March 5, 2010
Michael L. Herman, APR, Fellow PRSA, chairman and CEO of Communication Sciences International, received the 2009 Gold Anvil Award during the PRSA 2009 International Conference in San Diego.
The Gold Anvil for lifetime career achievement, first awarded in 1948, is the Society’s highest individual honor.
Herman is recognized as one of the profession’s leading practitioners, mentors and champions. He personifies the leadership qualities and reflects the values that PR professionals seek to communicate in their work.
The Strategist asked Roy Vaughn, APR, director of communication for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and the 2007 chair of the Counselors Academy, to interview Herman. Excerpts from that conversation follow:
You started your PR career in 1970. What changes have you seen since then?
Public relations was looked at as more of an art than a science. PR programs at the university level were kind of the stepchildren of the journalism schools. The United States as a whole, and certainly the business community, was very insular with regard to the world beyond our borders. There has been quite an evolution since then, or maybe I should say a number of mini revolutions.
When we talk about the evolution of our profession, too often we view it through the same perspective that young people use when they talk about history, which is to say we personalize it and force it through the prism of our own experiences without studying the broader scope . . . the overall changes in the world around us over time.
Those who came before us had one thing that is quickly disappearing: an uneducated — or maybe less-educated — public and, more important, control of the message and the distribution channels.
Whether it was the invention and acceptance of the printing press, newspapers and magazines, the telephone, radio, television or the Internet and social media, these mini revolutions have consistently taken away that control. Such changes also place demands on PR counselors and communication professionals to add to their knowledge base, to learn to use new tools, techniques, methods and means. But we shouldn’t forget that our primary job remains the same: to build relationships and to understand and manage the changes that are the foundation of our continually evolving society.
What can PR professionals do to continue to underscore the strategic importance of public relations at the management level?
To be counselors to management and to be respected by other disciplines, we must understand the world in which we operate, to speak the language of business, to understand the demands that our co-workers experience in their jobs and their lives and effectively provide creative solutions to the challenges we all face.
We define ourselves as communications professionals or media relations experts or PR people, and then we are surprised when we are looked at as message deliverers — usually called in after the decisions have been made.
Even now, we spend unconscionable amounts of time in sessions learning about social media, Twitter, Facebook and other tactical delivery tools. And while it is important to learn about these things, we must remember that, for the most part, they are just that: tactical tools for message delivery.
We must help senior management understand that change will come to every organization in its time. That time is upon us now, whether in the theater of changing media, or the need for organizations to truly understand the changing environments in which they must operate. We must raise the bar of our professionalism and change the perception of what we do and who we are and what we can bring to the organization. Our future demands that we expand our horizons.
“How can we do that?” The answer is simple — by doing it. We have to think, plan and act — not just react. We must think strategically instead of tactically. We must become futurists, anticipating and envisioning courses for our organizations and clients based on a thorough understanding of business plans, financial realities and a changing reality in our surrounding political, regulatory, legal and social environments.
To become change agents, we have to be able to provide the tools and strategies that can help our organizations and clients manage and control those changes, not just communicate the approach and impact of these forces and changes after they happen.
If we do not make ourselves the owners of change within our organizations, then we will find ourselves outside looking in as the changes are taking place and others decide the future.
What challenges do you see in being a leader of this change in perception, and how do you define leadership?
Our organizations, institutions and businesses, here in the U.S. and around the world, are at a crossroads. The environment in which we must grow and prosper is defined by cynicism, mistrust and even disgust on the part of the public. This cynicism is primarily the result of our actions and those of our peers in business, government and even nonprofits. It is causing increasing factionalism and division . . . on the part of the young people from which the next generation of both PR and business leaders must come, about whether it’s even worth the effort.
Clearly this is not a sustainable situation for business or, for that matter, our society and our profession. What’s clear is that we have a responsibility to change this perception by demonstrating effective leadership.
Effective leaders must create an emotional, not an intellectual, bond with those they wish to lead. A true leader has to exhibit tangible and measurable skills and talents, including an ability to get to know people and genuinely care about them.
I believe that true leaders have an inherent need and a self-imposed responsibility to mentor. They are defined by those who trust their judgment, seek their counsel and listen and follow through on their ideas.
To be true leaders, we must have a vision of the ideas and ideals for which we have a passion. We must share that vision with others in a way that builds strong relationships that transcend petty politics, divisive actions and personal aggrandizement.
We must lead, not by consensus, but rather by conviction, and we must be mindful that our job is to lead public opinion, not follow it. The mass mind is virtually never as clear, concise and visionary as that of one who thinks deeply and sees clearly. We have a big job ahead of us, because it seems that today, everyone makes decisions based on the latest public opinion poll.
How can PR professionals create a better understanding of what we do within our organizations and with our clients, especially in the C-suite?
I mentioned earlier that we must be strategic, and we must act rather than react. A big portion of our job is education. A great segment of corporate and organization managers go through their entire education, especially in business and engineering schools, never learning or appreciating what public relations is . . . let alone what it does.
We consistently see senior-level managers who still think that public relations is “free advertising” or the ability to “get our name in the media.” I usually tell clients that it’s no problem getting your name in the media — just do something stupid or wrong. I’m still amazed at the number of people in our profession who see their job as pitching stories.
We must be able to help others understand that public relations is really about creating mutually beneficial and respectful relationships with those whom the organization is dependent upon for a good reputation and overall success. It may be employees, suppliers, customers, regulators, or even the neighbors in the communities in which we operate, but there are myriad audiences that must be nurtured and educated. To communicate effectively with those audiences, we must understand their attitudes, their knowledge base and, most important, their motivation.
In helping organizations deal with change, we must think ahead, continually educate ourselves and plan for what might be.
CEOs can be educated on the importance of having a chief communication officer. CEOs need to be shown how all communication functions — marketing, advertising and other groups that change management depends on — can work better as a single entity and positively affect productivity, reputation and return on investment.
However, [the ability to affect] such education depends on being knowledgeable and capable of speaking the language of business and management, and being able to show the facts and figures to substantiate our claims.
Speaking of education, you’ve spent many years teaching at the university level and often talk with PRSSA students. What’s your impression of the next generation of PR professionals?
The students today are so much more sophisticated than even those I taught 20 years ago. They are enthusiastic, hungry for knowledge and ready to conquer the world. They are extremely competent in their knowledge of electronic and social media, at least from a tactical standpoint, and they have high expectations for their future. All of this is good for the profession. I attribute a lot of this to the ongoing efforts of the schools to obtain accreditation for the PR sequences and the dedication of the faculty to upgrading their curricula.
The one thing that remains constant is the need for improved writing skills and a broader understanding of public relations in a changing society. There is also a lack of language skills other than English, and even there, I keep hearing from the professors about their frustration concerning the lack of solid writing skills on the part of students. They also point out that the lack of knowledge of the English language — grammar, punctuation and spelling is being further deteriorated by the “shorthand” that texting seems to engender.
The need for basic skills never changes. You have to have a broad knowledge of the world, be well-read and have a global perspective and knowledge of the world. You have to be a constant reader . . . because if you don’t read, you can’t write, and it’s imperative to write well.
What’s next for you?
I’ve always said I’d rather wear out than rust out. I still find each day to be a new opportunity, and I believe that for all that the profession has given me, I’m still not quite through trying to champion the changes that I believe can continue to help us grow and prosper.
Michael L. Herman, APR, Fellow PRSA, has served as CEO of the Herman Group and Epley Associates Public Relations, and as executive chairman of the Catevo Group, Inc., as well as CEO of Catevo Middle East in Dubai.
He held various management positions for the Insurance Information Institute in New York City and was the assistant director for the National Driving Center, a medical research facility associated with Duke University. He worked for eight years in various management positions at Union Carbide Corporation in New York City and was a member of Union Carbide’s communication crisis management team during the Bhopal industrial accident.
Herman has been active in the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) and the Society of Professional Journalists. He was chair of PRSA’s Counselors Academy in 2004, co-chair of PRSA’s Accreditation Promotion Task Force and is a member and 2009 chair of PRSA’s College of Fellows.
A member of the PR faculty at N.C. State University’s School of Communication from 1986 to 2000, he currently serves as adjunct professor of communication and change management at Illinois State University. He holds a B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in public relations from the University of Oklahoma as well as post-graduate certificates from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University.