Public Relations: What It Takes to Be a Leader

Public Relations: What It Takes to Be a Leader
Photo Credit:  Jakub Jirsák | fotolia

I was recently asked to teach undergraduate students at the University of Tennessee about public relations. This new opportunity got me thinking about what the world of PR will be like when these students graduate, and what skills they’ll need to be leaders in an ever-changing field.

It’s a question that really hasn’t been explored. While there are countless leadership studies and theories, few peer into the realm of PR.

This has left a dearth of perception. A recent study by University of Alabama graduate students found that more than half of the 222 participants said they couldn’t name any national PR leaders, or felt there weren’t any. The Southern Public Relations Federation completed the same survey and Oprah Winfrey was named the most often.

This is worrisome. However, there’s hope that at least the future workers in this field know what it takes to be a leader.

Looking ahead, here are five critical qualities PR practitioners must have to be leaders—for today and tomorrow.

Master writer

The bread and butter of PR practice is communication—particularly the written word. You can’t be a leader in PR if you can’t master its core craft.

Public relations writing is an art, but not one that requires an arsenal of adjectives or perfection of prose. Rather, it requires an economy of words and a mastery of grabbing attention with fact. PR pros may be social media savants, but if they can’t effectively craft a well-written release or pitch, they can’t climb the career ladder and become a strategic leader and decision maker.

Hungry for growth

A PR leader knows that to stay ahead, he or she must keep moving. He must keep growing.

A leader is a perpetual student, seeking out continued education at every turn. They read case studies, talk to other practitioners, attend conferences, and stay up with the news. They analyze others’ strategies and aim to think outside the box.


It seems everyday a new technology is changing the way we communicate. Instead of talking face to face, we read tiny messages sent to our watches. Instead of reading letters written on paper, we are sent captioned images that instantly disappear into a virtual world.

A PR leader is not only privy to the new communication options, but also be critical of  how they will impact the messages they wish to send. They’ll know which modes are best to communicate with their audiences and which ones are simply a “shiny new toy” that’ll soon fall out of fashion.  They know what tactics will grab the most attention. For example: no longer are visuals part of the story, now they are the story.

Fast acting

Social media changed the game of PR. Things happen in real time now, which means PR leaders must act at lightning speed—or risk (potentially misinformed) others telling their story for them. They must be able to be prepared for anything, fact-find fast, and react even faster.


This increased speed of the game heightens the potential for mistakes and desperation to stay ahead of the competition. PR professionals who balk at ethics put their reputation and their businesses or clients at risk.

Leaders never lose sight of their morals, and always subscribe to the code of ethics set in place by the Public Relations Society of America.

If I decide to teach the future practitioners in our field, I hope I can impart the importance of these qualities—and maybe introduce them to a real leader or two!

Filed As:  Public Relations, leaders

About Whitney Heins

Whitney is the public relations director at WI. She started her career in communications as a TV news anchor/reporter in Virginia and Tennessee before switching to public relations. Whitney earned her bachelors in government at Georgetown University, and masters in PR from the University of Tennessee. She enjoys spending time with her family in Knoxville, TN, and running competitively.

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