Public Relations and Corporate Communications executives highlighted the strategies that make them experts in leadership roles in their field. The panel featured Elaine Cummings, Founding Partner, Eastwick Communications; Tracy Eiler, VP Corporate Communications, Business Objects; Jessica Kersey, Director Marketing Communications and PR, Polycom; and Laurel Tielis, Author of The Girl's Guide to Getting On Top. The experts’ advice included qualities and skills of successful public relations professionals, discussion of agency vs. corporate roles, and advice for moving up in careers.
Qualities and skills of successful PR professionals
Elaine started the program discussing qualities of successful PR professionals: fearless, persistent while being pleasant, and flexibility. Panelists then described the messaging and media skills required.
FEARLESS, PERSISTENT, FLEXIBLE QUALITIES
Elaine defined fearless as the ability to jump in even if you don’t know what you are doing and persistence with a discussion she has with staff, “You’ve talked to that reporter and they said no. What’s the conversation after that?” In a client driven agency business, PR professionals need flexibility to shift priorities.
When being persistent, Laurel added, “Be likeable. The media is bombarded with lots of wonderful stories; they’ll go to the person they most like working with.”
MESSAGING SKILLS – DISTILL, NUANCE, BIG STORY
To compliment the qualities, a good PR professional needs messaging skills to distill, add nuance, and create the big story. Elaine and Tracy shared that a big challenge is listening to the story and distilling the message down into a story that fits into the marketplace. Tracy commented, “Many people can write 59 pages but you need to distill something to 2 sentences.”
Jessica stressed the importance of nuance. “Understand the story line, where people are coming from. Pick up on where they are buying it and not, and where they are likely to take the story. Nuance the message. Strategy is important. Really understand the market space; have a point of view from talking to customers, where the technology fits and core benefits, not features. The message becomes important. Many people don’t want to figure this out. Create the biggest story, with fact in it and interpretation.”
Panelists discussed how important it is to maintain strong relationships with key influencers in the media. PR professionals must listen to company news and then create the larger story for the media; create a good headline and pitch and interpret the story for the media.
Elaine pointed out a big mistake is not being prepared. Read about your company, the market and a reporter’s writings so that you can more effectively pitch.
Laurel says, “Follow the money.” What is motivating the end buyer? Talk to the media about why their readers care. “Think of yourself as an interpreter at the UN. Take the client story and interpret it to the media. You need to help the media write a story for their readers so you need to understand the end-user.”
Agency vs. corporate PR roles
The panelists agreed that a background in agency was beneficial to a corporate PR role. Elaine shared that in an agency, PR professionals learn fast writing, fast pitching, and managing a team. They also gain experience managing a team and become quasi-experts in a variety of technologies. In a corporate role, PR professionals can move a team forward to make things happen.
Getting to the top in PR
After discussing important qualities and skills, our panelists shared what’s needed to move up in PR careers: listening and understanding customers, being a problem solver, leading and empowering a team, becoming a trusted advisor to executives and the media, and exhibiting balance – both detail/high level and optimism/realism.
“To be a good leader, be a good listener”, explained Laurel. A PR professional must be aware of what people are thinking, what is going on in the environment, and what ideas are being discussed in order to tie their company or client news into trends. “Think fashion. It comes from Paris and the streets.”
Jessica added, “Don’t forget customer issues as you develop PR and communications. Make sure you understand what they are struggling with. What is it about our solution that is solving their issues?” Go beyond product information and look for how to bring it to the big level.
Tracy forecasts problems before they happen. “Problem solve in the organization and come forward with a solution. If we’re going to a tradeshow, I have the team think about what could go wrong and plan for these events. For example, if my CEO’s plane is late and he is the keynote speaker, what do we do?”
In moving up the career ladder, it is equally important that you be a good team leader. You must prioritize for the team what is imperative to do, when to say no, and how to manage the politics. “Everyone wants a press release,” says Tracy. “You have to match the right marketing tool to the need.” She sited an early career example doing a press release against her better judgment for opening a Minneapolis office; the media lambasted the ‘news.’ As you rise, you must let go and empower your staff to do the right things. You need to let others take care of the details and not cast too big a shadow. “I’ve learned that if I’m in a room,” Tracy commented, “My people won’t talk, so I send my team and I don’t go. Empower people and know their limits.”
COUNSEL EXECUTIVES WITH STRATEGY AND BALANCE
Elaine shared, “People who move up are very good counselors and advisors. They have confidence, temperament and strong relationships to tell CEOs what to do. You need strategic thinking and a high level ability to counsel senior executives. You need to balance mastery of details with providing high level ideas to clients.”
Jessica added an example of the balanced advisory role she takes as a PR professional with her CEO. “We are positive and passionate about the company but this may be too rah-rah/cheerleader. You want to be optimistic and upbeat but need them to pay attention to you and what you counsel. But if you only see disaster around every bend and try to caution them, then you’re seen too much as a Cassandra. And, if you are too persistent about your counsel, you’re too shrill. I currently have a perfect balance in my role with the CEO.”
This summer Kathryn Ullrich Associates, Inc. completed searches for VP Sales, Corporate Controller, and consulting roles for software and biotech companies. The firm is currently working on consulting, product marketing, operations and sales searches as follows:
- Principals and Managers, Supply Chain Operations – Leading high tech consulting firm
- Director and Managers, Life Sciences – Big four consulting firm
- Director, Product Management – Risk modeling software company
- Director, Sales and Operations Planning – Major semiconductor equipment manufacturer
- Account Executives – Call center solutions company
For more information, visit the new clients and searches pages of our web site, www.ullrichassociates.com. Kathryn Ullrich Associates, Inc. focuses on C-level, VP, Director, and Manager level hires across the functions of Product Marketing/Management, Marketing, Sales, Engineering, and Consulting for technology, professional services companies and biotech companies.
To help individuals acquire professional skills needed to reach higher job levels within marketing and sales professions, Kathryn Ullrich Associates, Inc., together with Alumni Career Services at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Highland Team, a marketing strategy consulting firm, presents Getting to the Top. This series explores the skills and knowledge successful leaders leverage in their careers to get to the top. Kathy Ullrich will be continuing this series with Stanford GSB alumni and Anderson UCLA alumni career services throughout 2007, including programs on careers in Marketing, Consulting, Private Equity, Sales and Business Development, and CEO leadership roles.
Kathy Ullrich will be moderating or speaking at the following events in Northern and Southern California:
- September 7, 2006 – Getting to the Top in Strategic Alliances and Channels, at Stanford GSB. To register, visit: http://www.acteva.com/booking.cfm?bevaid=114993
- October 21, 2006 – Career Management Workshop, at UCLA Anderson School of Business alumni weekend. More information available at: http://alumni.anderson.ucla.edu/aw/conference_schedule.aspx
- November 14, 2006 – Working with Search Firms, at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business
- November 15, 2006 – Getting to the Top in Marketing, at UCLA Anderson School of Business