Russia’s military failures provide lessons for successful PR leaders

I wrote about how the United States Navy shaped my style of leadership in the communications world. These lessons have been on my mind recently as we witness Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s operational failures are a reminder of valuable lessons learned as a young sailor, many of which are applicable to public relations leaders.

The first, and perhaps most important, lesson to share is empower your people. Beyond the bravery and motivation of the Ukrainian people, many structural and organizational failures of the Russian military are to blame for its struggles.

Chief among them is the highly centralized command structure of the Russian military; it’s very downward. This means that senior enlisted personnel and junior officers are not empowered to make decisions.

Russian troops do not know the full objective of the missions and only receive small-scale tactical instructions…switch to this post, dig fortifications, wait for ordersetc

Not knowing the objective and larger goals of a mission means troops cannot pivot as circumstances change. If you are told to drive on a road and hold a bridge, but the road is blocked, you can’t really make a decision about What what to do if you are not sure Why you have to.

Know the mission

In comparison, the US Navy briefs sailors on broader mission objectives. Sailors need to understand the whys and wherefores of what their squadron does.

On top of that, as a lieutenant once told me, “In the absence of other orders, do what is good for the mission.” These simple words pack quite a punch. Unlike the average Russian soldier, I felt empowered to think and make decisions.

From top to bottom

That said, we are all guilty of top-down management. This is something we are working to resolve. In doing so, PR managers should ask themselves:

  • Am I giving my team, especially below VP level, a full picture of what a campaign is trying to accomplish?
  • Do I let my collaborators make decisions based on the objectives of the campaign? Or do I just give them orders to follow and expect a perfect result?

Avoid solo

Sometimes we think it’s faster to do something ourselves than to delegate it. The justifications are clear: “We could lose this business; I have to be the one to take care of it”, or “My team is too junior to make these kinds of decisions.

It may seem that the stakes in public relations work are life and death. Believe me, they pale in comparison to the severity of war, and the US military still relies on a relatively young force to accomplish its goals.

Once again, the Russian invasion of Ukraine provides a valuable counterexample. The Moscow Army has lost an “extraordinary” number of senior officers in Ukraine. One reason concerns delegation. Since junior personnel are not empowered to make decisions, generals have to go to the front line to do anything.

Empowering your employees by giving them the full picture and trusting them to make good decisions is no guarantee of success – it does not exist. But it will make your PR team more nimble, adaptable, and responsive. All of this will result in better results for those you represent.

Take away food

A few tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t be a bottleneck. You are a person. Not everything has to go through you. Any campaign work will involve many tasks that do not require your input. Don’t get involved if you don’t have to.
  • Trust your team. You hired people to work. Doing it for them doesn’t help you, your business, or the businesses you represent. Let people do their job and let them know you’re counting on them.
  • people make mistakes. This includes public relations managers who lead internal communications and agencies. But mistakes are essential to learning and growing in any profession, including the military. Learning from mistakes will allow junior team members to become more experienced and insightful.

PR people can learn a lot from Russia’s catastrophic gaffe in Ukraine, even if it’s just the wrong thing to do.

Anthony LaFauce is Managing Director of the Clyde Group

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