Eight Truths, which we actually rolled out at American Airlines last year on our team. I’ll talk a little about that, and then just a couple closing thoughts and hard concepts I’ve had to grasp through my career, and then we’ll open up to Q&A about any of this, jobs, or airlines, or any and all of that.

But as you saw, I did a liberal arts undergrad, so I went to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. I took one course on public relations and thought this seems kind of exciting. Let’s go ahead and do this. I actually thought I was going to be a newspaper reporter. I wound up actually doing quite the opposite. I went to high school in Atlanta, so I returned to Atlanta, had a brief internship at Cohn & Wolfe in Atlanta, and then started my first job out of school at Ketchum.

I was there for about four years in Atlanta. Tons of fun. I loved starting at an agency. You don’t know what you don’t know. For those of you who had internships there, one day you’re in tech, the next day you’re in sports, you’re all over the place. You’re doing work probably you have no business doing because people leave. The experience you get is phenomenal. I was there for four years. I was kind of on the cusp of, you know, maybe I’ll be an agency person for life.

But in working actually on the Clorox account and working directly with brand managers, I realized that the idea that I exempt in any course that had to do with math, business, or finance and undergrad kind of circled back around and was a bad idea. So I knew I needed to get a business degree. I went back [to receive a] full-time MBA at the University of Georgia. Go Dogs. Should be a exciting game coming up against Florida this week. But loved it. Two years. It was great. Knew I wanted to stay in communications, but I just wanted that business background.

And then I joined Home Depot. I was there about eight and a half years. I grew up at home Depot. I started in a divisional job doing community affairs and public relations. Moved into the main, what they call, store support center, which is the headquarters. I got promoted several times, did job issues and crisis management on the lax last six months of, then CEO, Bob Nardelli’s turn, and then the first six months of Frank Blake’s turn. I got promoted to lead the corporate communications team there.

I was there for eight and a half years. Loved it. Knew I needed more experience if I was ever fully, truly going to grow, and did just that. The family and I moved to Orlando, Florida. I was at Darden restaurants for about four years, moved from retail to restaurants. Restaurants are fun. Who’s ever waited tables in their lives? One person, two. Yeah. Tons of fun. It’s those people you… Not tons of fun. Okay. It’s those people you worked with all grown up that run restaurant companies. Honestly, the most fun I’ve ever had working it Darden’s. Great time.

Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille. Casual dining and fine dining. Great stuff. When I was there, we did have a 16-month activist investor battle. First fortune 500 company ever to have the board completely voted out. Corporate governance is not my thing, but it actually wound up being great. The COO became the CEO. Developed a great relationship with the new incoming chairman – really turned that company around. I loved it, planned on staying there forever until I got a call from American Airlines, and thought to myself, “Wow, I finally got a pseudo-stable, normal job. What’s the only thing that could be crazier than all that? Let’s go ahead and work in an airline.” And that’s where I’ve been for the last four years. It’s nonstop. I oversee the team that has all communications, community affairs, events management, recognition program, and about a year ago started overseeing the team that is in charge of leadership development.

Any of those cultural engagement pieces, the group’s about 180 people. It is literally a 24/7 job especially when you think of the social media. I mean, it’s customer service nonstop all the time, but tons of fun and that’s where we are today. What I want to do is share with you some information I found helpful in my life, and I call it roadmap Paulo Alto 2009.

For those of you may have heard about Arthur Page Group, they had a future leaders program, class of about 20 folks back in 2009. It was the first program, and they had these series of meetings in where this cohort of 20 got together, and Dave Sampson, who was then and now the lead communicator out of Chevron, put together the day, and he delivered a 45-minute, really like a speech just about things you need to think about as you navigate your career in communications.

After that, he had a panel with people who were his bosses throughout the year, and it was amazing. I mean, all of that together it was about two hours. It’s actually really funny. I took the notes, I kind of put it on two pieces of paper. I didn’t see Dave for about eight or nine years. I just saw him last year, and I said, “Dave, I’ve got to tell you this thing you did back in 2009 was fabulous. I took all the notes, I deciphered it, and put it into two pages.” He said, “That sounds unbelievable. Can you go ahead and share that with me?” So when I got back home, I sent him, “Hey, great to see you.” Popped him over the notes. He wrote back and said, “Wow, this is terrific. Can I use this?” I said, “Yes, it’s your stuff.”

It’s funny how time flies like that. I distilled that, and I’ll share those notes with you. The second thing we’ll look at is reality and expectations in today’s world. We had recently done our first-ever, what we call, American Voice, our employee survey at American. We had these series of listening sessions with our team, and it was fabulous, and there were clearly things myself and the other leaders on the team needed to work on. But what was also clear in listening to those sessions is we moved so fast, we never actually set or level set expectations of what the requirements were for working on the team.

There were things that we could completely address and fix, but there were also things that we just were not going to be able to fix because of the type of work that we do. I said, “Man, we really owe it to the team to set… Okay, here is the level set of what it’s like working in this department at this time right now.” These were called The Eight Truths. I’ll roll those out, and then just have a couple of things at the end to walk through. I’ll share them with you, and then we’ll open it up for questions.

Ten years ago in California, Dave gave, and his leaders gave this talk and it boils down to four things. One is the principle problem in communications. Two, what you need to know. Three, counsel and decision making. And four, operating inside the organizations. At the time, I was at Home Depot for about five or six years, just taken over really leading a team for the first time, about one or two years.

This really resonated for me. I guess it was the right time for me to hear this stuff. This might make a lot of sense to you. This might make no sense to you, but it can be something as your career moves on, give some core principles you might be able to roll back into.

I love how he framed this. He said, “The principle problem in communications is actually very simple. When communicators get frustrated, and they run into roadblocks, and they typically will recoil and ask themselves, ‘Do they know what I do? Do they understand what I do?’ But that’s not the question to ask. We support the business, we help the business move forward, right? That’s how I roll. The question we should be asking is, ‘Do I know what they do? Do I understand what they do?'”

Growing up in Home Depot was probably the greatest learning I ever had because it was all about the stores. An exercise we did as a team is you literally go and work in the stores, and support people in the stores. They had different programs. You would go to a store once a quarter, I mean once a week for a quarter. You’d go during the holiday time, you’d go during the springtime. As a team, it was a great exercise to actually stand in a store and ask yourself, “What am I doing to support this?”

It’s actually a very daunting question because a lot of times you realize, “Huh, probably not a lot.” It causes you to reorient yourself as a communicator. I love the way he phrased this because a lot of times you fall too much in love with the discipline and the work that you do as opposed to actually helping the business move forward. I found this as an incredibly grounding principle.

Then I love this. He rattled off, and this is I think a little tongue in cheek, but it’s like generally speaking, what do you need to know? Basically, the answer is everything. What employees want, what the public wants, what the board thinks, what management thinks, and the list goes on and on. I think one, many examples throughout my career I know, but really where this comes into consideration, and it was actually 10 years ago.

When I was at Home Depot, we were going through the housing downturn. That company moved from a $90 billion a year company to a $64 billion a year company due to just the environment there was, but also closing certain businesses. When we went through a tough stretch, and where we actually exited what was called, at the time, it was Home Depot Expo. I don’t know if any of you remember that store, but it was a design and decor store that Home Depot owned. But we closed that whole chain.

Thinking about here, you are in a housing downturn in a world where messages take off and go all over the place, you’re closing a certain sector of the business, how are you communicating that message while also ensuring the rest of the 350,000 people that work in the traditional, orange box Home Depot stores that you guys are in it for the long-term. And then thinking about that news, and making sure you had messages that resonated with all these different audiences was one of the best learning experiences I had.

It really taught you the importance of really kind of dissecting who your stakeholders are, and how you go reach them. But this is us. In the communications world, you find when you get into a company, when you get into an agency, but really need to get into organization, right? You got your ops guys, you got your merchandising guys, you got your folks that are over… the pilots and the flight attendants.

We’re the ones really with our head up, looking around, balancing the needs of all the stakeholders. As much as we’re communicators, we really are counselors to a certain extent. This is really what you need to know is basically everything. As you progress in your career, and again, this hit me at the perfect time because I was just really emerging and starting to become a counselor, right? Ask yourself the hard questions you’re being asked. This leads to relationships with respect and trust.

At Home Depot during that time, there were about 20 reductions in force, be it at the headquarters, be it closing our small businesses, and sitting in those meetings and really asking the questions about but are we taking care of the people the best that we can at all those times? Or questions that, I mean frankly a lot of people around the table asked, but questions that we had to ask as well. But it’s those kinds of decisions you make as a counselor, the things you raise are the things that ultimately give you more respect over the long-term inside a company.

We bring perspective. Many times we’re the translators. Like I said before, recognize what all decisions mean to the stakeholders. Get input and don’t operate in a silo. Get outside perspectives. Use outside networks. This is so critical. The more you operate, the more you get going, the more it’s easy to fall into hearing a certain point of view inside the company, or you’re getting only one perspective from one group inside the organization.

It’s great to build that network, and we’ll talk a little about networking at the end here, and being able to call on people. Actually to this day, I have friends and colleagues that I’ve met along the way at all the jobs I’ve been, and I’m able to dial them up and talk to them, and gut check some decisions to get that outside perspective. Because as you’re rolling through, and going through at 100 miles an hour, it’s good to get an outside point of view to make sure that decisions you’re making on behalf of the organizations are ultimately going to be the right one.

This whole thing is one of my favorites. Another one of my favorites. No one function can drive something across the whole organization, right? Strategic alliances are important. You need high A, which is acceptance inside the company. Navigating an organization is one of the most important, but also challenging, things you’ll have to do in your career. Decisions are often made in a matrixed organization. There’s give and take. It’s about relationship building inside the company. As you find out, the more you progress, the more you’re part of decisions that aren’t necessarily communications-based but business based. So building that rapport is incredibly important.

Equally as important, it’s not just about the one person, right? Don’t focus on just the CEO. It’s bigger than that. You need to have influence at a lot of tables, and that might not be the CEO. If you’re called into work at a company, and you’re supporting the merchandising leader, it’s not about the SVP or EVP of merchandising. It’s about that whole organization. Not only the people that sit at the top, but the people that are all spread out through that organization.

Because people will move around, people will change, influencers will emerge from all inside that organization, and if you’re too myopically focused on that one individual, again, that’s a lack of perspective, and the dynamics change. When they do, and you’re misaligned, not necessarily the best place to be. And then as you really become a leader, and you’re managing a team, and this is a massive step, right? From the person who’s the practitioner to the person who’s the leader.

Letting go, providing that vision, that clarity, but letting your people carry the weight is a big deal, right? You don’t have to have every relationship. The best leaders are the ones that get out of the way of their best people. This really is the thing that separates practitioners from leaders, and this is where it all comes down to too, that talent selection. I’ll talk a little about org. structure later. Are you building the right team that has the right roles and responsibilities to attack the actual business need?

But this is a big step, honestly, that a lot of people don’t get, and they don’t move from practitioner to leader. Literally, that guide or that version of the guide is something I’ve carried around for 10 years. High-performing people of the team I’ll share with, and kind of impart those words of wisdom. They say, “Well that’s really brilliant.” I say, “Thank you, it’s not mine.” But I will share those tenants, and I think what’s amazing about that to me is that’s 10 years old, and they’re every bit as much true today as they were 10 years ago.

Switching gears a little bit, if that’s the roadmap, kind of talking a little bit to our team today about the reality of working primarily in communications, but like community affairs, recognition, all of this is in a real-time dynamic. As I said upfront, the team deserves a level set, and I think one of the things that I’ve learned as a leader, and being fortunate enough to have the opportunity to lead teams, is providing that clarity, and just the expectation, is critical.

Last year, or 18 months ago, we rolled out what we call The Eight Truths. These were… popular might not be the word, but they were received. You had a certain section of the team that, quite frankly, they loved them. You had a certain section of the team that hated them, and you actually had people leave the team because of them. But in a way, that’s kind of the point because this was an honest kind of critique of where we are and how things are going to go.

In talking to my leaders about this, we thought it was something critical. So we introduced The Eight Truths, and none of these are earth shattering, but to see some of them on a piece of paper and just all in one place, that was a big step forward for us. This is my favorite. We’re a 24/7 organization supporting a 24/7 business. When we had these listening sessions, one thing that was discussed was about, well it’s always on, it’s always happening. It is.

We fly 6,700 flights a day all around the globe at all times, right? It’s a half million people every day. Something is always happening, and it’s not always something good, but we’re always on, and it’s just a fact of life. That doesn’t mean you don’t have time off. It doesn’t mean you can’t figure out a way to get people to pinch in and help you when you go away. You know, we do have people that are on call, and all of that kind of stuff. But it is a continual grind, and that’s something you just need to be comfortable with. It’s a fast-paced organization, and it’s always on. That’s a level set for your number one.

Oh, we work in a real-time business. The direction will change on a dime and we must as well. We are reacting to everything; regulatory pressures, competition. I mean, you think about even the stuff that’s… you know, flights to Hong Kong have been suspended, civil unrest in places in South America. Things change all the time. That’s how it goes. People build these big plans, they’re ready to go, we’re ready to make an announcement. No, we’re not. It changes just literally in the blink of an eye. So it’s that ability to be able to adapt and understand all that hard work might be changed, put on pause, or frankly out the window. That’s a part of it. Some people had problems with this, and so it was just us saying, “Look, this is the organization, this is the industry we work in. We’re continually taking inputs and you must adapt with that.”

Three. This is something I found in every place I’ve worked, and I’ve been in three industries after agency, right? Retail, restaurants, and now airlines. I’ll tell you those client service habits I learned in agency always have served me well, right? We’re in a service organization. We support everyone, the frontline and leadership. This often means we don’t get the adulation. A lot of the feedback we got, and this is kind of two-fold for our team, one, we can do it definitely in our group right now a better job of recognizing team members for a job well done.

But there’s a certain group that, literally in some of the feedback, was, I mean they were not the star of the show. What is hard for some people to wrap their heads around is you are propping up senior leaders on the team, and you’re recognizing the frontline constantly. In a client service business, you’re often taking care of others much more than you’re taking care of yourself. Does that mean you shouldn’t take care of yourself? Absolutely not. Have we put in programs so we can do a better job on our team taking care of ourselves? Absolutely. Was it ever going to be perfect or probably to the level that some people would like? Probably not. Because we’re in a client service organization, and if you’re someone who’s going to thrive on that personal adulation, where we are right now on our team, this is probably not going to be a place for you.

Man. Pace of life, things changing. Our organization’s all wonky with decisions that are made by 10 people. We don’t have clear lines across our team, up and down across the entire organization. We must be comfortable with ambiguity. You really have to learn to be comfortable in the gray. I found this in some other places as well. Decisions aren’t made in a logical, linear fashion. Sometimes people on a team who don’t have a senior title have more responsibility than others because they have a client relationship. Things change, marketing will make decisions that have an impact on operations. Things change. It’s never perfectly logical. That’s life. If you need it all laid out in a row, that’s tough things to wrap your head around.

Oh, five. I love all these too. We’re the conscious of the company. We voice our opinions with respect so that company decisions are made eyes wide open. But once decided, unless it’s illegal or unethical, we’re going to advocate the company’s position even if it’s contrary to our own. There were some times, I think back to Home Depot when we closed certain lines of business, and I personally advocated for more severance pay for people that were losing their job. I didn’t win. We were doing all that was required. It was the 60 days, it was the government minimum. We were giving people options, opportunities. Totally fine. I advocated my position, I put in my point of view, I made my argument, I didn’t win.

I don’t often win. A lot of times I lose. But you know what? I get in line, I support what the company’s doing, right? They’re still taking care of people. This is a tough one as well to wrap your head around, and the conscience of the company, right? We are the ones, like I kind of mentioned before, we’re the ones out there that are balancing all the needs of the stakeholders, and really providing that extra point of view that, look folks, that’s how it is, they’re running the business. That’s their job. They’re running, they’re grinding, they’re pushing. That’s where our voice from the outside really has a key role.

This might be my personal favorite. Our team structure will continually evolve and change. As our discipline evolves, we will too. I worked in communications for 20 years. There was no social media when I started, right? Our whole world is built, our whole issues… Issues in management is… Issues communications is hilarious. In the old days, you’d get a letter in from the affiliate in Dallas, and the investigative reporter would send in a letter saying, “We have these claims, and we’re going to run a story in three weeks, and we want to talk to you for an on-camera interview.” Right now, it’s broadcast from the plane right now, and it is starting to go all over the globe.

I mean, the difference in speed is unbelievable. We have to change and adapt the structure for that. I think about a couple of examples here, but one thing I find amazing is how teams sometimes are reluctant to change the structure for the work that’s being done. When we were at Darden, we had a small team, called 12 people, and on the communication we had… Over half the people were working issues and crisis management, right? They were in the brands, and they all reported to a director of issues and crisis management. You have the time to get the business back on track. Really the ask for the business was to get proactive on all of the new restaurant openings, the new menus, profiles of the management, profiles of the chefs.

Yet we had two-thirds of the team was working issues and crisis management, and of course you say, “Well, there’s a lot of issues.” But then you actually started to dive in and realize, okay, what is everyone working on? Not much. A lot of it was busy work, but it was what was done before, so it wasn’t changed, and that was the structure. But the business changed. So we completely moved all those people over to the proactive brand and marketing side of the house, and changed the work we did. But it wasn’t enough to say, “Okay, we’re going to change the work we’re doing.” You actually change and alter the structure to actually meet that result.

We change with American four times where we worked five times because the discipline keeps on changing. How we go to market keeps on changing. In the four short years I’ve been there, we’re a news channel. I mean, you think about organizations like Fort Worth Star-Telegram, they get about 150,000 pageviews a day, right? Each one of our social channels has 2 million followers. We’re as much of a news organization as they are. We have to evolve. Always. Every time we do a restructure, the question becomes is this the last one? The answer is no, it’s not, because we’ll always change, because the discipline is always changing. And good organizations make those changes to advance.

People always come for career advice. “Okay, you know, what can I do? I need to be promoted now. I’m looking over, Johnny, he’s dumb. He’s not as smart as me, but he’s a level ahead of me. How is this possible?” Relax. It all works out in the end. If you care, collaborate, and deliver, those who do right will be rewarded in the long run. There are many times in my career I’ve looked around and said, “Oh my goodness, am I falling behind? What’s going on? What? I’m not as well compensated as these people. How can this be?” If you do well, and you care about the people, the work you do, you collaborate with others. It might not always be on the timetable that you think is right, but over time, you’ll be rewarded in the long run. It’s not about climbing over people, and maneuvering around, getting a new title or doing this and that. But it’s about this stay deliberate, care, and collaboration that’ll have you persevere over the long run.

The last one. Create your opportunities. Show up. Don’t wait to be asked. Earn flexibility with results. That’s great, and people wait for stuff to come to them. Every organization I’ve worked in, if you want to build it, if you want to create it, if you kind of want to carve it out, you can do it. This goes back to that first point. If you’re attaching yourself to the business, and you’re standing in an airport, you’re standing in a restaurant, you’re standing in the store, and ask yourself, “How am I helping these guys get the job done?” You can create your own opportunity, and you do that, you’ll be able to build things, create things, and you deliver great results. One of my new favorite terms is alacrity. You show up with brisk and cheerful readiness, right? That kind of attitude really can set you apart.

To that end, I want to close with two quick things, and I’ll open up for questions. The three hardest things I’ve had to grasp, and still am not good at, and I put these up here just to remind myself I’m not good. One is it’s not personal. This kind of goes back to that whole advocating for the things as a counselor and as an advisor, right? You got to be passionate, but also be able to adapt as the situation shifts. It’s not a personal slight that they didn’t take my recommendation, but sometimes it’s hard to separate that when you advocate for something so fervorously.

That’s what you have to do to make your point sometimes, so being able to separate that’s tough. Well, it’s not always logical. If you need things to make sense, you’re going to go crazy. You’re going to find yourself in an organization where you’re doing work, and Johnny’s doing work, and then Johnny gets promoted, and you don’t understand how that could be possible. But I did 17 things, and he did four things, and he’s promoted, how can this be? Or we just got all this customer research feedback, yet we’re making a completely different decision.

It’s the gray. It’ll all work out over time. But you’re going to go crazy if you’re locked into that kind of logic. And then be a realist. This to me is a hard one, and this is really career advice that I received early, and it took me a while to process. But have an honest view of how the organization views you. When I was at Ketchum after four years, and thinking about do I want to be an agency person forever, I thought to myself, “Man, I don’t know if I’m viewed in this company as like a senior counselor down the line. Plus I know I lack any of the business acumen.” So I went back to school.

One of the hardest decisions I ever had to do was think about do I leave Home Depot, because I was in a kind of middle, senior middle-ish role for such a long time. Would I ever be considered a senior counselor at that company? I thought I needed a new and different experience, so I did that. But having that, and it’s tough to do, have that understanding of how you’re viewed inside the organization is a tough thing to get. I’ll leave you with the final three things. I sat on The Plank Center board at the University of Alabama, and I have a plug for Betsy Plank here. Her quote, “Build a can-do reputation.”

All, what I just talked about, you can throw away. It’s five things, right? One, it’s learning the business. Whether you’re in a nonprofit, you’re in a company, you’re in an agency, understand where the business is. There’s a great quote. Being at Home Depot for a spell we had a lot of GE people in there, and one of the HR guys, Bill Conaty, he is an old, you know, seen as one of the forefathers of HR, had obviously differing views on all of that. But he tells a great quote about when he moved from working in a plant to the corporate headquarters, and he kept on asking when he moved, literally, physically, he kept on asking the real estate agent, “How close are we to the plant? How close are we to the plant?”

The realization was like, “What plant are you talking about?” So he recounted the story to Jack Welsh. He meant the plant, he meant the headquarters, but he was so used to working in the business, and Jack told him, “Don’t ever forget that. Don’t ever lose that mentality of where the business gets done. Where the income is coming from. Where the dollars are made.” It’s that kind of ethos that’s critical.

Study the flow of content. To me, this is about being a practitioner. We counselors, we’ll do all sorts of stuff. It’ll be great. It’ll be fun. Will be business partners. It’s fabulous. We are communicators, and so really as the world changes, right? People still in this day and age, it’s internal, it’s external, it’s social. No, it’s content. How do people consume this, and understanding how that works with all the audiences. The more you can get that, the better off you’ll be over the long-term.

Three, what are the intangibles? It’s about attitude. When you start your career, everyone will have the same resume that you have. They’ll have the same amount of internships. No one will care. It’ll be about the can-do attitude. I mean, are you willing to go the extra mile, stay late, take on the new project, separate yourselves by how you do it as much as what you do.

Network authentically. I love this profession. If you stay in this profession, you’re going to meet some incredible people. Don’t network to get ahead though – have a genuine interest in the people you meet. I was at Ketchum 20 years ago. I went to a thing called Ketchum College, which is like a two-day weekend retreat for young people, and I still keep in touch with two or three of those people from that weekend just to see where they’ve gone, and keep up with them, and watch their careers grow. It’s truly unbelievable.

And then when you can, give back. I sit on the board at Alabama, also at the University of Georgia. Whenever I can come to classes, and talk to students, and maybe they can remember one or two things that I’ve said, that’s great. But where you can, give back, help people get jobs, help people get started. People helped me get started, and it’s kind of the least you could do as you make your way.

That’s a lot of stuff, but roadmaps that I’ve found helpful, and as we kind of re-level set in this world today, some things that we’re thinking about as our team in American moves forward with The Eight Truths. But I’ll take questions on this, anything, anything you’ve learned, Georgia football, whatever.