In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Robert Dilenschneider, founder of The Dilenschneider Group and strategic advisor to Fortune 500 companies. Robert Dilenschneider talks about the most effective way to use public relations to benefit organizations. Robert also shared the importance of engaging the community and how to use the power of words to more clearly communicate the organization’s message. Finally, Robert Dilenschneider addressed the specific skill sets that public relations leaders need today.
-Robert Dilenschneider’s early career in public relations with Hill and Knowlton, becoming the firms CEO and eventually launching his public relations agency
-The significant changes in public relations over the years
-Robert Dilenschneider on why organizations need to take a stand on what they want to communicate
-The essential elements in engaging the community
-The struggles that organizations face in reaching potential customers
-Determining the right words for effective public relations
-How to position public relations messages for greater social media reach
-Robert Dilenschneider on the importance of prioritizing internal communications
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More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
[00:00:00] Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming. Robert Dilenschneider, Robert is the founder and principal of the Dilenschneider group, and he is also known as the Dean of American public relations executives. He is authored more than 14 books and we spend most of our time in this conversation talking about his latest book, The public relations handbook.
Robert is an advisor to many fortune 500 companies, and he also previously served as the president and CEO of Hill and Knowlton. So he really knows public relations and what it takes to be able to effectively get the organization's message out.
So I really enjoy this conversation with Robert and I'm sure you will also both enjoy it and understand better the role that public relations can play in today's environment.
I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. firstname.lastname@example.org There's also a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com, you can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast. Tuesday conversations with magnificent change makers from the greater Washington DC DMV region and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders like Robert. Now, here is my conversation with Robert Dilenschneider .
Robert Dilenschneider. Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
[00:01:40] Robert Dilenschneider: It is terrific to be on the show. The audience for this show is really topnotch audience, serious people that do serious things. So the chance to offer an opinion and help their thinking means a lot.
[00:01:52] Mahan Tavakoli: Bob. I really appreciate it. And the audience appreciates it most, especially because you have been called the Dean of public relations executives. So I can't wait to get some of your thoughts with respect to public relations, but before we get to that, we'd love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you've become.
[00:02:15] Robert Dilenschneider: I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and I went to Notre Dame. Then in 1967, when I was leaving Columbus to go to New York, on a Trailways bus, and my dad came home from work. He was running a newspaper then, and he sit that with me over at tuna fish sandwich in our breakfast room and he said, I know you're gonna be successful when you get to New York, but if there's a problem, I'm here for you, which I thought was really tremendous. It just gave me a spur to move forward, which I've been in New York with the exception of seven years in Chicago since 1967.
Great place to be. It's a little bit difficult these days because of crime, but I'm hopeful the mayor gets it together.
[00:02:59] Mahan Tavakoli: New York is a wonderful city and has been through some of its own ups and downs. But you got involved in public relations and had a successful career eventually for many years at Hill and Knowlton. What was doing public relations like for you at such a big firm rising up to the top of it.
[00:03:21] Robert Dilenschneider: Well Hill and Kwowlton had a great reputation in those days was a great firm they were getting the biggest clients and the most difficult problems. So I was attached to those problems, whether it was the Ford motor company or Johnson, or Bank of America, whoever it was, I would get attached to it.
Fortunately for me, I was able to provide some insight to solving the problem. That really helped me advance my career. They put me over groups of people. I said, when they did that, this was a mistake. They looked at me and said, what do you mean? I said, my real ability is actually doing things, not overseeing people who are gonna do things.
So they made a deal with me that I could have both my cake and eat it too, which I did. I then went out to Chicago and when I went to Chicago, there was a firm of seven people. I took it over. The seven people didn't like me. They saw me as an interloper. They gave me an office in the mail room.
That's where I worked. So in a matter of about two weeks, I moved to the best office in the company. We built it from seven people to 300 people. And we're really the great firm in Chicago. Lovely place to live. Then I was invited back to New York and of course I came, that’s what happened.
[00:04:41] Mahan Tavakoli: And then eventually what made you decide that you wanted to launch your own firm?
[00:04:49] Robert Dilenschneider: I was asked to break the law and I said to the person who asked me, I could do this and do it really well. But I said, if I broke the law, you'd have to go to jail too. I said, I don't think you should be in pin straps. I don't be in pin straps. This fellow pursued me and I said, look, why don't I just get outta your way, you do whatever you have to do, I'll start my own.
I was having lunch that day, the four seasons restaurant in New York. Lunch with August Busch. Formally Anheuser Busch and Budweiser. I said to August who had given me a contract for 3 million dollars, I said, August, I can't really take this contract. I'm leaving the firm this afternoon. I won't be there.
He said what are you doing? He explained it to him. So we went outside the four season standing in the street and we said, goodbye. I had a pretty good relationship with August.
By the time I got home, which is, I walked from 52nd street to 87th street, the phone was ringing and it was the chase Manhattan bank. It was W R grace. It was the Ford motor company. These were all people, August Busch called and said, Bob's moving to his own firm. Give you well advice to work with him. That's how I started the business.
[00:06:04] Mahan Tavakoli: That's outstanding and accredit to the relationships you had built on the value you had been bringing to all those clients. Now, one of the things you referenced, Bob is the lack of ethics. And one of the challenges sometimes with respect to public relations is the conversations around ethics. Recently a couple of months back there was an article in the Washington post about Facebook having funded an anti TikTok campaign and op-eds of people criticizing TikTok for various initiatives, some right, and some wrong.
So the question with respect to public relations is where can the lines be drawn? Is everything fair in love and war and in public relations? Or are they crossing the lines and where would those lines be?
[00:06:59] Robert Dilenschneider: It’s a great question. The bottom line is this. If the client or the organization you're working with chooses to do something that is illegal untoward, embarrassing, you say to them, there's another way to do this. And you help them find the other way to do it because their objective is to reach a point where they won't have the problem.
So you gotta help them reach that objective. Is it smart to do things that are off color? wrong? Against the law? Absolutely not. The reason it's not smart is you go to jail or your reputation is besmirch for some time to come. So you can't do that.
[00:07:41] Mahan Tavakoli: That's why for over five decades, you've had a great career in public relations. So when you reflect on public relations, what has changed most significantly over the past few decades?
[00:07:56] Robert Dilenschneider: Public relations used to be thought of as Press release operation. Get my story in the paper, get my photograph on the paper. And a lot of that is still done, but public relations has changed dramatically. How to deal with Washington, how to deal with employees, how to deal with financial community, how to address Europe, how to address the Chinese in the face of the war in Ukraine.
All these are big questions and public relations people should be able to step up and answer these questions and you might not have the total answer, but you can make a big contribution. So that's what it's all about it's gotta change even more. It's a very exciting field to be in these days.
[00:08:38] Mahan Tavakoli: It is exciting and that's why your insights are essential for this. One of the things that you mentioned is as the first step, you need to determine what you stand for and what you want to communicate. One of the things organizations have been having a lot of problems with recently is trying to determine whether they should take a stand or not and what issues they should take a stand on. So when you are advising clients and many of your clients are fortune 100 companies, and you work with them on their long term strategy and their public relations, what types of issues should organizations take a stand on? And which ones shouldn't they take a stand on with respect to their public relations.
[00:09:25] Robert Dilenschneider: Again, another interesting and important question. The owners of a public company are the shareholders. That's who owns the company. So you need to make sure you're doing what the shareholders want you to do. And so the shareholders elect the directors, that's their spokesperson at the company. So you need to ask the directors or advise them in terms of what to do.
Clearly don't wanna do anything in bad taste. Don't wanna break the law, always tell the truth. These are big issues. Sometimes people don't wanna deal with issues like this. Sometimes people don't wanna deal with anything at all, just doing nothing , and the answer to that, that's a big mistake. I remember being in Finley Ohio many years ago on the sixth floor of the marathon oil company and the CEO, and a wonderful guy, a great fellow, He'd love to have dinner run, was looking out the window, down at the main street he said to me, you see that guy down there? You see him? said, yeah. He said, that's a wall street journal reporter. I said, okay. He said, what do you think we should do? I said, let's go out and talk to him or let's invite him up here. He said, we can't do that. I said, what do you mean we can't do that? He said I'm not gonna talk to any press people. I said, will your story change? Because he's a wall street, general reporter and he sputtered for a minute. And he said no. I said, let's go down and buy him a beer, buy him a hot dog and have a conversation with him, which we did.
And it was enormously helpful. Marathon fending off a takeover by the mobile oil company. I remember one time, the CEO said to me, we gotta get people's attention here. We gotta get them on board. I said, okay.
He said, I want this Senator on staff to help us. So I went to the senator's assistant and I said, will Senator Smith do this? And he said, to speak from a flat bed truck, It's $50,000. To send a letter. It's $40,000. He gave me a list of things like that. I didn't agree to any of them. So he said, what are you gonna do? Now, what I did was I got a small kid, probably 10, 12 years old, and I got his handmade sign made. The sign said, daddy, don't let them take your job. And the kid went out and his photograph appeared all over the country, much more effective than the Senator.
[00:11:49] Mahan Tavakoli: And that goes to the power of communications and power of PR when done well, it's not just brute force it's strategy and intelligence behind it.
[00:12:00] Robert Dilenschneider: Absolutely it's every time that kid, by the way, grew up to be an Eagle scout. And I was very happy about it. I'm still in touch with him. We don't have the sign any longer, but he did a great job that morning.
[00:12:13] Mahan Tavakoli: Now for your book, Bob, you in essence, it's almost like a textbook and can be presented as such. You got a lot of great thought leaders and practitioners in public relations together to contribute to it. I wanted to touch on some of the chapters and elements that you covered in the book. One of them, is engaging the community.
Public relations is all about people. So what are best strategies for organizations trying to engage the community within their public relations?
[00:12:45] Robert Dilenschneider: First thing you should do in terms of any opportunity or problem you have is figure out who is going to be important to this. A lot of people think the whole general public is important. We have to reach everybody. I was taught by a man named Jay Pritzker many years ago in Chicago, that you really only have to reach one or two people.
He said, in this terms of the problem we have, we don't have to reach a million people. We don't have to reach a hundred people. We have to reach these two people. How do we do that? So we outlined a strategy to do it, and we did it. On another case however, there was a company that was bringing a new cereal onboard Kellogg.
Great news cereal. They said, how are we gonna do this? I said we're going to, let people in grand central terminal know that the cereal is out there. So as they get off their trains, we're gonna have people waiting with bowls of the cereal so they can try it and we'll have camera crews and the camera crews will take their shots and we'll have people have microphone.
They'll gauge reaction. That worked and virtually there were three or four days of attention to this new cereal and it helped put it on the map.
[00:13:56] Mahan Tavakoli: What you share while it sounds simple, it's one of the biggest challenges organizations and individuals have in that when they think everyone is a potential customer, we want to reach everyone. They have very little chance of reaching anyone and anyone being a customer. So clearly determining within that community who are the individuals or the few individuals you need to reach is a critical first step to many branding initiatives, marketing initiatives, and public relations.
[00:14:34] Robert Dilenschneider: It is a critical first step and there's a second part to that. One of the chapters in the book is by a man named Frank Lance. Frank is probably the best pollster in America today. Maybe the world, and Frank doesn't just count noses and say 42 percentage for this 18%. Now he doesn't do that. What Frank tells you is here are words and phrases that people who are going to be important to you listen to and are motivated by.
And to use those words and phrases, we did this recently with a client, Frank gave us four different sets of words and phrases. The client said we can't use this stuff. I said, what do you mean? They said, it's not as letteral as it should be. I said, look, this is what people who report to you believe, and they want to hear, and it is consistent with what your goals are.
So we gotta do it. They fought that for a while, about two or three weeks and their image began going south. And I said, why don't we give once a chance now their image is really quite good.
[00:15:34] Mahan Tavakoli: It's interesting, as you mentioned that, Bob it's, one of those issues and struggles that I have many times with people is convincing them that you are not your own clients and you are not in the minds of the people you're trying to reach, so stop saying this wouldn't work for me. You are not the client.
So in this instance, in the words that you mentioned with Frank Lance finding the words that work most effectively for the organization, it might not resonate with the executives of the organization, but they are not the people they're trying to reach.
[00:16:09] Robert Dilenschneider: That's exactly right. The people in the C-suite are generally not the people you're trying to reach. They have a totally different language. If you wanna reach everybody, get out in the street and figure out what they're saying.
[00:16:19] Mahan Tavakoli: And as you mentioned, in that chapter, Frank Lance mentions words matter. And you talk about words that work. So when an organization and an executive team is working with you to determine the words that are important in their public relations, what is the process to determine what are the words that work most effectively?
[00:16:41] Robert Dilenschneider: You stand in a room with a cork board behind you, and you start putting words and phrases up on that board and taking them down and it's showing how they fit together. This is a tedious exercise. A lot of people making a lot of money don't wanna deal with it, but if you do it the right way, you'll come up with the sentences and paragraphs that will work.
Then if you use those sentences and paragraphs with everybody you'll be very effective. There's the best thing that can happen in a situation like that is your opponent gets angry and decides to shoot from the hip and shoot at you or shoot at your words or phrases. You just keep repeating the words and phrases, and that'll really drag the opponent into a bad situation.
[00:17:26] Mahan Tavakoli: Those words have a lot of power. Now, one of the things that has happened over the past decade or so is the impact of social media and the evolving best practices as a result of social media. So how have you seen social media impact public relations, Bob?
[00:17:45] Robert Dilenschneider: It's huge. Everybody is on social media today. Everybody is touched by social media. This podcast will be eventually put out over social media. So it's huge. What needs to happen is in addition to social media, you need to start out with some of the really classic places that people go for information. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Atlantic, different publications. They need to take your position. Social media picks that up. It's very rare that social media can take one important problem and extend it beyond a day. They don't have that much to say.
So what you have to do is figure out how you can put stuff to say in the hands of social media and then dribble it out over time. So you get an impact, but the people driving social media generally try as hard as they can to impart facts and information, but they run out. And when they run out, sometimes they resort to hyperbole or statements that just have no basis and fact, that's the end of the day for them. So it's important to understand those things.
[00:18:58] Mahan Tavakoli: So the way I think about it Bob, and would love to get your thoughts is that you first need to have a public relations strategy. And then based on that strategy develop content that is shared through various platforms, various media outlets, and then the social media helps magnify and amplify that content, as opposed to starting out with the social media is a tool at the end of the funnel, rather than at the top of it.
[00:19:30] Robert Dilenschneider: That's exactly how I feel about it. I'm sure some people on social media won't agree with that, and some people that want a quick fix won't agree with that. But if you take the position you just described, it does work. And when it works, your problem will go away or your opportunity will be achieved.
So I've seen that happen again and again. Having said that, I do think we're just at the beginning of social media, we're gonna see some form of regulation coming outta Washington. I don't know what, but it's gonna happen. We're going to see people coming into social media that are very much like the people that came into the news business in the forties, fifties, and sixties.
These are people that really based what they did and said on hard facts. So hyperbole just statements with no purpose, it's gonna be out after a while. Right now we're going through a difficult period. We probably will for another six months or a year. But once that's done, we're all gonna have a sense of responsibility that is not there right now.
[00:20:34] Mahan Tavakoli: As we evolve and go through that, Bob, another thing that you have worked for years with organizations on is handling crisis management. So how do you guide clients in advance of a crisis to prepare for potential crisis.
[00:21:01] Robert Dilenschneider: I worked with situations where people come up with their red book. What's in this red book, they said, this is the way we deal with crisis. And I said, look, every single crisis is different. So tossed the red book aside. It's gonna mean nothing. Every single crisis is different. You have to dimensionalize the crisis. What is it? Who does it affect? What are the correct facts and information that surround the crisis?And how do you get that out there in a way to make the crisis go away.
You have to do that. Not easy to do. And in the heat of a crisis, people do strange things. And sometimes they lose it. You have to help people get back with two feet on the ground.
[00:21:39] Mahan Tavakoli: Another challenge and issue that have had listeners write to me about, and I hear from clients and other executives I interact with is the incredible noise level in the world around us. Before even we were being exposed to a lot of information now, more so than ever.
So everyone feels like it's very difficult to get anyone's attention on anything. So when you are working with clients and advising them on their public relations strategies, how do you recommend for them to get traction in a very busy world? In a very noisy world, where there are dozens of platforms with tons of content that reaches any one individual at any point in time.
[00:22:27] Robert Dilenschneider: It's a great question. It gets back to Frank Lance what you say, that's very important. Secondly, it gets back to people that are admired by other people. For example, if we were working for a major university, Which we do. And we wanted to get the students at major university all walking into the same drum.
We find that two or three people, the students relate to and have them understand the story, have them take it out to the students. If we're working with a big corporation, we find an employee or two, not necessarily the CEO, who carries the story to the entire workforce. That's the way to really get that done. Without doing that, you just are out there, shouting in the wind and it's a good way to get a sore throat.
[00:23:12] Mahan Tavakoli: I love that. That goes back to a point you made earlier, Bob, which I think is really important and wanna underline in that you narrow the focus to the few individual targets as opposed to a broad focus, you're much more likely to gain traction with a narrow focus, even on the larger group than just sending out information and passing on information to lots of people.
That's why I wanna touch on another point that you mentioned in your book. You talk about internal communications, and that is another element of public relations organizations have to internally have a public relations approach. In addition to making sure that they isolate the influencers , what are some best practices and thoughts and approaches?
[00:24:03] Robert Dilenschneider: You've gotta find a series of points that your employees can relate to. Emotional points that they can relate to and get behind. You've got to make them feel as if they don't take this position, they're just shorting the company. You gotta make them feel as if they took a different position. It would really be a mistake.
So those are the big things that have to happen. And that has to happen very early in a campaign that a company's involved in because once it's outta hand and people start talking, you got a serious problem. The grape growers in Southern California. They let it get outta hand the big grape growers, and obviously that created a tremendous union movement and almost destroyed the great business.
Thank God it didn't. I like grapes, but they didn't do that.
[00:24:53] Mahan Tavakoli: It's interesting because when we talk about public relations, typically people reflect on the outside world. However, because of many reasons, including the flattening of hierarchies, the fact that organization decision making has become much more networked rather than hierarchical.
I think that is one of the most important elements of public relations, which is how do you communicate internally and align people internally before you even worry about the public relations outside of the borders of the organization.
[00:25:27] Robert Dilenschneider: It is, because if you don't get the people internally on board, you do something outside of it and they don't like it, it's gonna be a serious problem for you. You cannot afford to do that. You have to deal with the people inside and you have to deal with people inside that have heroes inside. In every organization, I don't care if it's a company like general motors or a PIP Swed company that has 200 people, there are heroes in the employee workforce who are heroes one or the other. You've gotta convince those people of the message and get them to talk it up. Because if you try to convince everybody at the same time, it will not work.
[00:26:08] Mahan Tavakoli: Absolutely. And I love that theme that you've come back to, which is whether within the organization or in communicating outside the organization, that is a critical part of doing public relations. So as you are guiding client organizations, Bob, and you want people, the listeners to this podcast to start out having an impact on public relations how should they make sure their organization approaches public relations most effectively?
[00:26:41] Robert Dilenschneider: A great question. They have to find a way to reach out to a decision maker in the corporation. And saying here's what our organization is. They need to hear from you. They need to hear from you today. Not next week. They need to hear from you now. Can you come down and talk to us?
There's a company I'm familiar with where everyone goes to have a cup of coffee at 10 in the morning. Every day of the Workday five days a week and they had a serious problem. So all these employees are in this kind of area having their cup of coffee. And I had convinced a man, not the CEO to stand up and call attention to everybody.
And I gave them three sentences to articulate which he did and he got everybody on board. So it was pretty, pretty dramatic.
[00:27:33] Mahan Tavakoli: Bob, I know you've written many books, including this public relations handbook. In addition to this one, when. Executives are looking for ways to lead their organizations better and do a better job promoting their organization, what are some resources or practices you typically find yourself recommending to them?
[00:27:53] Robert Dilenschneider: There are executive coaches out there. There are many, there are only a few that are really good. So getting an executive coach to work with you on how you present yourself, the language you use, all those things, very important.
[00:28:09] Mahan Tavakoli: That's great advice for the audience to connect with you, find out more about your writing and your book. Where do you typically send them Bob?
[00:28:19] Robert Dilenschneider: Just go to the website. If you wanna find things out, but again, on a website, you really don't find it very much. You find what the people on the website wanna write. So you need to talk to the principal. So call the principal on the phone and have a conversation.
[00:28:32] Mahan Tavakoli: I really appreciate your book, the public relations handbook, and you taking the time to share some of your thoughts on public relations with the partnering leadership community.
Thank you so much. Robert Dilenschneider.
[00:28:46] Robert Dilenschneider: It’s great being on the air with an opinion leader like yourself. Thank you.