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Advice from Past PRSSA Presidents

Posted At: May 14, 2008 10:12 AM
by Melissa M. Csuhran, Contributing Writer

Current PRSSA National President Melissa Csuhran talks with six past PRSSA national presidents, providing insight into their leadership and educational experiences as well as their advice to public relations students as they move from education into PR practice.

Kevin Saghy
Ketchum Public Relations, Chicago
Account Coordinator
PRSSA 2006–2007 National President
Scott Iwata
AOL, New York City
Sales Associate
PRSSA 2005–2006 National President
Jeremy Bridgman
Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, New York City
Account Supervisor
PRSSA 2003–2004 National President
Cedric L. Bess
Wolters Kluwer Corporate Legal Services
Internal Communications Manager
PRSSA 2000–2001 National President
Kathleen Schoch Ziprik
Ziprik Consulting
PRSSA 1981 National Chair
Alan D. Kelly
The Playmaker’s Standard LLC
CEO and Founder
PRSSA 1980 National Chair


What was your greatest learning experience while serving as PRSSA national president?

Saghy: “As PRSSA national president, I saw the importance of listening to the team before declaring my own opinion. A designated leader’s words can change the direction of a conversation easily, and I wanted to truly gauge my committee’s feelings before making an important group decision.”

Iwata: “Learning to manage internal and external communication channels when crisis situations occur and [knowing] the important role of ethics and honesty [in guiding] you through times of stress and uncertainty.”

Bridgman: “My greatest learning experiences came when I was working closely with the industry leaders that I admire so much. As PRSSA national president, I not only met, but also served on committees with, many of the founding and most prolific members of our profession. Their war stories and sage advice revealed to me the kind of professional and the kind of person I want to be—and in certain cases don’t want to be.”

Bess: “My greatest learning experience was the importance of time management. Serving as PRSSA national president is a full-time job. You are constantly working on multiple projects with the members of the National Committee, headquarters staff or task force members—and they are located all over the United States. Between PRSSA responsibilities (national and chapter), class and work schedules (I was working full-time during my presidency), studying and the occasional recreational activity with friends, excellent time management is key.”

Ziprik: “The time when I served as PRSSA national president was a great time of growth for the organization. It was a period when there were many small, fledgling chapters along with several larger, more coordinated chapter efforts. Meeting the various needs of all chapters, becoming exceedingly organized and juggling different personalities to achieve our goals were all tremendous learning experiences I associate with PRSSA.”

Kelly: “The national election process was by far the most educational. It required competitive research, planning, strategy, messaging, speaking, promotion and grassroots work to win. Having access to industry legends such as Pat Jackson, Frank Wylie and Harold Burson was instructive in other ways and inspiring.”

Which educational experiences provided you with the best understanding of leadership?

Saghy: “Student groups such as PRSSA. I enjoyed being part of a team, learning from my more experienced colleagues and then taking over that role when appropriate.”

Iwata: “Losing my first PRSSA election. In that time I learned that being a leader doesn’t mean you need to have a title. If you work hard, and are honestly dedicated to a cause and from your actions inspire others, you are a leader.”

Bridgman: “My undergraduate work in communication theory best prepared me because so much of leadership relies on maintaining a clear level of understanding among everyone involved. I have also taken some continuing education courses that reinforce the day-to-day work.”

Bess: “During my senior year at Florida International University, I served as an account executive in my campaigns class. This was probably the one experience that thoroughly prepared me for a career in public relations, while giving me the full understanding of what it takes to be a leader. You must to be prepared to make tough decisions. You have to step up and take on responsibility when needed. You must be a good listener. You have to trust your team to do the job you brought them on board to do. It is also imperative that you lead by example. If your team sees you going all out for them, they will be motivated to do the same for you. And above all else, you have to have fun. We laughed, we cried, we pulled all-nighters. And at the end of the semester, our team nailed the project and aced the course. But what I was most proud of was the fact that all my team members thanked me for being a great boss.”

Ziprik: “Rising up the ladder from chapter to district to national positions within PRSSA truly helped me fine-tune my leadership capabilities. Learning to listen to the needs of others at chapters (and in my internship programs) helped be become a stronger leader during my time at PRSSA. Now, in my day-to-day practices, I believe being a leader for my clients means being honest with them about communications practices and messages. Even if I take an unpopular standpoint on an issue, I know they value the insights I bring to the table.”

Kelly: “During my undergraduate career at USC, I held four internships—from speaker’s bureau director of a professional sports team, to editorial assistant of an aerospace company newsletter, to a staff PR writer at General Telephone, to an assistant account executive at Burson-Marsteller/Chicago. Each was a sink-or-swim experience that, like PRSSA, helped prepare me for my entrance into professional life.”

Please provide a story regarding your most valuable learning experience of leadership within the field through internships and/or jobs.

Saghy: “It’s a hard story to tell, but my first internship was a flop. I worked for a small advertising and public relations firm after making a connection through PRSSA. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was too overconfident and eventually lost the trust of my coworkers. The result was a summer full of menial tasks and an unsatisfying internship for both myself and my employer. From that point forward, I have tried to maintain a realistic view of my capabilities and where I still need to improve.”

Iwata: “When I was relocated to New York for my previous job, I was asked to help coordinate and lead many new account managers. Even though I didn’t have a title by my name, I was the most experienced account manager and therefore had to help guide the newer employees and be their day-to-day contact for questions and explanations.”

Bridgman: “The best way I learn is to take on assignments that I’ve never done before. When I’d never before prepared a PR plan or developed a pitch, it forced me to interact with others and learn from their successes and mistakes.”

Bess: “During my 10+ years in the public relations industry, I have had the pleasure of working with some phenomenal leaders. I have also had the opportunity to work with individuals who didn’t handle their leadership roles very well. Yelling at and embarrassing a colleague or employee never resolves a problem. A leader cannot expect their employees to go above and beyond when they themselves constantly slack off and do not respect deadlines. So while I have learned many things from my mentors and other accomplished professionals throughout my career, what sticks with me the most is the impact a bad leader has on people. I learn from their mishaps so that I don’t make the same mistakes in the future.”

Ziprik: “My first job out of college was working as an assistant manager of public relations at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. Unfortunately, there was a major crisis while I was employed there—a fire that resulted in the death of several teenagers. We had a media briefing and my boss told me not to make any additional statements to the media after that briefing. Well, the CBS affiliate in New York arrived at the theme park after the briefing and asked that I repeat what was said. I saw no harm in doing that at the time and told them on camera exactly what had been said at the media briefing. Unfortunately, this came across more as a one-on-one interview for CBS which positioned us badly with the other attending media. I learned the lesson that when the boss speaks, listen. He speaks from an experience and leadership basis. By not following his lead, I inadvertently ended up creating additional headaches for us on that sad day.”

Kelly: “In the early 1980s, while working in Boston, I had the chance to visit the nearby home of the legendary PR guru Edward L. Bernays. He was nearing the age of 100 but entirely lucid. He bragged mischievously of his three ages. ‘My chronological age is 95. My intellectual age is 75. And my sexual age is 55!’ As young professional men we were, naturally, transfixed. He asked me and my friends, co-workers at a local tech PR agency, about our work and encouraged us to lead the profession. It should be a licensed profession, he insisted, adding his standard line that any nut, weirdo, kook or dope can call themselves a public relations practitioner. A few years later, while preparing a speech for my boss on the state of the PR industry, I called ‘Eddy’ and asked a question that puzzled me: ‘Why is PR so repelled by the concept of competition? Isn’t PR a competitive function?’ To which he answered, ‘Young man…if I’m dealing with bread, and my bread is better than a competitor’s (bread), then I have to emphasize my strengths over the weaknesses of my competitors.’ In many circles today, Bernays is dismissed—a pioneer, maybe, a prophet, never. To me, his words are touchstones for where we’re going as much as where we’ve been.”

Please provide a piece of advice for those entering the field.

Saghy: “Choose an employer that makes you feel comfortable and appreciated. The employer/employee relationship is just that—a relationship. If you value professional development, make sure your employer does, too. Find out if the office encourages fun activities like a summer softball team, happy hours, etc. You’ll be spending a lot of time in an office from this point forward, so make sure you’re signing up with a good fit.”

Iwata: “No matter what field you get into, there are two things that you need to have with you at all times to be a success in both work and in life. Ethics and honesty. You will make mistakes; you will falter, but own up to it, learn from the mistakes and move on. Your co-workers/friends will appreciate that you own up to your mistakes and have the integrity to go the extra mile to get the job done.”

Bridgman: “Writing is the most important skill that we can provide our clients and employers, so work on your communication. Words are important; choose them wisely. Also, always carry a notebook to meetings.”

Bess: “As the late William C. Adams used to tell his public relations students at Florida International University, ‘you must be an inch deep and a mile wide.’ You should know a little bit about a lot of things. To be successful in business, you must be a lifelong student. Read as much as you can. Newspapers and magazines (online or print) are a wealth of knowledge—you can go around the world in minutes. Take advantage of professional development opportunities available to you—seminars, Webinars, workshops, etc. The more you learn the more valuable you will be to future employers.”

Ziprik: “Excel at your writing capabilities. There simply are not enough good, qualified writers available in the marketplace. You can set your career on fire right from the start if you have excellent writing talents. Have 10 people proof your resume before you print it. Even one small typo or flaw in a resume projects a bad impression, so make certain to have multiple sets of eyes examine your resume before distributing it to potential employers.”

Kelly: “Having started, run and sold an award-winning PR and research agency in Silicon Valley and having begun a new consulting firm aimed at communication strategy, I believe that PR is far less about reputation, matters of trust and media than it is about competitive advantage. No function in any marketplace, whether it is the American Heart Association, Greenpeace, Mattel, AT&T, Microsoft or NASA can sustain itself if it does not contribute to an organization’s competitive profile. While so much emphasis today is put on reputation management, relationships, trust, credibility, social responsibility, social media, etc., these things should be viewed as general means by which companies and clients advance or defend their agendas. PR is about strategy, all the time and at all levels, even the entry level pro. It is fundamentally rooted in rhetoric and, as such, must be fashioned and practiced as a persuasive, competitive function. If you cheat this idea, you’ll become bored of the practice and likely leave it. If you expand on it, you’ll define a new generation of leaders.”

E-mail: Melissa Csuhran

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