Effective Leaders of Tomorrow: Understanding and Embracing Change


Keith Burton

Keith Burton

By Shannon DeRespino

The world of public relations is swiftly changing. Keith Burton, one of the world’s thought leaders in change communication and founder of Grayson Emmett Partners, Chicago, says effective future leaders must understand this truth and adapt accordingly. Given the 24-7-365 global environment in which we now operate, information can travel so quickly that leaders must learn to anticipate potential problems or questions and act upon them well before things escalate.

Consider a 2014 incident in which retailer Urban Outfitters briefly listed what appeared to be a “vintage” blood-spattered Kent State sweatshirt on its website. The shirt, which seemed to trivialize the May 4, 1970, Kent State shooting in which four people were killed and nine were injured, drew immediate controversy. The company was forced to abandon the product and issue an apology – but not until after its brand had been tarnished. Kent State University responded with its own statement: “We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit. This item is beyond poor taste.”

Burton, who I recently heard speak to the Communications and Public Affairs team at UNC – Chapel Hill, believes an astute leader would have been able to spot the possible ramifications of issuing such a product and could have prevented a release that led not only to a loss of sales for Urban Outfitters, but a loss of good will among customers as well.

This poignant example is expressive of one of many complicated facets of modern public relations, a discipline that is affected by the “always on,” fast-paced world in which our work and lives are forever subject to the “tyranny of the urgent;” as well as the seismic shifts we’re seeing in society, culture, technology, business and politics.

Today, we experience at least four generations of employees in the workforce (Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials), with a fifth, Generation Z, now entering the job market. “These generations differ not only in experience level, but also in their core values and in the way that they gather and disseminate information,” Burton said. For Baby Boomers, the Kent State shooting was a cultural milestone and a generational watershed. Such an event is not easily forgotten or monetized. Sensitivity to the perspective of a generation changed by the political and social discord that Boomers knew and lived in the Seventies, which has in many ways shaped the attitudes and beliefs of their Millennial children, could have immediately changed Urban Outfitters’ minds with regards to selling this sweatshirt.

Understanding generational differences – and how people want to receive and communication information based on these differences – is pivotal in navigating through the modern world, but it is far from the only skillset that a public relations leader must master. Given the global nature of work, leaders must be innovative thinkers who can comfortably manage across time zones and transcend cultural and language barriers. Many modern companies have matrixed leadership, and as a result, employees may not necessarily see or interact with their leaders in person on a regular basis. And yet, the team must function as a unit to meet the needs of an accelerated and highly public organization.

It can be easy to become so focused on meeting and exceeding expectations in the here-and-now that the changes necessary for the future are overlooked. Companies and groups that are under-prepared for the windfall of change will have a difficult time navigating as the future unfolds.

The rise of social and digital media has transformed the marketplace in many ways, and it will only continue to expand as the endless possibilities of global connectivity bubble up. Burton says effective leaders must move away from a local mindset and into a worldview that understands that people and places from all over the world are connected in ways completely unforeseen just a decade ago.

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