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Insider Interview: With Patrick Ford

April 12, 2017

In this month’s Insider Interview, we speak with Patrick Ford, the worldwide vice chair and chief client officer at the Washington, D.C. office of Burson-Marsteller. Ford began his current role with B-M in 2012, following six years of driving extraordinary growth in North America as Burson’s regional president and CEO. He also served as chair of the firm’s Asia-Pacific region for nearly three years (2012-2015). Before joining B-M, he served as vice president for external affairs at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, one of America’s leading policy think tanks, located in Washington, D.C.

PRSA-NCC Insider: What are some key aspects that helped you climb the PR industry ladder?

PF: Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to set an example for integrity and commitment to shared results with colleagues, clients and others in the field. The most important factor in achieving real success is character. It’s all about how best to achieve solutions for problems without thinking about who gets the credit. It’s all about team effort. It’s all about creating collaboration. Then you will develop the magic that comes from combining various skills, insights and ideas. No PR department or agency is about one person. 

PRSA-NCC Insider: Describe your executive management style.

PF: When you think about executive management, you’re really talking about a combination of leadership and management. I like to refer to (management consultant, educator and author) Peter Drucker who said, “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.”

Rather than tell people what to do or think of them as just part of a machine, I’ve tried to make sure everyone understands the mission and how we define success—that we’re thinking creatively and strategically about how to achieve that success. With that in mind, when we’re charging forward, you want people who will want to follow you up the hill. If you can create that kind of work environment, the sky’s the limit about what you can achieve.

What we as PR professionals need to do for the success of our company, organization or clients requires a certain degree of dedication or sacrifice. We’ve all worked through difficult evenings, weekends or vacations because the needs existed. When you’re trying to achieve the best results, it really matters if people feel motivated to do that.

I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. I wouldn’t ask anyone to take a risk I wouldn’t take myself. Sometimes I say it out loud. With any team that’s working for me, I dare any member of the team to work harder than I do, care more about the work than I do, or care more about each other than I do. I’d be delighted if someone does but I think it’s going to be pretty hard. I feel that way every single day when I come to work.  

PRSA-NCC Insider: Whether they’re in the PR field or not, who are one or two of your mentors? 

PF: One is Harold Burson. I’ve known Harold for more than 30 years and I’ve worked with him for 28 years. Not just in terms of how to be a better PR practitioner but how to be a better man and how to bring out the best in everyone around me. I can’t think of a more special mentor in my life. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity for all these years to work side-by-side with Harold and learn from him. I continue to learn from him.

The great thing about excellent mentor relationships is that there should be a feeling of a two-way street. Harold is 96 years old and still comes to the office. He’s still inquisitive and eager to learn. If he was on this call, he’d say, “You should never stop trying to learn.” From a professional sense, he has been my most important mentor.

Another person who I think about all the time is my late sister who died a couple of years ago. She was a nun who devoted her life to education and an organization that feeds, clothes and houses the poor, elderly and homeless, called SOME (So Others Might Eat). My sister was an inspiration in so many different ways. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from her early days to her final days about how to be a good person and a good leader.

At about the time when she knew she was terminally ill, she sat down and wrote a letter to God. Among other things, she said, “Lord, I’ve always tried to practice the ministry of presence. Wherever I was, I was there completely. Whatever I did, I gave it my all.” If everybody just follows that advice—be focused and be present—the result will amaze and delight them.

In my talks to young professionals, I tell them we’re living in a world full of distractions: TV screens with scrolling messages, computer screens with things popping up and so on. It’s more of a challenge than ever but it’s as important as ever to be in the moment. Think about what you’re dealing with. Listen to the person you’re talking to. Absorb the meaning of the exchange you’re having with that person. You will be infinitely more valuable as a PR counselor but also as a friend, mentor or colleague.

In so many years of dealing with hundreds of C-suite executives, how many times do you think I’ve seen them pull out their iPhones, stare at email or look at phone messages? It’s almost zero. In any given day there are literally thousands of things that can justifiably call on your attention. If you’re a CEO of a major company, there are hundreds or thousands of things that would justifiably use your time on that day. You need to be selective and be confident in the decisions you make about x number of things you’re going to focus on that day.

If I decide to give half an hour to mentor a student, I’m going to be present with that student for half an hour. If I’m not going to be there, I should’ve chose to spend that time doing something else. Our time and attention is a precious resource, more precious than money. There are only 24 hours in a day. We can always find ways to make money. There is only so much of your time you’re going to be able to put into something. Make the right choices. Once you’ve made those decisions, have the confidence to stand by them. 

PRSA-NCC Insider: In addition to what we just discussed, what other kinds of advice would you give to junior-level PR practitioners? 

PF: In an era where the video landscape has increasingly grown into short form, in an era where 140-character messages have become more and more important, it’s easy to fall into a trap that improving one’s writing skills is not as important as it use to be. Don’t fall into that trap. Just because something is in shorter form doesn’t mean that it requires less effective writing. We as communicators need to continue to focus on developing our writing skills.

Second, I often advise young professionals to learn more about business and finance with respect to companies, clients and organizations. Being an effective PR professional and trusted advisor for C-Suite executives, brand executives and so on is not just about knowing which media organization to contact or how to create a website, etc.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many of the top communications officers of all time about key factors in their success and their ability to be part of the C-Suite. To a person, each said one of the most important, if not the most important aspect would be to understand business in general as well as understand the business of his or her company and the competitive landscape.

Look at issues through the prism of what the business goals are versus being just an advocate for a media event. I continue to remind my colleagues that we need to keep looking at the business of the clients and the broad sense of what their overall goals are, be committed to those goals and love their brands. 

PRSA-NCC Insider: No matter what aspect of the PR business you’re in, often times our success depends on our ability to tell good stories. How do you advise your colleagues in this regard? 

PF: When you think about a company’s story, or a person’s brand, it’s not just about giving a list of facts about a situation, company or person. When I think about what makes an effective story, I think about what makes a strong brand. The most important factors about building and maintaining brand strength are differentiation and relevance. What is exceptional about this? How is the story I’m telling different from the story everybody else is telling?  Why does that matter to you, your business or your family?

Great story telling is about building emotional aspects about shared values. Again, it’s not just about facts. Is has to be inspirational. What’s the emotional impact? What’s the aspiration? Where are you going? What do you, as a brand, aspire to be in the lives of your stakeholders? Ultimately it’s motivation. We’re in this engagement and I’m trying to motivate you to do something: Either buy my product, work in my company, invest in my company, etc. 

PRSA-NCC Insider: Your bio suggests that you work with a myriad of clients. How do you effectively stay abreast on so many industries at the same time? 

PF: One needs to have a boundless curiosity of various industries, cultures and people. Number 1: Be a huge reader of business news. In today’s world, we have so many different sources for that information. Twitter is an interesting aggregator for news. I follow many journalists and news organizations all through the day. I would suggest staying on top of these resources continually. 

PRSA-NCC Insider: There must be many but can you share one crowning achievement you’ve had in your career? 

PF: I don’t think of myself as having crowning achievements in this business. It’s about the team. I think of things our firm has done through the years, of which I am proud. If I had to think about some of the most important things I’ve accomplished, they would be tied to the depth and quality of relationships among clients that I’ve made throughout the years.

Equally important is the feedback I’ve gotten from colleagues. When I celebrated my 25th anniversary with our firm, Harold (Burson) sent me a special note. Here is an excerpt from that note: “I don’t know anyone in the Burson-Marsteller organization who is held in such high regard for our clients, as a caring and sharing member of the human race.” That note meant everything to me. 

PRSA-NCC Insider: Peer-to-peer engagement is one major key to success. Describe a recent conversation you had with one of your peers either inside or outside of BM. 

PF: I recently had a conversation with a colleague who holds a similar position that I do with another agency. A lot of us in this business focus on staying out in front of rapid changes in the media landscape, global business landscape and the global political landscape. We were agreeing on a major concern we shared:  the assault on integrity of communications in many parts of our society right now.

This whole idea that one can negotiate various versions of the truth is of great concern. We, as public relations professionals, need to lead the people in our business and others we support in remembering the values summed up in principles espoused by PRSA and other PR organizations—tell the truth and back it up with facts.

Some people in our own business call us “spin doctors.” That is unfortunate and inaccurate. The truth is we need to be counted on as advocates for telling the truth. The truth will ultimately prevail. When we’re dealing with problems that occur with a company, people have tolerance for understanding that mistakes can be made. However, people have zero tolerance for being stonewalled or lied to. We in our profession need to realize that.