A PR Guru’s Advice to iQ 360

October 21, 2020
By iQ Staff
iQ Interview Series with John Onoda

John Onoda, legendary public relations counselor to some of the most high-profile publicly-traded companies in the world, advisor to GM and Levi Strauss, and consultant to the world’s largest PR agencies, stopped by a virtual iQ 360 meeting to share some wisdom and inspiration with our staff. We call him John “Yoda” Onoda. When he’s not dispensing advice, he’s looking to the future and reading poetry.

Here, we share an excerpted Q&A with his timely advice for communications professionals.


John, what key business trends are resulting from the pandemic?

There is a lot of change happening in the world right now, and a lot of change happening in our profession. There is just this major leap in technology. It’s like the whole world has been punted five years into the future. [Looking at] things that everyone thought would take so long or would never happen, organizations are making those changes in a matter of weeks or months. People are working remotely and collaborating virtually, even in industries where security is a major concern. There has been a shift in the workforce, and everyone has had to adapt or choose another path.


What impact is the Black Lives Matter movement having on corporations?

No head of HR right now is thinking about diversity in the same way that they were six months ago. By the same token, expectations for corporations have never been higher -- employee expectations, consumer expectations. This means that PR professionals need to step into a much more strategic role when advising clients. We have to be proactive and understand that words are not enough. We have to push for action and help advise our clients on what to do, not just what to say.


Can you say more about being proactive?

Traditionally, our model as PR counselors has been reactive. When something goes wrong, we react. That’s what we’ve been doing for 50 years, but that mindset needs to change. PR folks need to adapt, but also start peering around the corner to have an inkling of what’s coming next. We have to identify the white spaces and move into those. Inside a corporation, the people most suited to looking into the future and identifying opportunities or coming change are the communicators.

The communicator of the future is the one who sees horizontally, who can look across the landscape rather than deep into one specific topic. There are new industries and concerns that didn’t exist before. The beauty of communications is that we don’t need new equipment or technology to shift our mindsets across the landscape. We are fluid and agile, and the most important thing we can offer is to be that person who is finding the white space by looking across the horizon with all stakeholders in mind.


“Inside a corporation, the people most suited to looking into the future and identifying opportunities or coming change are the communicators.”


In addition to what you just described; how can we position ourselves as strategic advisors?

We need really strong people skills. We need to inspire leadership, teach leadership, find good leaders and cultivate them. Leadership is the scarcest commodity. Leaders are the game changers. I’ve never been able to predict how great an impact a specific individual can have; I don’t think anyone really can. Great leadership can literally change the world. I encourage everyone to find it in themselves.


How do we have confidence in ourselves and how do we present ourselves in that way?

Failure doesn’t kill you. You get up and have pancakes the next morning like you always do. Many high-level communications leaders have had instances that they look back on and say, “I can’t believe I wasn’t fired.” But they took those mistakes and failures and turned them into lessons. The sooner you realize that failure doesn’t kill you, the more learnings you will take away from it. This is how to practice being a leader. Organize things. Organize your cousin’s surprise party. Be a leader in your community. Try a step. Raise the bar on yourself. After you survive a number of near-death experiences, it becomes exhilarating.


How do you find the white spaces?

I spend two to three hours per day learning and taking in new information. When I go into a meeting, I have to have a point of view and understand the global perspective. I have to know who the power players are and what’s on the minds of CEOs. It’s my job to have a really deep knowledge of key macro trends, of what is happening in the world.

If you are constantly working your mind, you have a lot to offer and are honing the skills needed to unleash it. Practice your consulting skills and the way you talk to people because a lot of it is performance. Most of us have to learn it. Don’t hesitate when you know the right answer and phrase it thoughtfully. You build up that muscle over time and find new ways to apply that. There’s no knowing where it will take you.


Where do you find your inspiration?

I tell people: read poetry. To be able to convey such deep thoughts and emotions while also facing length and formatting constraints is a true skill. We should all aspire to that level of simplicity and power.