January 2, 2014
For years, PR professionals have discussed having the proverbial “seat at the table” along with senior management. As Joseph E. Cohen, APR, sees it, that goal isn’t good enough anymore. “Now, it is about having a lead seat,” he says.
This year, Cohen will be leading PRSA as its chair. To him, PRSA’s new Strategic Plan for 2014-2016 reflects this thinking and is a natural progression in the PR profession’s evolution.
Cohen is a senior vice president at MWW, one of the top-10 global independent PR firms. As a member of the leadership team of MWW’s consumer marketing practice, he has helped establish best practices while guiding communications, integrated marketing and digital/social media strategy for such major brands and organizations as Sara Lee, Gold’s Gym International and 1-800-FLOWERS.COM.
Since joining MWW in 1999, Cohen has risen to become a leader at MWW. He was recently honored at the PR News PR People Awards as “PR Team Leader of the Year.”
In the following interview, Cohen discusses moving into his new leadership role at PRSA, as well as details on the Society’s 2014–2016 Strategic Plan.
You unveiled PRSA’s 2014-2016 Strategic Plan during the annual Assembly prior to the 2013 PRSA International Conference in Philadelphia. How is the plan in-step with PRSA’s ongoing evolution?
The focus of the new Strategic Plan is directly in-step with PRSA’s ongoing evolution. Every three years, PRSA revisits its Strategic Plan and reevaluates the mission, vision and principles that guide our organization. And while our values and priorities remain steadfast — the emphasis that we place on ethics, diversity, fostering communities and advancing excellence within the profession — the environment surrounding us can change.
To put it mildly, the environment has changed quite a bit since 2010.
As we’ve all experienced, the roles and expectations for the PR function have shifted significantly over the past three years. Social media has revolutionized the media and business landscape, blurring the lines between what had been considered advertising, marketing and public relations, and softening the separation between editorial and brand/citizen-generated content.
The public has a more powerful voice, news travels faster than ever before, and greater transparency is expected from brands and organizations. Organizational reputation has never been harder to build and protect, and we continue to see that the reputation of once-venerable brands can be tarnished in an instant.
A key theme in the plan is the opportunity for public relations to serve as a lead strategic discipline. The opportunity to do so has never been greater.
For years, we have advocated for public relations to “get a seat at the table.” Now, it’s no longer good enough to just be at the table; it’s about being a leader in driving the strategic decision-making process.
What are the top challenges facing PRSA in 2014? What opportunities do those present?
A core challenge, that is also an enormous opportunity, is to build and maintain relevance in an environment that is in a near-constant state of change.
In the three short years since our last Strategic Plan, the needs of our members have changed significantly — and they will likely continue to do so. PRSA remains under the constant challenge of evolving our programs and services to deliver value to our members.
If we continue to do so effectively, then it will create tremendous opportunities for our members and the profession itself.
You speak with many PRSA members. What are the issues that you hear concerning the profession?
Social media has helped level the playing field between the disciplines, and PR professionals are now increasingly finding themselves wearing multiple hats and assuming duties that they never held before.
This is both a challenge and an opportunity. As such, we are enhancing our offerings to place an increased focus on areas such as integrated marketing, data and analytics, and corporate strategy — areas where our members need additional resources and that are becoming necessary competencies for communications professionals.
What initially inspired you to volunteer for PRSA, and what has kept you motivated through the years?
I was fortunate to have a great boss in MWW CEO Michael Kempner, who encouraged and supported my interest in PRSA, as well as a great PRSA mentor in former National Chair Mike Cherenson, APR, Fellow PRSA, who actively encouraged me to become involved in the organization at the Chapter, District and eventually National level.
I am tremendously motivated by the opportunity that I see for PRSA. During the next few years, we have the chance to impact the growth of an entire profession. As many leaders said in our Strategic Plan video, “There’s never been a more exciting time for PRSA or our profession.”
We have an opportunity to make a difference. The profession needs PRSA now more than ever and the work we do can make a lasting impact for years to come.
What is the most important advice that you give new practitioners?
Earlier in my career, I received a great piece of advice from a former vice president at Sara Lee Corporation named Jim Ruehlmann, and I frequently share his wisdom when I speak with new professionals. Jim told me that when evaluating your job, look at three factors.
First, consider the actual paycheck. This is sometimes perceived as the key consideration factor for a new professional, but it shouldn’t be. It’s important to be fairly compensated, but the reality is that with an entry-level job, you start at the bottom.
The second factor is the emotional paycheck. Finding satisfaction and fulfillment in what you do is essential. You spend most of your waking hours at work, so you want to find a job that you enjoy (at least on most days). Starting off in public relations is very hard, and you should spend at least a year in the profession before you make a decision as to whether or not it is the right career for you.
Finally, make sure you are gaining experience. New professionals should ask the question, “Am I learning skills that are helping me to grow professionally, personally and ethically?” For new professionals, the opportunity to grow and learn is essential. You are forming the building blocks that will inform your career progression.
What do you consider the main values of a PRSA membership?
The learning opportunities and resources, the sense of community among our members, and the opportunity to help directly lead the growth and advancement of the profession.
Anything with chocolate
Best leadership quote?
“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he’s always doing both. ” — James A. Michener
Any 3 dinner guests, past or present?
Benjamin Franklin, Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Barkley — just to spice up the conversation
John Elsasser interviewed Joseph E. Cohen, APR, for this month’s profile.