PR Legend: John D. Graham


This post is part of The Plank Center’s Legacies from Legends in PR Series that was begun in recognition of the 40th Anniversary of the Public Relations Student Society of America in 2007.Graham photo

Guided Fleishman-Hillard’s ascent from a regional public relations agency into a leading international communications powerhouse. Recognition for his leadership includes: PRSA’s Gold Anvil Award (2003), PRWeek’s PR Professional of the Year Award, election to the Arthur W. Page society Hall of Fame (2000), the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism and election to the International Communications Consultancy Organization Hall of Fame.

I have been in the business of public relations for more than 40 years, and I still learn something new every day. That is one of the things I love about our profession. But along the way, I learned some particularly important lessons that have shaped my philosophy of leadership. One of the most valuable of those lessons is the importance of having a vision, and then backing it up with a deep personal commitment and great people.

After becoming CEO of Fleishman-Hillard in 1974, I began to develop my dreams and aspirations into a vision for our agency. That vision had its basis in a strong, personal commitment to build our company into a firm with the best people, the best reputation, the best clients and one that offered the best communications service on a worldwide basis. That has been our vision for more than 30 years, and it remains our vision today. But, of course, having that vision and making it reality were two very different things.

At the time, Fleishman-Hillard had a single office, so growing a worldwide business was a pretty daunting task. But we planned it carefully; we were guided by our vision, and we worked on it one step at a time… hiring one key person… gaining one additional client… and opening one office at a time: Kansas City in 1977, New York in 1980, Los Angeles in 1982, Washington, D. C., in 1985. Then, two years later, we opened London and Paris offices, beginning our expansion into the international arena.

Those were exciting times. But they were risky times, as well. I was traveling 250,000 miles a year while personally handling our three largest clients. At the same time, we were explaining to our bankers (who absolutely had no idea what we did for a living) why we should open new offices when some of our existing offices had yet to turn a profit. It was tough. My CFO and I personally mortgaged our homes and everything else we owned in order to meet our twice-a-month payroll.

It was a high-risk strategy, but it worked. Out new offices gradually developed a solid client base and began to contribute to our overall operations. Today, of course, we are a world leader. But it was that vision of what we felt Fleishman-Hillard could become that sustained us through that period.

You notice I say “we” and “us” I discuss our firm’s struggles and our success. The real key to that success, then and now, was that we had the good fortune to find and bring on board truly outstanding people.

That is something I remind myself of every day: You can have all the vision and commitment in the world, but you will not get far without good people. Choose your team carefully. Share your vision with them. Work with them, develop them and they will bring your vision to life.

Graham Signature


Published: 2007