Bob Leaf on the past, present and future of PR

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Robert Leaf, 'The art of perception'
Robert Leaf, 'The art of perception'

An article by Dina Tomas 

A couple of weeks ago I met Bob Leaf, the international PR legend, who delivered a guest lecture at the University of Worcester. What I learnt from him is that the present and future of PR is all about perception management.

With fantastic presence, a warm smile on his face and a range of anecdotes related to his life in communications, he charmed everyone in the lecture theatre.

The PR veteran started his career in New York as the first Burson-Marsteller trainee over 50 years ago.

Since then the industry has been dramatically changed, as he said “mainly for the better”.

Male or female domination

One of the first changes in the industry is the shift from male to female domination. Nowadays, 75% of PR students, the future communications leaders, are females.

However, the top UK agencies are still mainly managed by men.

Society’s attitude

According to Leaf, society’s attitude towards public relations is improving slowly but steadily.

Back in the days when he started his career, whenever a graduate from a top university decided to go into PR, that basically broke his friendship network. Today, it is all completely different – the best PR companies are flooded with letters from leading universities asking for placement opportunities for their brightest students.

In-house or agency

Another significant change emerged in the role of in-house communications professionals – not just the salaries, but the most important change – company leaders now realise the essential role of in-house PR. All talents used to be snapped up by consultancies – one would have never left the agency to go into corporate communications.

In today’s industry, in-house professionals are well paid, and in many cases are at the CEO’s right hand. Agencies are challenged by their customers, who demand more, know more and sometimes can execute part of the tactics on their own.

The digital revolution

“No major pitches are made to firms where digital is not a factor. Many agencies that lack digital experts on their staff bring along outside experts when making a presentation. Digital is what makes a difference to any organization today”, said Bob Leaf.

What is our, the future professionals, advantage? “The answer is very simple – you are fluent in digital communications without having a degree in it. Digital is part of your life. The more you know the better for your career”, he added.

Perception management

One of the anecdotes the veteran shared with us about his decision to work in PR. When he told his mother he was going to work in communications, her reactions was:

“What are you going to do in public relations? Is it legal? Are they going to pay you?”

At that time public relations was about managing relations with different publics. Now it is all about perceptions versus reality, said the veteran.

He continued: “What one’s perception is towards an organisation, a person, just anything, this is what his reality is. But perceptions can be changed.”

In this case what is the key to success? Talking from his experience, finding out what the perception of the audiences we try to reach, this is what will help us achieve the set objectives and goals. There are three perception interventions we can undertake:

  • If there is no perception, how do we create a favourable one?
  • If it is favourable, how do we enhance it?
  • If it is negative, how do we change it?

The future

“Public relations is becoming more sophisticated. With more qualified people entering the PR industry and more potential customers seeing the need to manage perceptions, there is only one way the PR business can go – up” he added.

He continued: “The future continues to look extremely bright. In the last year I have met so many students, including you today, and I am amazed by the quality. What you know, what you want to know and what you ask, is extremely impressive.”

At the end of his lecture, one of the questions we asked was what his career tips are. He pointed out the following:

  • Have a great CV and cover letters – no mistakes allowed
  • Think about what the employer wants and needs
  • Know what is going on around you
  • Question everything
  • Think outside the box
  • Develop skills as early as possibly

Bob Leaf’s tips and stories were truly inspirational. I have to admit he is one of the best guest speakers I have ever heard. The details of his life in PR are related in his memoirs “The Art of Perception”, a copy of which I have on my desk. I am really looking forward to reading the book now that I have met him.