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Do fearless leaders require fearless PR?

7th December 2016


It is not always, or even that often, that nice guys get to the top (do we need to repeat the name Donald Trump?), which means that PR people have to deal with, and advise, difficult leaders. We ask why bullies succeed in becoming leaders, and how PROs should approach people who think they are always right.

The fact that bullies become leaders is an uncomfortable truth, but one that PR people have to accept and find ways of dealing with. Gavin Devine, CEO at agency Newgate Communications, says: “Many have been troubled by Donald Trump’s ascent to the top. Amongst them comms directors – he is, after all, living embodiment of the merits of letting super-confident leaders speak for themselves, freed from the shackles of over-cautious professional communicators. And with chief executives in business as well as in politics, increasingly discovering the joys of Twitter and Facebook, how can they ever be kept under control?”

Bullies do listen sometimes

Although it might seem common sense to think that such leaders are difficult to advise, this isn’t actually borne out by experience. Devine explains: “The industry’s fear of a domineering chief who won’t take comms advice is longstanding. Fortunately, the reality differs from the perception. Recent research by recruitment firm VMA Group supported by Newgate, showed that in fact CEOs crave more from their comms chiefs, not less. They understand the vital importance of corporate reputation, and want help to burnish it. Anyway, the claim that Trump doesn't listen to advice on his comms is absurd: Jared Kushner ran a far more disciplined campaign for him than that.”

In any case, Devine points out that it isn’t the job of comms people to think they should tell leaders what to do: “It is for leaders to lead, for better or worse. The CEO or the prime minister may choose ‎to ignore the adviser, but they have to take the rap. That's why comms directors should never position themselves as guardians of the brand or of the company's reputation: that buck stops at the top. We are advisers and consiglieri, not the ultimate boss. Put another way, we should be happy to be Tom Hagen, the lawyer in the film Godfather, not Don Vito, the mafia boss.”

How to offer support

PR professionals might not be able to boss leaders about, but they are still often the people leaders like to lean on, especially when times are tough. Claire Walker, CEO of agency Firefly Communications says: “One thing is certain for all captains of industry – they have good and bad days just like the rest of us, and who can they turn to? Very often it’s their external PR advisor who can double up as a confidante and personal motivational coach.”

Guiding leaders is a responsible position, one that needs a thoughtful response. Walker offers this advice: “With people in powerful positions you must assess their personality type quickly and how this may change depending on their mood, surrounding pressure and stress levels. Listen carefully to their choice of words; pay attention to how they react to a variety of situations; find out what bugbears have previously ‘tipped them over the edge’.”

Never be afraid

Handling prickly characters involves wearing kid gloves, but also demands a steely resolve. “When dealing with particularly aggressive and challenging individuals, you need to assert yourself rather than cower – sometimes you need to stand up, eyeball and match. With these domineering types, you are constantly challenged and tested. Pick your battles carefully. We all have a ‘walk away’ point of resistance, and decide for yourself what yours is.

“There are times when any leader needs to assert power, which under intense pressure can be a relentless unleashing of forceful rhetoric – but difficult times call for difficult measures and until situations improve, the CEO is the person with their neck on the block.” It is at such times that Walker says you must be brave and true, “Speak up, be succinct. Present the CEO with predicted outcomes, based on past form, facts and details. Always apply logic and reason – and if you experience some ‘post-truth’ emotional outbursts, stay on the high ground and hold firm on the impact to the organisation. If you have conflicting views, remember who calls the shots. The CEO does. If the CEO’s way fails (and you don’t get fired for the CEO’s bad decision), ask if next time you can do it a different way. Don’t say ‘my way’ or ‘your way’.”

Looking at why leaders act the way they do, Walker quotes Einstein’s theory that fear and greed drive human behaviour (stupidity being the other one!). She concludes, however. that PROs have to rise above such drivers and remain calm, cool, collected and above all, positive: “What will inspire and motivate the workforce, keep clients loyal, stoke the share price and convince the stakeholders you’re a winner? Positive reinforcement will drive any organisation to repeat success, restore confidence and achieve ambitions, and reward and recognition will always win over fear, greed or punishment.”

Being decisive is not always good

Rod Cartwright, partner at PR firm Ketchum, describes why being too decisive can be a bad thing for leaders and why it is up to PROs to tell them this sometimes:

“Even the best leadership qualities are a little like daily fillet steak for even the most avid carnivore – you can still have too much of a good thing and will eventually crave a more balanced diet.

“There is no question that decisiveness and robustness are key attributes of any leader. Indeed, ‘taking tough decisions’ has consistently been viewed globally as a key leadership attribute in our annual Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor (KLCM) study. However, with ‘admitting mistakes’ and ;leading by example’ also ranking consistently in the KLCM top-five attributes, there are very real risks in making domineering decisiveness the sole staple in your leadership diet.

“Ignoring this simple truth and failing to provide balanced leadership will, more often than not, ultimately see the overly domineering leader lose the followers on which they actually depend. But this notion of balance is also a key tool for the communications counsellor in managing a leader intent on serving up a diet too rich in decisiveness.

“As PR advisors, we naturally need to be willing to listen fearlessly. However, there also comes a time when our advice needs to be just as fearless. And in providing that advice, reminding leaders that excessively decisive leadership is like fillet steak can go a long way.”


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