Mike Fernandez is the U.S. CEO of Burson-Marsteller based in New York. Previously, Fernandez led global corporate affairs at Cargill and has served as chief communications officer for four Fortune 500 companies including State Farm, ConAgra, Cigna and US West. Early in his career, Fernandez served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Ernest Hollings, where at age 23 he was the youngest U.S. Senate Press Secretary ever and only the second Latino to serve in such a role.
The Art of Being More in a World of Change
Ours is an era of rapid scientific discovery, technological advancement, healthcare and educational improvement and business growth—and yet the pace of change will never be slower. This also makes it an extraordinary time to be a public relations professional.
PR professionals are being asked to be more and play bigger roles in their organizations than ever before. It is not enough to be a good communicator or writer, or be adept at organizing events and campaigns or designing clever websites. The complexities of our world require PR professionals to think deeply, act quickly, ask the right questions and solve problems.
In many ways I was made for this world. My mother grew up in an orphanage in a South Carolina mill town and my father was one of nine children in Spanish Harlem with parents who had come to the States from Cuba and Puerto Rico. Before I entered college, we lived in four states, and I attended nine different schools. Those moves, along with a foot in two cultures, forced me to become more adaptable—to see change as positive, seize opportunity in the face of challenge, and become an acute student of the world.
It also helped that the Jesuits at Georgetown University, where I was a scholarship student, prompted us to ask good questions rather than accept the status quo. That orientation would serve me well on Capitol Hill—and through a long career in public relations.
While working at State Farm, these formative experiences helped me to prompt a program that led to market share gains and an enhanced reputation for the company. The day after the U.S. Senate voted to defeat comprehensive immigration reform in June 2007, State Farm CEO Ed Rust and I attended a lunch at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). The featured speaker, U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, came to Florida at the age of 15 from his native Cuba to live with foster parents. He was hurt and impassioned by the failed vote, and brought the audience to its feet. Ed Rust turned to me and asked, “Is there something we can do?”
I remembered as a child that those who served as citizenship sponsors for my grandfather were treated as a part of our extended family. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if State Farm agents could be valued similarly?
This led us to launch a fully integrated effort that went well beyond the traditional role of a COO. We established a partnership with NALEO’s citizenship efforts, and we enlisted State Farm agents operating in Latino barrios (and later in Asian neighborhoods) into a program where they could serve the role of “sponsor” for future citizens and use their offices for English-language training and tutoring for the U.S. citizenship civics exam. We improved State Farm’s reputation within these communities and agents participating in the program increase their business. Overall State Farm’s share of the U.S. Latino market increased significantly.
In short, we strengthened our business and made a positive mark on the world. Being a public relations professional requires you to understand not only yourself, but also the values of other people and cultures—and to be a problem solver. Today the world is more complex—but if we apply ourselves well, our roles can be more interesting and urgent than ever.