Plank Legends & Leaders: Dr. Bryan Reber

Dr. Bryan Reber, the C. Richard Yarbrough Professor in Crisis Communication Leadership, has been named the head of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Grady College at The University of Georgia. In addition to his departmental and teaching responsibilities, Reber also directs the UGA Crisis Communication Coalition, dedicated to the study of crisis communication and strategic response to related issues.

My professional career in public relations was in the nonprofit sector. I worked at a small private college in Kansas as the Director of Public Information, which meant that I did everything from media relations, to marketing communications, to special events, so it was a very small organization and I got to do everything. Which I think now, as a professor, that was a great benefit to me. The downside, of course, is that I don’t have agency or corporate experience, but now I get to engage with agency and corporate folks, so I feel like I know a fair bit about that, sort of highs and lows of my career. I went back to school to get my PhD, I graduated in 2001, and I went to work for the University of Alabama, and worked there for three years before going on to University of Georgia, where I’ve been since 2004. My high is probably during my professional work, we planned a week long centennial event for this college, and that was probably one of the highest because of all the moving pieces, and it went well, and people enjoyed it.

In terms of my current role, I think probably the highs are any time that I can work with professionals to bring new opportunities for students. For example, this summer, for the first time, we’ve got a couple of students who are interning at eBay in San Francisco, and that’s exciting for me because it’s an opportunity only for our students. It’s something that being in the southeast, to spend a summer on the west coast in Silicon Valley is pretty cool. My definition of leadership in PR, I think that it has components, and so the components I think are emotional sensitivity, being able to listen, being able to be strategic, being able to be forceful and assertive when necessary. First and foremost, being able to listen, and to act on that, because as a leader, you need to be able to listen to the concerns of your subordinates. In public relations, you need to be able to listen to the concerns of your various constituent groups, and then from that, you sort of do the emotional intelligence, and how do we move this knowledge to something that is going to be relevant and helpful to the organization, and to the publics involved.

I think three or four of the most important characteristics, I tied into my definition there, but I would say first of all, emotional intelligence. Second, the ability to push back when necessary, to try to help an organization see things that it might not normally see, and then I think the third is the listening component, being able to really listen, and put words into action. Strategies are involved in that, too, of course. I think leadership can be tough. I don’t think leadership is innate, maybe some of the qualities of leadership are innate, but I absolutely think leadership can be taught, and I think we try to in, as academics, I think most of us try to teach leadership in our classrooms. Part of the most important thing that we do as public relations educators is to help students know how to think, and to problem solve, and I think those are characteristics of leadership that are important. Probably the most powerful experience I’ve encountered in terms of leadership in the field of public relations relates to simply observing good leaders.

I think that’s important, and obviously, The Plank Center thinks it’s important, because we hold mentoring in very high esteem. I think watching great leaders, whether they are in the professional realm, or in the academic realm, is what I think is, not necessarily an ‘aha’ moment, but I think observing and trying to engage with, and have mentor, be a mentee of great leaders. Naming a single outstanding leader in the field of public relations is absolutely impossible. There are great leaders in different aspects. Some people who I’ve had the opportunity to engage with at some level, I think, are great leaders, are Brad MacAfee, who is the worldwide chairman of Porter Novelli. He was the managing director of the Atlanta office of Porter Novelli for years, and I got to engage with him, and he really is a great leader, and I think that’s why he has ascended as he has. In terms of on the academic side, I feel like I think of people who are great leaders as educators, as researchers.

I think Bruce Berger is a tremendous resource and leader in the academic field. I think for myself, my dissertation chairman, Glen Cameron, who’s at the University of Missouri, is a great researcher and great leader in the field, particularly in the field of health communication. That’s not a single answer, but those are three people who I think personally have had meaningful engagement. What Samuel Adams and the revolutionary period propagandists, and public relations figures did was pretty amazing. Everything from events like the Boston Tea Party to things like writings, Common Sense, Thomas Payne’s Common Sense. All that stuff was part of that group that Sam Adams was sort of a leader in that field. I think that that was for us as a nation certainly an important thing, but I think also as a field, to look back and say, “You know, some of the things we do today were being done 200 years ago, and we’re working in similar ways.” That’s pretty interesting to me.

The first thing I think they need to do is to find somebody in their organization that they admire, and that they think does a good job, and ask them to mentor, or to be sort of an informal advisor. I think that in our discipline it’s really important to network, and for some people, that comes really easy, and for others, it doesn’t. For myself, it doesn’t, but nonetheless, I think it’s important for us to build those networks, and particularly as you begin to try to work to middle management. I think those are the two things I’d say, and to network, maybe it is becoming part of an organization like being involved in Plank Center activities, for example, or PRSA, or IABC. I think I start by saying that I’m not sure I agree that there is a dearth of good leadership in public relations today, but I’ll follow by saying it is important that we continue to develop and grow leaders. I think that’s possible in a variety of ways. That is possible in everything from workshops and webinars that are affiliated with professional organizations, and being a part of those, and if we are supervisors, encouraging our subordinates to be, to take part in those sorts of things.

I think for students, providing not only classroom input, but extracurricular opportunities to build leadership, I know that at both the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, there are leadership initiatives for diverse populations. I think that kind of thing is what we all need to be doing, as educators. I think of a couple of things in terms of great leadership. One is political and historical, and one is more contemporary, and within our profession. The first, the historical, I think of, and I think this is important in our discipline because it shows the use of different medias. They become available, and so I think of Franklin Roosevelt during Fireside Chats, and trying to build support for the WPA Program, and trying to get people through the Great Depression, to basically use this newfangled thing called radio to get into people’s homes, and try to converse directly with them. I think that that particular activity, along with lots of other things, but I think that really probably was key in selling many of the things that Roosevelt did through the years.

In terms of a contemporary example, I think it’s interesting, Richard Edelman, a couple of years ago at the Page Society meetings, made the case that he is calling what we do now marketing communication. Whether you agree or disagree with that is less important to me as just the concept of how our field continues to develop, and grow, and how we as practitioners have to think about what we do to sort of stay cutting edge. I think, and at that time, a couple of years ago, when Richard made that speech at the Page Society, it caused a lot of chatter in the trade publications. I think it was relevant to think about, because right now we’ve got, particularly in social media, we’ve got the blending of advertising, and public relations and marketing, all sort of in this gray, amorphous area, and so to think really what is distinct to our discipline is important, I think, and I think that’s part of what Richard was trying to do. A book on leadership that I would recommend is called The Corner Office.

Until relatively recently, there was a weekly column in The New York Times called The Corner Office, these books were compilations of these columns. The reason I think they’re useful for leadership is because the idea behind this recently ended column was talking to executives about their leadership styles. I’ve used it in a graduate management class. I think it’s very useful in terms of just thinking of leadership in a way that is very accessible. It’s not theoretical. It gives you sort of real-life people that you can look at, so I think The Corner Office, would be my pick for right now. I think public relations has become more legitimate because it has taken on more responsibility within organizations. Rather than simply being publicity or media relations, which for a long time that’s all people thought public relations was, to be more a leadership, an executive, a strategic role, I think, has made a difference. Also, there’s been a concerted effort to link public relations activities to return on investment, and the bottom line in organizations.

I think we’ve done a convincing job of that, and I think that has given us more influence and impact. Plus, the nature of the social media environment where something can happen, and be instantly around the globe, has meant that there’s more demand for public relations and management of crises. I think that gives us more value as well. Advice I would give students or graduates just entering the work world would be; be willing to work hard, be willing to show up and not be afraid to offer your opinion, even when you are maybe feel like you are in a room of people who are so far removed from your level, and be sure that you’re not shy about sharing your well-thought out opinion. I think also I’ve talked earlier about identifying a mentor, and finding someone who can help you through that, but I think the most important thing is just being confident, and not being overly confident, but knowing that the reason you’ve been hired, the reason you’re in the room, is because the organization thinks you have something to offer them.

If you are quiet, and if you don’t provide that input, you’re cheating yourself, and you’re cheating your organization. If I was hiring a new public relations professional today, the kinds of things I would look for would be some level of experience through internships or that sort of thing, but more importantly, I think a willingness to be a creative thinker. That doesn’t mean that you have to be creative in the designing a brochure sense, but being a creative thinker, and problem solver. I also think that it’s important to have someone who listens, and distills, and then can synthesize information and share it. Is this person going to be a good colleague? Is this someone who’s going to work well with our various constituent groups, and various publics? Those are the kinds of things I would look for. I think it is incumbent upon university educators to provide students with leadership skills through purposeful units within a course. I think a logical course for that would be something in the area of management.

If there are case study courses, or opportunities within the university for extracurricular opportunities, for example, most or many universities have leadership opportunities either through clubs, or through student-run agencies. I think providing those kinds of opportunities are essential, so a combination of curricular and extracurricular. Diversity and inclusion is essential in public relations, and unfortunately, our workforce is not as diverse as it should be. That’s something that I think the profession is grappling with, and is trying to address. There’s certainly lots of diversity initiatives in various trade organizations and professional organizations. Something that we’re doing at the University of Georgia is one we have for two years now. Over our spring break, we host an event that we call Ad PR Academy. Ad PR Academy really is a week-long kind of boot camp for minority students, minority students in the largest sense of that word.

They put in 12-hour days, we have curriculum that is taught by professionals in Atlanta. This is all held in Atlanta rather than on-campus, which is in Athens, Georgia, and so professionals from some of the big brands, Delta, Coca-Cola, Home Depot in Atlanta, as well as major advertising and public relations agencies come and teach these units to students. Simultaneously, the students are working on a campaign project that they present at the end of the week, and they have to solve a real-world problem, and put this together. This has been something that I’m very proud of that we do at the University of Georgia. The University of Alabama does a leadership program for minorities. It’s a different model, but it’s a very important program as well, so I think those kinds of things that we can do as educators are important, and the industry is doing its own thing, but I do think everybody knows that we need a more diverse workforce. The top three expectations that CEOs will have of their public relations professionals in the year 2030, probably are not going to be a lot different than they are now.

I would say that one would be, how do you contribute to the bottom line of the organization? I know how you can help me spend money, but how can you show that money is well-spent? How can you help me stay out of trouble, and when I’m in trouble, get out of trouble? How can you advise me in times of difficulty, in times of crisis, and third, how can you help me engage with the wide variety of publics that my organization has to engage with, from consumers, to employees, to investors, to people in the community, to politicians? The number of publics that global organizations now have to deal with is vast, and so I think CEOs will expect that of public relations. The issues that I think will become a wake-up call for public relations professionals are linked to the sensitivity of different groups of people. I think that things like the Me Too, and Never Again movements, whether that is sexual harassment, or gun control, I think those kinds of things are wake up calls that people expect different behavior.

I think particularly in the workplace, the issue of sexual harassment and unfortunately, a continued sort of latent racism that occurs in the workplace, I think these are things that should be wake up calls. I think given the kinds of things that we’re seeing in the news right now in 2018, I think that that wakeup call is happening. My leadership tip is listen. My mentorship tip is to give back. None of us have gotten to where we are without someone helping us along, and as mentors, we need to be mentors and give back to those who are coming behind us. It’s the right thing to do. My networking tip is to develop meaningful networks. Don’t try to engage with everyone in the room necessarily, but find people who are meaningful to what you want to do, and what you’re interested in, and what problems you’re trying to solve, and network and build relationships with them. My go-to news source is the New York Times and CNN online. I’m an old-fashioned. I still like to have paper in my hand, so while I read the New York Times online, I also get it at home, and enjoy reading it in the comfort of my lazy chair.

Those are my two, I think. There are so many. Every leader is responsible to their subordinates, and to those that they are trying to help develop. The lesson that’s taken me the longest to learn is, I’m ashamed to admit, but organization. Organization and time management really, I’m not sure I still have learned that it continues to be a struggle, but that’s really important in public relations. I struggle with those things. Habits in my daily routine that strengthen my leadership skills I think are trying to engage with all levels of people in my workplace, trying to understand and listen to all types of students, and I think that knowing people with different experiences improves my ability to lead. Organizations need to prepare for a PR crisis in a variety of ways. One is to have at least the broadest outlines of a plan, so who do you contact? What is the network that’s important? How do you contact people who need to be informed? That sort of knowing who should be in the mix of communication is probably the most important thing.

I think it’s also important to have on a regular basis some sort of conversation or workshop. I don’t think that you have to have kind of an event, or something that you sort of play out in real time, but I think talking about and sort of, we call it table top, having a table top kind of discussion about if this happens, who does what, and walking through that. I think those are ways that every organization needs to be prepared for crises. The central elements of a crisis communication plan are, first of all, who needs to be the first to be informed? How they’re going to be informed, who’s responsible for informing them? Also, how you’re going to update, the thing about crisis communication is that usually in a crisis, there’s an information vacuum, and that vacuum is going to be filled by someone. It is important that we as the communicators for the organizations are the ones to fill that. Otherwise, that leads to rumors, and panic, and those sorts of things. Knowing how communication is going to happen, and by whom, to whom, I think is probably the most important part.

Key messages, those vary depending on a crisis. You can certainly develop messages for crises that are predictable if you are in the airline industry. You’ve got some things you predict might go wrong. If you’re in the food service industry, you’ve got some things you could predict might go wrong. Planning for those is important in terms of a crisis plan as well. I think your leadership style during a crisis should change very little. If anything, I would say that you need to exude confidence. You need to be assertive. You need to be able to be decisive and make quick decisions. Hopefully, all of those things you do on a daily basis, but they are sort of must-dos when you’re in the throes of crisis. Crisis on social media is a special problem, and we could go through a litany of illustrations of where people have said something, or posted something that was flip, and has caused problems for that person or for their organization. I think we really have to train our employees about the importance of how they represent the organization on social media.

Of course, they can have their personal social media, but if they’re representing the organization, the rules of that need to be clear, so having some sort of organizational policy in place about what is right in terms of what’s allowable. I think that we have to be constantly monitoring social media because of the multiple platforms and the 24/7 nature of it. You have to constantly be aware of what people are talking about, and so you can respond promptly. Some organizations that have handled crises well, and maybe they didn’t instantly. They maybe tripped in to doing it better, I think that organizations like GM when they had an ignition problem, they initially didn’t do a great job, but they eventually realized that what was important for the organization was to be honest about what was known, and when it was known, and to set up a way to provide restitution to victims, or to correct the problem. I think that any organization who understands what has been caused by the crisis, this is assuming that the organization is at fault in some way, and finding a way to provide restitution without being dragged kicking and screaming as they do it. I think that’s key.

Unfortunately, there are a lot more illustrations of organizations doing a poor job of crisis communication. Organizations that have done poorly with public relations, I think, are companies like Volkswagen, when they had an emissions scandal. They denied it initially, and it was found that it was actually implemented as a workaround, and so it was intentional by someone within the organization. It couldn’t have just been a single person, so I think that sort of played out. When an organization allows kind of a drip, drip, drip of bad news, rather than saying, “Okay, here’s what’s happened. These are the things we did wrong. Here’s the way we’re going to do it differently from now on,” you just need to get things out quickly, and organizations that don’t have longer to recover.

Recorded: July 2018