Leaf – the former Burson-Marsteller international CEO – celebrates 50 years in PR this year. Many of the anecdotes Leaf so entertainingly reels off over the course of three hours – the hilarious travel stories, the intriguing details about his entrepreneurial family – are off the record. ‘There won’t be space,’ he assures me, his charming manner not quite obscuring the fact that he is firmly in control of this interview.
Leaf is regularly credited with introducing the US discipline of PR to the rest of the world. It is no surprise to hear that his plans (as well as ‘staying alive – remember I’m no kiddie’), include writing a book.
Leaf joined a five-strong B-M in 1957 as the company’s first trainee. He rose up the ranks quickly, then travelled the world, opening some of the first-ever PR consultancies in countries such as China.
Leaf left B-M to set up his own consultancy a decade ago, but for the past two years he has worked from an office within B-M’s Bloomsbury headquarters. The office walls are adorned with paintings and cartoons acquired during his travels, as well as a framed certificate flagging up his listing in Who’s Who.
Although Leaf only intended to stay in London for the two-year duration of his first job there, he has spent the past 40 years in the capital. He and his wife – a guide at the V&A – live in a flat in Marble Arch and are keen theatre-goers.
In all that time, he says, ‘the only thing that hasn’t changed is my accent’. Indeed, as All About Brands CEO (and former B-M UK chief executive) Allan Biggar points out: ‘He’s been in London all these years but you see him and it’s still like he has just stepped out of New York.’
Leaf’s clients include Bob Amsterdam, the solicitor of jailed former Yukos chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and B-M, for which he advises on a range of issues, as well as imparting his wisdom to young staff as they move through the ranks.
Leaf has lived through huge changes to the PR industry over the past 50 years. ‘When I went into the business, press relations was 90 per cent of the job. Nowadays, it has moved much more towards perception management, and press relations is at a minimum,’ he says.
Leaf is optimistic about the industry’s future, and sees more and more organisations and individuals becoming involved in the discipline. He points out that within businesses, staff such as lawyers and HR consultants are being ‘message trained’.
‘A major corporate lawyer once told me that he never asks a question in court without first judging how it would look on the front page of The New York Times,’ Leaf says. ‘That is a huge change – lawyers are all thinking about the PR ramifications, knowing that they might win the case but lose the customers.’
He also believes there has been huge growth in internal comms because of the weakening of company loyalty.
‘When I started our office in Japan, we would often take care of staff funerals. Now, there is no company that won’t fire you – and there is nobody who won’t leave a company. So it is important that staff feel they appreciate the company’s mission and what the company is doing.’
Leaf also believes that consultancy life has become far tougher, partly because in-house PROs have become more sophisticated and demanding. ‘When I started, and for many years afterwards, no-one would leave a consultancy to go in-house. In-house PROs were assigned to do whatever the chairman told them to do,’ he says. Moreover, in his early career, ‘there weren’t practices like there are today – healthcare, public affairs, corporate – you hired one PR firm.
Now, firms hire three or four PR firms. And they want to know exactly what it is you plan to do, and then they want to see results.’
Thankfully, then, the biggest single change he mentions is an overall rise in quality of people entering the PR industry.
‘When I started our London operations, if you were at one of the top universities and you said you wanted to go into public relations, they would have thrown you out of the room. Nowadays, the top schools send letters to us because they believe that public relations is something with
Leaf puts much of B-M’s success down to ‘the relationships between people’ – a theme he returns to often during the interview. His personable nature has certainly earned him many fans over the years, and today, he says one of the most enjoyable parts of his role as a consultant to B-M is being on hand to advise young staff.
Industry veteran Terry Franklin, now chairman of International Public Relations Partners, describes Leaf as ‘one of the most distinguished and esteemed international PR people in the world and a brilliant mentor for young people’.
One of Leaf’s young proteges was Biggar, to whom he once gave a job. Biggar says he ‘owes his career’ to his friend. ‘You could never hope for a better person to teach you about the industry. What he hasn’t seen or done isn’t worth bothering with. He’s also one of the nicest, kindest people I know.’
Nice he might be, but Leaf must also be the shrewdest septuagenarian in the business. This is one raconteur who has mastered the art of controlling his messages. Readers wanting to hear his anecdotes in full may have to wait for the book.
PRWeek: What was your biggest career break?
Bob Leaf: Joining B-M when it was in its infancy. So that I could start at the very bottom. I learned so much about the business from opening the president’s mail – finding out what clients liked and didn’t like.
PRWeek: What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?
BL: You must constantly keep learning. Make sure you are aware of what you don’t know, so that it can finally be something you do know. You’ve also really got to know your clients’ business inside and out. The enthusiasm and intelligence of young people in PR at the moment is as good as I have ever seen, but they need to read more. You can never tell when one tiny fact will appear and give you a whole new angle or idea.
PRWeek: Who was your most notable mentor?
BL: Harold Burson. He started the company, and he set the tone of it as being a place where you not only worked hard, but you worked closely with each other and really cared about the other people.
PRWeek: What characteristics do you prize most in new recruits?
BL: They should have enthusiasm, as good an opinion as possible about what they really want to accomplish, and a good understanding of their own weaknesses.
Chairman, Robert S Leaf Consultants
International chairman, Burson-Marsteller London
VP international, Burson-Marsteller Brussels
Trainee consultant, rising to account supervisor, Burson-Marsteller New York
US Army education specialist
University of Missouri, Bach elor of Journalism, Masters in History with Honours