Plank Legends & Leaders: Ron DeFeo


Ron DeFeo is the Senior Vice President of Global Communications for American Airlines, overseeing media relations, social media, employee communications, creative services, employee engagement and community relations for the airline.

Prior to joining American, Ron gained corporate and agency experience with Darden Restaurants, The Home Depot, Ketchum (Atlanta) and Cohn & Wolfe (Atlanta). Ron is a graduate of DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana where he earned a B.A. in Communication Arts & Sciences and completed the Media Fellows Honors Program. He holds an M.B.A. in Marketing and Management Information Systems from The Terry College of Business at The University of Georgia.

Ron completed the Arthur W. Page Future Leaders Experience, a two-year leadership program for communications professionals, and formerly served as a member of the Pulliam Center for Contemporary Media board of external advisors at DePauw. He serves on the board of advisors for The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and was a founding member of Page Up, the Arthur W. Page Society’s development organization for senior communications executives.

Leadership in public relations, there’s so much to that. If I think about it at a high level, really two buckets. I think, one, you look at the team you’re leading. Look, you’re the enabler of that team. That means a couple of things. You have to structure appropriately. You have to set clear, crisp, attainable goals for people to go get, and then you have to reward and recognize the team when you hit that. That’s the leadership of the team piece.

The other piece, we essentially serve the role as the conscious of the company. Whether we’re counseling the business, counseling all the support functions. I mean, we’re the group that really has our head up and out, and in the world, and looking around to understand what all the different audiences think. We’re often, I like to say, we’re like the translators, for the company. So really, those two elements are, at a high level, what leadership in communications is.

There are many things that go into making a great leader. I think one, it’s setting clear, simple, straightforward goals for your team. Oftentimes you get ground down in bureaucracy and you have to keep that as crisp and as simple as possible. That’s number one. Two in this day and age, understanding how content flows.

The days of traditional media obviously gone, the whole social media element used to be the hottest thing ever. It really is just content. It’s content creation, how it flows, how hits all your audiences. So, the ability to understand how that all plays together and then manages the messaging to your audience is critical.

Issues management is a big part. It’s that council, that decision making. You’re the conscience of the company, you’re really the individual and you lead that team that’s really responsible for understanding what all the different audiences want. Translating that into what makes sense to help the business move forward. That’s the role we play for the company.

I think a couple of things attributed to the success that I have or the team has had throughout my career, I think first and foremost is always just attitude. It’s that you’re a problem solver. You have the interest to always get to the root of the problem, understand what the business is after you, and figure out ways you can bring all your resources to support them. I mean, I think that that’s critical. I think the ability to build relationships is … it’s indescribable. So that’s internally, that’s externally, that’s across the organization, that’s up and down the organization. One of the best lessons I heard early on was, you don’t just build relationships with people at the top, it’s across the whole organization.

And then kind of with that, the other piece of the lesson was you don’t have to hold every relationship. So, it’s about really empowering your team to go get that done. But those are the traits, those intangibles. I cannot say enough about the intangibles because really, at the end of the day a lot of people will have a lot of the similar experience on paper, but it’s really that extra effort, those things that show up, whether it’s running down the issue or running down each individual matter that really kind of separates the great practitioners from just the very good ones.

I think when I think about leadership in the field and experiences I’ve had, there have been so many. I think if I look at two, I’ll give you two different types.

Looking at it a long-form, I worked at Home Depot during the housing downturn and it was a tough time with the US housing market. The company itself had a CEO change and was really redefining who it was, moving from something that had become almost a conglomerate if you will, to really returning to its roots, back to basics and being a retailer. It was a three, four-year effort that was supported by communications. So whether it’s handling the reductions of force that we had, the closing of lines of business, and then telling that corporate narrative, working hand-in-glove again with all the different constituencies, whether it’s the associates in the store, it’s investor relations and telling that to the street, the business media, the customer, helping people understand the evolution Home Depot is going through is really one of the best experiences I’ve been through.

Near-term issues management experiences I had, I work in the airline industry and one of our competitors had a major issue where they took someone off an airplane and we were faced with a different but similar situation, where something was exploding weeks later and it was handled very differently because we studied what happened. Look, we had the benefit to understand what was going on. We had the benefit to really dig in and really test ourselves on how we would respond in a similar situation. But after that incident happened on the competitor, the business turned to us and asked us, how would we really organize our thoughts and response against this? And low and behold, in short order, we had a similar opportunity to really test ourselves and I’m proud to say it turned out fairly well for us.

Yeah, I think the leadership skills are … The answer is “yes and no”. Leadership skills are the same and different. So, I mean it’s just how you lead a team, how you manage a team, how you’re going to motivate a team, how you’re going to connect to the purpose of the organization and the business objectives. I mean that is uniform leadership qualities and attributes that you need. The difference is the role you play. And especially these days, communication speed, there are content developers, content creators everywhere; everyone is impacted by communications one way or another. And so, it’s our job to be able to connect all the dots, educate the business the way audiences are receiving information, what they may be thinking, how the feedback loop runs through these different audiences; and really, it’s that judgment.

I’ve said this before, but we’re the conscience of the company. We’re the organization that really is looking at all the different stakeholders, understanding how it all interacts. And it’s our responsibility to bring all that information together, and counsel the business appropriately to make sure all the decisions we’re making are really supporting, obviously, the company’s objectives, but also understanding how they resonate to all these different audiences.

I’ve only worked in an agency in a corporate environment. And I think what I’ll tell you is, I mean, there clearly are differences. But at the same time, it’s all about understanding the business objectives of the organization you’re a part of, understanding those, getting to the place where that intersects with your discipline or your work and figuring out, is the team I have in place going to support those? Is the plan I have in place going to support those? Is it the way I’m going to be able to react to situations at that intersect, are we built to support and respond to what’s needed?

I look at my experience on the corporate side has very much been in retail, restaurants, and airlines. All of those share one common piece in that they have large frontline teams, and that’s where the business is. That’s where the brand is, really where it intersects with the customer.

And so, for me historically, and the teams I’ve been a part of, it’s about how do we get to where that is, that intersection between the customer and the team member? Understand what the team member needs to thrive. Understand what the customer needs to keep on bringing them back, and then figuring out how is the work I’m doing built to support that activity. I think if you start with that as your basis, you’re going to be in good shape.

For new PR practitioners, there are a couple things. I think one, study business. I mean, odds are even if you’re in a nonprofit, you’re in an agency, you’re in a corporation, you’re doing government work, it’s just that business acumen, those understandings of the fundamentals of business are critical. I went back to business school. I had a liberal arts undergrad, which I thought was fabulous and I started working in an agency, but I realized I didn’t have that business fundamental education. And I thought it was a negative for me when I was working with clients. So, for me, that was something that I felt like I needed. I don’t know how much teaching really goes on these days, make sure students and/or new practitioners are really rooted in business. So that’s piece number one.

Piece number two is the study of content. I mean, knowledge is the study of what it is, but where it goes, how it impacts, how it affects people. Often people will build programs and they’ll have big numbers, but what’s the impact? What’s really happening and how does it feed altogether? So, understanding how messages travel in this day and age, incredibly critical.

And the other thing really when you think about issues management and crisis management, in this age there is so much content out there. And this is something that’s learned over time, but just the judgment to kind of understand which pieces are going to explode, which are serious, which are the ones you really need to run down as opposed to what’s just noise? There’s no formula, there’s no blueprint for that, and you don’t always get it right. But the more you can understand those elements, the better professional you’re going to be.

When you look at the classroom, there are a few things that can be helpful. You know, one, just you know, understanding the function, the role that plays, where it sits inside the company. You know that that’s hugely critical. I think, two, understanding business and just understanding the role, the function plays inside of driving that ultimate strategy, be it a corporation, be it an agency, be it a nonprofit. That’s critical. I think then some of the just fundamentals, you know? You know, writing, you know, using judgment, you know, talk about, you know, in this day and age kind of social consciousness, social good, kind of understanding the roles, you know, those play, you know, in what this function is evolving into.

Talked about judgment before. I think that has to come to life through, you know, real time work. I think cases are fine. I think simulations are okay, but really that’s something that needs to be honed in the moment, in the actual activity. So, whether it’s, you know, building the… You know, there are agency classes now in school, people take on clients, really getting out there and maybe even taking on some nontraditional, maybe more controversial or clients that are really in the news for a lot of different reasons. We’ll give people the exposure to understand what it’s like, you know, dealing and representing an organization that might not be loved by everybody, but giving you that experience to really figure out how you help a client navigate tough situations.

Yeah, I don’t know if the deficit is right. That’s such a hard thing to judge. But I think it’s back to what we’ve been talking about. I mean, leadership really comes, it’s learned through experience. I think you’re kind of going along your career journey, you’re going to be exposed to a bunch of different types of leaders. Some are going to be fabulous, some not so much. It’s about really taking the key learnings there and kind of taking them and embedding them in the footprint you’re building ultimately as a leader. some not really taking the key learnings there and kind of taking them in, bedding them in and out of the footprint you’re building.

I think experiences, gaining as many and as a wide variety as you possibly can, especially early on. When you start out in the profession, you don’t know what you don’t know. And so there are disciplines you might fall in love with down the line that are things that you just need to experience and get in and get involved in.

I would say then the more you’re exposed, I would say to the issues and crisis side of the business, I think it’s important because I think a lot of times the further you progress in your career you’re really called upon for your judgment and your ability to really understand how different decisions will have an impact on different audiences. And so that’s the good, that’s also the bad.

And so really being able to translate what that all means to help the organization you’re working for is critical. So being involved in issues management campaigns and things along those lines and how to respond to crisis really will help you shape your leadership down the line.

When I think about the times where our team really made an impact and changed the way we did things. I mean, it started one, with the idea that we were deeply connected to the business. Looking at the frontline audiences and what the customer experience is, where the brand is. So, I think back to my time at Darden restaurants. And we were primarily communications, internal and external. But we started a work in social media and supporting the brands that way. At the time the social media programs were more than fine. But they were very static marketing-based activities. And with the experiences we had and our connectivity with the operations leaders, and spending time in the field and, spending time with the customer groups, we saw a need to be able to give brands a little more personality. While at the same time solving issues that were occurring with customers out in the field.

So, we started work in supporting the brands through social media. And it was a change, something where on paper you would be like, “Well, that’s never going to happen.” Never as a group, or a centralized group at the time supporting all of the brands, really going to step in and do work that was primarily done by a brand team. But it was done in a way … And credit to the team. It was done in a way where it was done from the understanding of, “Look, this is going to further what the brand’s goals are. It’s going to help the team. It’s going to help the customers. Ultimately it’d be a better experience for all involved.” And as long as you’re looking at it from that lens and you go about it that way, and then talk openly and honestly with different people across the organization. And again, that’s about working not only up and down, but really working across the organization and building advocates for the work that you do. You’d be amazed what you can accomplish inside an organization.

There are a lot of books on leadership. I’m a big sports fan, so I always kind of gravitate towards the sports books. I’m actually reading a book right now. It’s called the Captain Class. It’s by Sam Walker. He’s a former Wall Street Journal editor. Started the sports page and does a leadership column now for the Journal still. And he wrote this book and it’s really fascinating. He looked at all sports teams across every sport imaginable internationally and really looked at the dynasties, whittled it down to a select group of teams and then looked at the captains on all those teams and he found some incredible similar traits that these captains have, which I think can translate into business. I mean some of them are about humility and kind of leading from the back. Talks about like doggedness and determination. Again, it’s those intangibles that often really separate you.

And then I think another one I found really interesting was about we operate in a highly emotional business. And these captains, they relied on emotion to get people moving, but in a time of crisis, they have this unique ability to kind of moderate their emotions so they were able to remain level-headed, which I think if you think about what we’re doing, whether it’s counseling, working in a crisis. I mean oftentimes you have to maintain that level head. And I think some of those things he talks through in the book really translate well to our profession.

When you look at the PR profession today, a couple of things really stand out. They’re staring us straight in the face. One, I think, speed to market. In the old days, when things broke, you might have had a minute to think. I mean, now, it is being broadcast real-time. Unquestionably, that is a massive change. Building teams and building processes inside the organization where you can respond at a moment’s notice, I think, is amazingly critical.

I think the other is the study of content, and how it all works together. There’re news organizations, people are now content creators, ourselves as companies are content creators. Understanding how the content hits and gets into the marketplace is incredibly critical.

The third thing I would say is social issues, and understanding when the organization you’re working for or with needs to get involved. You’re going to hear from your team members, or your publics, to take stands on a myriad of issues, and the ones that are the most important to you, you probably should take stands on.

But it’s figuring out which issues those are, and making sure it’s something that really resonates with the team. It’s something that you would be in support of, regardless of what kind of feedback or blowback you get.

I think the fourth thing I’d say is, it kind of ties back to the speed to market thing, but there are incredible ways issues and crisis develops these days. The ability to distill which issues and which matters really can have an impact on your brand or in your company, that’s a hard thing to understand.

Yeah, there are analytics out there for it, and there are tools out there for it, but a lot of times, it’s judgment. That experience of understanding how different things play, and how audiences react to things that are going on. Really, that’s something that’s a critical skill that today’s practitioners really need to hone.

The legitimacy goes by the organization you’re in. I think if your team is one that is really connected to the business, really understands how things get done, and you’re figuring out a way to plug in and support and counsel, I think you do have legitimacy. I think that that’s at a very granular level.

I think if you step back, I think the fact that we’re in a world where content is king, that’s such an overused phrase, but the fact of the matter is it’s just a nonstop content factory. The work we’re doing that used to just be internal communications or media relations, it is the continual 24/7 creation, curation, dissemination of content, and how we’re interacting with that. It’s only going to dial up that way. So, from that point of view, I think we really have a critical seat at the table.

Yeah, I would say a couple things to people who are just entering the work world. One, if you can, start in an agency. I started in an agency. A lot of folks I’m close with in the business started in an agency. And the reason why I say that, is you have the opportunity to work on things you didn’t even know existed. You’ll be in a sports practice one minute, you’ll be in a financial practice the next minute.

You really can kind of see and understand the business across multiple functions. And just be exposed to a lot more than you probably were in a corporate environment. And I know, when I started I thought I knew everything. I clearly don’t. I still don’t. But sitting in an agency for four years really gave me an incredible view as to what was out there.

The second thing I think I’d say is attitude. When everyone is starting out everyone is probably starting out with similar experiences at a similar level. And there are going to be great people from a functional perspective, they’re going to get things done, that’s a given. I mean, it’s going to be that willingness to go above and beyond. That hustle, I like to say. That really is going to have the opportunity to separate you.

And the last thing I’ll say is if you care, collaborate and deliver. Your career will take care of itself. You know, oftentimes people worry about, “Okay, what’s next? How do I get to the next level?” And we have this talk a lot in the companies I’ve been in, with people who are interested about what’s next. I think, look, you’re going to see people, other departments, maybe in our department who might pass you from a time or things might not seem fair.

But over the long run, if you care about the work you’re doing, if you’re collaborating with the team, building them up, advancing the entire organization with you, and then just delivering on your work product, you’ll succeed over the long term. Might not always be on the time frame that you want or think, but over the long run, it’ll happen for you.

And so, those are just some thoughts for folks starting out in PR.

I think if we’re looking for entry-level folks to join our organization now, there are a bunch of givens, right? It’s the solid schooling, it’s the experience through internships and those first jobs or assignments you have. But then from there, it’s really in talking to you, you can tell people who are willing to give 110% and get after it and want to absorb and learn and soak up as much as they can. I mean it really is those intangible elements that really separate people.

We’re in a business where we’re not necessarily building a widget or turning out a hard product, so ultimately in 20, 30 years down the line, it’s going be about that judgment, that counsel, helping leaders make decisions, and that’s all starts out early by the willingness to really get involved with as much as possible. And more often than not when you’re talking to people, you can tell if they really have that desire, that edge to them to really do what it takes to learn as much as possible and to take on new and different projects, which ultimately will help them 10, 15, 20 years down the line.

You know, I really don’t have enough daily routines to kind of further my leadership. But a couple of things I try to do … They’re not daily, maybe weekly. One, talking to my direct reports and the leaders on our team. It’s critical because understanding where their challenges are, where they are with their teams, really making sure they feel like they have my support and feel like they’re empowered to do the jobs and work against the objectives we have. I think, that’s really critical. Two, we try to do benchmarking. That’s clearly not a daily activity but that’s something that we try to do on a somewhat regular basis. And the third thing I’ll say is, actually I was fortunate enough after moving into my last role of going to a one day, all day leadership development class that was designed for me.

And it was fabulous and the end result was really building a plan that I look at a couple of times a week. It should be daily. But it is high-level goals and things that I’m supposed to be focused on. So, the one piece of advice I would leave to anyone listening is if you can from a 30000-foot view, really outline, here are the 6, 10, things I’m looking to drive over the course of a year or 18 months for not only myself but really the team and the organization we support. What are those things and kind of the steps underneath them and refer to that on a regular basis. Because when the day starts, even really … In our line of work, before the day starts, you’re already off and running and going down a path that is not at 30000 feet usually.

So, being able to carve out time and literally … I put time on my calendar every week to make sure I at least once a week look at this path and this roadmap. I’ve really found it to be really helpful and kind of making sure that I’m at least keeping myself, the team, in all the work we’re doing, on that path to lead the organization in the future.

My tip for leadership, I think is twofold. One, set clear, tangible goals for the team and then two, empower. Empower as much as possible. People perform better, deliver a better result if they feel like they’re in charge, they’re ideating, they’re leading the work, they’re responsible for delivering, and that’s our goal as leaders.

My mentorship tip is to, one, always give back. I had mentors along the way. I need to make sure I’m doing the same thing. Then the second thing I’d say is you can’t be a mentor to everybody, but find the people you are going to mentor and give it all you got. Invest in those people like the people who invested in you did before.

My networking tip is network authentically. This is a fun business, a fun discipline. You’re going to meet some incredible people. Get to know as many as you can, understand what they’ve been through. You’re going to build lifelong friends in this industry, you don’t network to network. If you have a genuine interest, you will keep up with people, learn from people, help people. They’ll help you and really, you’ll have a better career for it.

Every leader is different. Learn from each and every leader you have. Learn from each and every time you’re exposed to a different leader. You’re not just in your function but across the different businesses and industries you work in. A lot of those leadership traits and characteristics you see can translate in our function. Take note and be willing to evolve your style to constantly make sure you’re leading the team as best you can.

The lesson it took me the longest to learn was… it’s not personal. We’re in really unique jobs in that we’re the conscience of the company. We’re giving judgment. We’re helping people make decisions. We’re often advocating for positions or paths the business should go, and it’s not always the right one, or it’s not always the one selected. And so, oftentimes, the ultimate decision will not be the point of view that you were advocating for. It’s not


personal. It’s up to you, right, as long as it’s not unethical or illegal, to get on board and then advocate for the company. But that’s a hard lesson that, over time, takes you a while to really understand that it’s not personal and that, look, you’ve done your job by advocating, and now it’s time to support the company as it moves forward.

Building trust across the organization and with your teams is a necessity. It’s also difficult. You know, I think about the work we’re doing right now at the airline. We are looking to make sure that we are listening as much as we can to team members, right? That’s at an enterprise-level at American. That’s the frontline team members, understanding what they need to do their job really well, and on the same time, explaining the why behind the decisions we make.

We ran our first survey for team members a couple of years ago for the first time in over a decade or so. One of the biggest pieces of feedback we got was to do a better job of explaining why we do the things we do, so as communicators we came up with a litany of tools to really help explain that better, so people had a better understanding of what’s going on.

I think a granular example on our team, on the communications team, one of the pieces of feedback in that survey and things we hear when we do our town halls is people want to understand how promotion and career development decisions are made. So, we’ve literally spent the last year or so, at different large team meetings, at smaller team meetings, through written communications, just kind of pulling the curtain back and showing people, “Look, here’s how decisions are made. Here are your expectations by level. You know, here’s how promotions work. Here’s how, if you work on cross-functional assignments, how those are selected.”

Really, I mean, transparency I guess in all of this is what’s paramount here. People want to understand what’s going on, why is it going on, and how can they get involved in the process. You kind of need to bring those things together to do what you can to build trust over the long term.

Issues and crises are… It’s a 24/7 activity. So, I think it’s a few things. I think it’s, one, do you have the right team in place? That’s about making sure you have individuals on our crisis and operations response team that love the work they do. They’re willing to dive in, run down all the different aspects of the issues to help manage them the best that they can.

Two, it’s about getting buy-in across the organization. We’re moving at such an incredible speed, you can never predict every issue, but certainly we’ve seen enough to where people understand the guidelines we’re operating inside of. And so, kind of getting that, and earning that permission to kind of operate within those boundaries, is critical. Three, I’d say is, correct on the go. We are always learning.

Like I said, you can’t predict every issue. And, you know, while there are a lot of similarities to the things that happen over and over again, they’re all different. And so, taking the learnings and what we could have done better here and there, and updating our approach is a continual work in progress.

And then, four, I’d say, where we can, get out and talk to others, now, in our industry but in other industries, about how they respond. Again, and I mean respond. It’s internally, it’s externally, it’s to stakeholders, it’s to media, it’s on social. Again, all the audiences. Understand the best practices and the things other companies are doing, and see if it makes sense and we can integrate it into the work that we do.

Couple of things, one, from a company standpoint, are we taking that frontline perspective into account in all the things we do? That’s something I learned early on at the time at Home Depot, same thing at Darden and now in American there’s nothing more important. And look, Elise lives that every day. And that’s something I really learned from her and it has really reinforced my view. And that doesn’t mean it’s an internal-only view. I mean that’s something where you’re taking into account what that team member is going through and how that plays in with the broader publics and all our stakeholders. I think there’s that piece and making sure the work that we’re doing aligns to that mission, that objective. I think then you look functionally at our team, it’s a couple of things. It’s about making sure that my leaders and my leadership team understand exactly what the goals are and what they’re held accountable for.

Two, creating a sense of comradery and team amongst that group because look, that group is driving a lot of work and if they’re not getting along, if they’re unhappy, if they’re not clear on what’s going on you’re not going to get anywhere with that. So that is critical.

And the third piece is empower, get out of the way a lot of the times. You’ve set where you’re going, you’ve built a positive environment to deliver work and get work done. And part of that is providing support and guidance and counsel, but then you hire the right people in the right roles. I mean, you’re letting them run with it. And then if you can get that formula the output is tremendous.

You know, I think helping team members grow in my current role is a two-front activity. You know, one, we lead leadership development for the company. So, the team has done a fabulous job introducing new programs for when people become people leaders for the first time, and really help them kind of hone that skill set. And look, we’re living in a mobile, digital world, so we’ve instituted a bunch of different programs for people to be able to learn on the go through online programs, classes, articles, things along those lines, and a way to not only go through themselves but share them with their peers. So, there’s that just overall, just the ability to round yourself out as a leader.

And then I’d say, if you look at our team and our function specifically, it’s coming down to two things we’re looking to do. You know, one is a job rotation program, so there aren’t silos necessary, especially on the communication side anymore. You know, internal, external, social, I mean that’s all gone away, but supporting different areas of the business, giving people the opportunity to rotate through and do that. And then, kind of more on an informal basis, but putting some rigor around it is cross-functional assignments.

So just because you’re working in Chicago, supporting the operations the Chicago hub is looking at for the 2019, 2020, why can’t you pick up a commercial program that talks about the rollout of a new product, or new service that really affects the airline as a whole? So really giving people opportunities to work in areas that they haven’t historically been through, or maybe aren’t necessarily comfortable in will only just expand their skill set, and ultimately make them a better professional down the line.

I’ve just been fortunate to have some really great leaders along the way, been in some incredible jobs, and really been afforded the opportunity to just have incredible experiences. I mean, whether it was working in an agency, and always kind of moving on to new clients and new businesses, moving into Home Depot and really spending eight-plus years and progressing there, working on everything. From community relations to issues and crisis management, to leading the corporate team, moving to Darden and working in the restaurant industry, and all that goes with that. And now working at American and we are literally at the cross-section of team member issues and engagement as well as what the customer is looking for, with what regulators are looking for. It’s global, it’s local. It’s such a unique set of experiences I’ve been able to have, it’s been terrific.

But if I’m talking to someone who’s starting out, I come back to what really most leaders have told me along the way. And that is focus on the work you’re doing, care, collaborate, and deliver. And the rest will take care of itself. If you’re passionate about the work you’re doing, constantly trying to learn, constantly trying to better yourself, collaborating, working well with others, right? Because it’s not only up. It’s down, it’s across the organization. And then just deliver just an incredible product. People will notice over time and your career will just take care of itself.

Recorded: July 2019