The art of giving back

Senior PR professionals find that volunteering their time outside of the industry can provide a number of reciprocal benefits.

Senior PR professionals find that volunteering their time outside of the industry can provide a number of reciprocal benefits.

Juanita James, chief communications officer at Pitney Bowes, spent a lot of time enjoying family outings at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center when her son Dudley (now 17 years old) was a toddler. Years later in 1999, James jumped at the chance to give back when she was invited to help find a new executive director for the center.

Soon after, James was asked to join the board, and she has since used her communications and leadership skills to help preserve the center's family orientation while broadening its appeal to multiple generations.

James currently serves eight other outside organizations, including Reading is Fundamental, Stamford Symphony Orchestra, and the North Star Play Makers Theatre Group.

"When you see more people coming to events or joining as members, you realize the power of PR in helping a not-for-profit be more successful," she says.

Indeed, there are many reciprocal benefits when PR leaders contribute to interests outside the industry. Often, nonprofits and other organizations are in dire need of the communications skills, strategic planning, and networking capabilities. Involvement allows PR leaders to develop new skills, insights, and relationships that lend professional strength and personal satisfaction.

Charlotte Otto, global external relations officer for Procter & Gamble, currently serves many organizations outside PR - including Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. - and has held past posts at more than a dozen others.

"PR pros have a lot to bring to the party," Otto says. "[Many] organizations [can't] invest in high-caliber communications programs. They need to focus resources on the mission. We have an obligation because we have something to contribute."

Margery Kraus, president and CEO of APCO Worldwide, cites corporate governance experience as particularly helpful for the 10 organizations she currently serves, including The Eurasia Foundation, Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, Kellogg School's Center for Executive Women, and Close Up Foundation, which she helped create before founding APCO.

"Organizations are looking at their own ethics and compliance, and it's useful to give suggestions," Kraus says. "We help guide corporate responsibility, and we understand a lot about how companies make decisions."

Volunteering has helped many PR pros become better leaders. "I've sharpened my business skills in every [involvement]," Otto says. "It's one thing to do strategic planning in a $70 billion company. It's not life and death every day.

If 70% of [a small nonprofit's] business is one client, and they walk, they have a crisis. They need a strategy pronto."

Jeff Smith, cofounder, CEO, and CFO of JS2 Communications, volunteers for such organizations as The Wonder of Reading, Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing, the Entrepreneurs' Organization, and the Alzheimer's Association. He says the work has "sharpened and augmented" his skills, which ultimately benefits his employees.

"I continue learning about business and processes, and different ways of approaching challenges, [and] I bring that back to my company," Smith adds. "I get great ideas and fodder for continuing education of the people I work with."

Broadening perspective also benefits Kraus and APCO. "It helps me keep in touch with things happening outside my business and gives me a sense of issues and opportunities that concern people on an everyday basis," she says. "It's a sense of reality, and a lot of networking takes place."

Stephen Johnson, SVP and director of PR and government affairs at Union Bank of California, is currently engaged with northern California public broadcasting service KQED, the Museum of the African Diaspora, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Understanding an organization's potential helps him find mutually beneficial synergies.

"Aside from satisfaction, I get a very broad view of organizations, and that forms a strategic picture that can help inform potential," Johnson says.

Room for involvement

Though Smith is "proud that many in the PR industry give back," he thinks there is always room for more. Johnson believes more senior PR leaders should make time.

"Americans sometimes have a checkbook mentality," Johnson notes. "That needs to change. It is important for senior leaders... to bring a sense of passion to the notion that public service is valuable and should be part of life. It leads to a big sense of fairness about how we approach the world."

Otto believes community involvement is essential for everyone. "Get a community engagement, and continue it throughout your career," she says. "It will help you grow as a leader. There are different challenges, wonderful networks, and a chance to experiment."

James concurs. "PR is about engaging with the outside world, so there is an organic connection to PR leaders getting involved," she says. "If you have a better sense of world values and societal issues, you can help your company meet those needs."

There is also a halo effect on the entire PR industry when senior leaders help outside interests.

"There is tremendous opportunity to improve perceptions of PR," James adds. "People who don't know this profession may think of us as only spin[ners]. When you interact with a really good PR pro, you appreciate the value."

How PR leaders can get involved

1. Explore technology. "Get involved in education programs that help [youth] understand technology and the challenges ahead," Johnson says.

2. Look into university and corporate involvement. "[Corporate involvement is] an interesting way to give back and prove value to the profession in that we're considered in that league and have peer group relationships at the CEO level," Kraus notes.

3. Find organizations that align with your company's goals and missions. "When goals align, you find many ways to collaborate and engage in mutually beneficial projects," James says.

4. Play to your strengths, and find things that appeal to you when looking for volunteer opportunities. "If you're into sports, find something related to kids and sports," Smith suggests.

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