Published on November 29, 2016, at 1:37 p.m.
by Sonny Franks.
As is the case in any field, the public relations industry has its fair share of titans. Some may even call them legends. Two such icons graced the stage at the Public Relations Student Society of America’s National Conference this year to share their wisdom with the crowd of soon-to-be young professionals during the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations’ annual Living Legends Panel.
This year’s distinguished guests were Bridget Coffing, former chief communications officer of McDonald’s Corporation, and Mike Fernandez, former corporate vice president of Cargill and new global chair of corporate and financial practice at Burson-Marsteller, accompanied by moderator and Chicago-based “yo-pro” Brian Price of Starwood Retail Partners.
The two leaders began the discussion with a particularly fitting topic: the importance of building professional relationships. Coffing and Fernandez spent years working together while Fernandez worked for Cargill, a major food supplier to McDonald’s.
“The mutual admiration society you saw up there wasn’t fake,” Fernandez said. “It was real because for a long time we had worked together on everything from recalls to new products.”
This “mutual admiration society” was not lost on the students in the audience. “It was obvious that these professionals had a personal relationship in addition to a professional one,” University of Alabama senior Brittany Ray said. “Attending the session as a future professional was encouraging because it reminded me that the strong community built within the public relations field as a student remains just as strong outside of college.”
Both leaders gave the advice that gaining and maintaining meaningful professional relationships is greater than simply communicating — advice that applies to public relations practitioners in their work and in their professional relationships. “Build sincere relationships and never burn a bridge,” Coffing said.
“My title should have been chief collaboration officer, not chief communications officer,” Coffing said, underscoring the importance of working with others no matter where you are in your career.
Coffing encouraged professionals to use lunchtime to get to know others, versus always eating at your desk. “In our industry, it’s healthy to compete by day… and by evening have a sandwich together. Build relationships and networks that matter, and make the industry better for everyone’s collective benefit,” she said.
Diversity in the field:
The legends then moved on to a topic important to them and to the Plank Center: diversity in the field.
“Ethnic minorities make up 6.5 percent of leadership in the public relations industry today,” Fernandez said. “Meanwhile, in the U.S. those populations account for more than a third of the total population. If we continue with that same rate of progress that we have since I became a chief communications officer for the first time 20 years ago, it’s going to take us another 30 years for leadership ranks to mirror the percentages in the general population today.”
“Millennials are more than 44 percent diverse,” Fernandez said, commenting on the importance of diversity to the young professional. “We’ve made changes numerically, but it is not enough.”
“We have research to support the fact that more diverse groups produce more creative solutions,” Fernandez said, making the argument that “diverse talent must be engaged in some of the company’s most precious work — they need to know they’re not just window dressing.”
As a woman in the C-suite, Coffing is hopeful for the future of women in the field.
“There has never been more opportunity in general for women — the opportunity to work with and for each other and to put our hands back and our hands forward,” she said, while still noting that things were not always perfectly fair in her career.
“There were times when I had to fight a little harder, times when I had to express myself a little bit more,” Coffing said. “As women, we have to find our voice and articulate what we are thinking and not expect people to read our minds. That was harder for me.”
For Coffing it comes down to aspiring for herself what her male colleagues aspired for themselves, — a fact she pointed out to her male boss and counterparts.
“What I want for myself and my family is no less than what you want for yours,” Coffing recalled saying. “Why would I look at myself as if I would aspire to something less?”
Despite knowing she wanted the best for herself, when the time came for her to consider the CCO position at McDonald’s (a role she was holding in the interim while the company searched for a long-term replacement), she paused.
It wasn’t until a senior-level woman at the company whom she did not know that well asked her to coffee and convinced her to push for the role.
“She said, ‘the reality is that you are as capable and experienced as anyone they could get. You simply need to know that and go after it confidently. Communicate your desire, capabilities and talents and be willing to roll your sleeves up,’ Coffing said of her adviser. “I just remember looking at her and thinking, ‘what a great gift.’ We never called it mentoring, but if that isn’t mentoring I don’t know what is.”
Coffing also addressed the issues implicit in work-life balance for many women. At the panel, she recounted once telling a supervisor that “being a mom trumps my job, but I am a professional and I will get the job done,” eliciting applause and cheers from the female-dominated crowd of students.
While the two legends focused on different areas of diversity, they came back to the same conclusion.
“Collaboration is key and when it comes to collaboration, more is more,” Coffing said. “A diverse table shows that the sum is much greater than the parts.”
“To be truth-sayers … that is our job,” Coffing said, summing up the best and most difficult part of being a public relations practitioner.
Fernandez echoed her simple sentiment. “To do well, you’re going to have to speak truth to power,” Fernandez said, especially when serving as an adviser to senior leaders in the company.
Fernandez emphasized how crucial it is for communications professionals to have the ability to partake in business discussions. “The real test” for PR professionals is that they “engage and solve real business problems,” he said.
The legends discussed the path to leadership — a path filled with highs and lows. Their suggestion? Celebrate your successes on the same level you suffer your failures.
“You can’t drive a car easily by looking in the rearview mirror,” Fernandez said. “Ask yourself, ‘What did I learn?’ Then move on. To do well, the great joy has to be in doing, not winning the prize.”
“It’s not what happened,” Coffing said. “It’s what you do with that and where you go from there.”
The two went on to explain that it is not what failures one faces that define them as a leader, but instead how they handle them.
“Often how we respond is how our fate is sealed,” Fernandez said.
Coffing gave the students candid advice about leadership and the hard work it takes to get there. “People say ‘oh, this is hard.’ Well, that’s why they call it work,” Coffing said. “If you ever use the words, ’that’s not fair’ strike it from your nomenclature.”
Coffing expressed her belief that it is about responsibility and accountability, not strictly fairness. “Fairness is pretty subjective, and while everything doesn’t always feel exactly fair, that’s okay, because that’s also life,” the leader said. “You just have to get back in the game.”