Global Practices

Four Essential Traits for Today’s Public Relations Leaders



The Plank Center at the University of Alabama recently asked a group of practitioners and academics to participate in a video series talking about the leadership traits that are required of today’s public relations professionals. Their series is both a timely and important discussion.

Below I’ve distilled four of the points I shared with them.

1. Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

The mobile web, social networking, activist consumers, vocal employees and the complex relationship between earned and paid media have unsettled the environment in which we practice public relations. While public relations professionals, in general, find these changes exhilarating, our clients and sponsors many times do not.

The most important, yet undervalued, skill for PR leaders today is being comfortable in an uncomfortable and dynamic environment. Balancing discussions between the editorial side of mainstream media and the business side, guiding social media discourse on issues important to internal and external clients and acquiring the analytic skills to determine which conversations are important to weigh in on – and which are not – are all new for public relations professionals. As we are learning to master these skills we also need to work with our internal and external clients to help them operate comfortably and effectively in this environment.

2. Inclusive and Transparent

Driven largely by the democratizing impact of social networks, public relations leaders today have shifted from being great communicators to being great conveners. Initially, we advised on “how to say it,” then moved to “what to say,” and we are now clearly in the realm of being asked “what to do?”

In the latter role, public relations leaders must now host inclusive and transparent discussions on the motivations and actions of our organizations – with allies and adversaries alike. Leading from the front of our organizations inclusively and transparently ensures that we are best positioned to advise on business, policy and communications.

3. Real Time

The restructuring, digitization and mobilization of the media — social, mainstream and owned — have put public relations practitioners in a real-time environment. Where we once had hours, even days, to respond to issues or take advantage of opportunities, today, it’s essential that we are “always-on.”

The need for real-time action has shifted us from crafters of messages to stewards of organizational values and behaviors. A real-time orientation takes the focus off of what we say and puts it onto what we do. Our allies and adversaries alike are more interested in how our organizations behave in real time instead of how we react with the benefit of hindsight.

4. Multicultural and Global

As the American Republican Party has learned in two successive presidential elections, we live in a multicultural and global world. Public relations professionals today need to be global in knowledge and experience and multicultural in perspective and practice.

To engage effectively on behalf of our clients and sponsors, public relations leaders today must put effort into ensuring they pursue experiences and build communities that provide multiple points of view on engagement priorities and strategies for their organizations.

Watch the full video from The Plank Center below:

Alan VanderMolen is vice chairman, DJE Holdings, president and CEO, global practices.

  • Karla Gower

    You’ve hit on four key points for today’s practice, Alan. We were just discussing some of these ideas yesterday in my class, although not as artfully. I especially like your idea of inclusiveness and transparency and the need to lead from the front of the organization. Thank you for doing the video.

  • Marilynn

    Great blog and really provocative video, Alan. Especially love your explanation of the changes we’re seeing in traditional media and why that catapults the PR discipline into a true position of leadership that simply can’t be matched by advertising or marketing. As someone who has been in this business for more than 30 years, I’ve loved seeing the transition over time. I agree with you – there has never been a better time to be in the PR business!

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