When the spotty youth gets to the CEO: the importance of leadership in PR

Over an intensive three days at the beginning of April, ten aspiring PR leaders led by Professor Ann Gregory and Chris Tucker explored what skills and attributes we need to develop as modern communicators and to become trusted advisors to our CEOs. It was our first Leadership Programme for Communicators.

Among them was Jenny Caven, PR and Public Affairs Manager at Slimming World.  I asked Jenny to share her reflections on the role of leadership in communication and Public Relations……

Jenny Caven, PR and Public Affairs Manager at Slimming World who joined our first Leadership Programme

Jenny Caven, PR and Public Affairs Manager at Slimming World who joined our first Leadership Programme

“This is a most exciting time for PR professionals. Organisations need our skills in negotiating and communicating with multiple stakeholder groups and our ability to get to the nub of an issue and engage people on an emotional level.

But we can’t afford to be complacent. As communicators we risk losing our place if we don’t develop a depth of understanding of the context in which we operate and our organisations’ position in the world. We need to be able to offer advice and counsel in how to navigate through issues and challenges while remaining true to organisational culture and values. Increasingly we are under pressure to show return on investment in our activity and articulate communications as a business asset.

As communicators we need to develop a number of key attributes if we are going to step up and be taken notice of – to be seen as leaders in our own right and develop our role as trusted advisors within our organisation.

We need to develop awareness and understanding of the big issues that are driving global economics and politics and ask the questions that business leaders naturally ask. What are the big debates and discussions at Davos this year? What are the biggest global challenges occupying the World Economic Forum? What were the big ideas to come out of SXSW? We need to inform ourselves and understand these issues so that we can anticipate the impact they will have on the businesses and industries in which we operate.

Being able to describe our organisations’ values and character is essential. Where an organisation isn’t clear about its values and culture as communicators we must influence and work to develop organisational authenticity. The gap between perception and reality is closing and organisations that don’t live up to their promises risk being outed by the ‘spotty youth’ posting a comment on social media often on the other side of the planet. We need not only to understand our organisation’s reputation but how to protect and defend its integrity when it comes under threat. As effective PR leaders we need to be able to analyse and predict external conditions and provide sound advice to guide our organisations and CEOs.

We need to anticipate the consequences of communications and the impact that a course of action will have on stakeholders and how they may respond. This is not something that is new to most PR practice, but we need to be prepared to be the lonely voice in the room if necessary. That is not to say that we need to always be the Cassandras or prophets of doom, but that we need to understand the impact that a course of action may have on diverse stakeholder groups and be prepared to point out inherent risks.

To survive, thrive and live up to our potential as leaders, PR people need to develop a better understanding of the process of business and learn to speak the language of business too. It’s no longer the physical and financial assets of an organisation that alone determine value, but the regard in which it is held, ‘intangible value’ measured through a combination of factors including brand relationships and reputation. This means being able to demonstrate how PR contributes and becoming much more corporate in our approach — extracting ourselves from the practical and tactical and demonstrate strategic strengths.

As PR leaders developing relationships is the job description. And the most important relationship to develop is that with our CEOs. We need to understand what drives and motivates him or her and those that surround them. What are the issues that keep them awake at night and how can we develop the contextual intelligence that enable us to be problem solvers? What is the legacy that the CEO wants to leave behind and how can we help them to be the celebrity persona among stakeholders that helps them to achieve success?

PR is all about people and relationships. It is the art of the intangible, the emotional, the personal and being able to find, weave and tell great stories about people and organisations. As PR leaders we are best placed to be able to plan strategic communications to share the values, culture and character of an organisation and work alongside the CEO to show where the organisation fits into a changing world, sharing its authenticity and integrity and building reputation.

Reflecting on the Leadership for Communicators course to a colleague I realised that like a good book or a good movie, I kept going back to it and remembering a new detail or reflecting on some new aspect. I’m determined not to file the notes away and put the course behind me, but to step up to leadership and demonstrate a more strategic approach.”

Thanks Jenny !  Would also recommend Anne Gregory and Paul Willis’s book on this topic: Strategic Public Relations Leadership

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Learn more about Jenny….

Jenny joined Slimming World in 2006 and has been responsible for consumer and health PR and Public Affairs activity during a time of phenomenal growth and recognition for the weight loss organisation. Her focus has been working in collaboration with partners to establish Slimming World’s reputation, building trust, engaging communities and ensuring that the company culture is at the heart of all activity. Prior to Slimming World Jenny worked as a freelance communications adviser with clients such as Jobcentre Plus and A4e and local businesses in Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Before moving to the UK in 2001, Jenny was a senior copywriter at Barker McCormac Advertising, an Ogilvy & Mather associated agency in Harare, Zimbabwe working on campaigns for Shell, Johnson & Johnson, Kiwi Shoe Polish and Bata shoes. She’s also worked for Frameworks, a London corporate communications consultancy and edited the Southwark Sparrow a local authority weekly newspaper.

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  1. Great post – I completly agree with you that it’s a PRs responsibility to understand the language of the business/organisation/industry you operate in. How else can you effectively navigate, and importantly ensure that PR is taken seriously at board level?

    That’s a fantastic way to approach it by thinking about ‘what keeps the CEO up at night?’, becoming a go-to function for problem solving.

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