Sitting with Titans – Todd Defren’s Experience with Industry Leaders

Recently I was honored to sit amongst some of the titans of our industry. As a peer. It was weird.

My friend Fred Cook, CEO of GOLIN, moonlights as the Director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Public Relations, within the prestigious Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication. He kindly invited me to join the Center’s Board of Advisors, alongside luminaries including the top communications chiefs at Starbucks, Nintendo, Wells Fargo, Chevron and Verizon, as well as top dogs such as the CEO of DigitasLBi North America, the chief client officer from Weber Shandwick, and the president of strategic partnerships from Edelman.

And then there was little ol’ me, Founding Partner of a $20M agency that may indeed punch above its weight … but come on! Talk about “imposter syndrome.” At some point I wanted to ask Fred if he’d had some kind of brain aneurysm when he’d invited me.

And yet…

As I’ve often found on those rare occasions when I’ve hobnobbed with the crème del la crème, everyone was human. Nice. Thoughtful. Eager to help. Given the cast of characters in the room, you might expect some egos to flash but, nope, there was a rare degree of camaraderie from the get go.

I was incredibly impressed with the USC program as it stands, but was encouraged and inspired by their desire to make it even better; to create “the #1 PR program in the world.” The skills they are teaching their students are on-point with the needs of today’s modern agencies and corporations; and from the top down, the administration and staff at USC are restless to continue to improve.

That said, I was intrigued to hear my new colleagues’ thoughts about the state of the profession. Yes, everyone involved was delighted to see the way USC is teaching students to create content, analyze data, etc. That’s kind of tactical, though. What all involved were far more interested in was the Center’s philosophy, which they dubbed “Third Space Competencies.” At the Annenberg School, they are just as focused on creating future professionals who possess critical thinking skills.

Empathy. Adaptability. Intellectual curiosity. Cultural competence. 360-degree thinking.

Yes, you need to be an excellent writer. Yes, it helps if you can create a GIF, a video, a Snapchat Story. But can you THINK? Can you ask tough and relevant questions? Can you challenge the status quo – while respecting and understanding how the status quo evolved in the first place? Are you curious enough to understand the way the world works? Can you keep pace with rapid change and still muster the  wherewithal to innovate? Do you read across a breadth of issues and interests? Do you understand how business works? Can you make connections across disparate themes and news events?

That’s what today’s top communications leaders are looking for in tomorrow’s communications leaders. They care less about what you can do and more about how your brain works. Thoughtfulness, curiosity and gumption were recurring themes.

There’s a reason why PR is often cited as one of the world’s most high-pressure jobs. It’s the same reason that makes it so awesome and important. How we interact as brands, as people, as a culture – it’s not always easy when you’re heads-down on a press release to realize it – but that’s what public relations is all about. It was a great reminder for me of why I enjoy what I do.

Thanks, Fred.

Todd Defren
Founding Partner


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