PR Legend: Fred Cook


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.


Fred Cook serves as Chairman of Golin and provides marketing advice and crisis counsel to blue-chip companies like Nintendo, McDonald’s and Toyota. He also serves as the director of USC’s Center for Public Relations and a Professor of Professional Practice at USC. Cook authored a book titled “Improvise – Unorthodox Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO,” which shares the wisdom he learned as a cabin boy on a Norwegian tanker, a doorman at a five-star hotel and chauffeur for drunks. Since his book was published, he has spoken at more than 50 colleges around the world, which has given him a deep appreciation for the pressures students are facing and the dreams educators are striving to fulfill.

Every night at clubs like the Improv in Los Angeles and Second City in Chicago, aspiring comedians make improvising look easy. Drawing from the archives of their own experiences, these professionals use cues from the audience and their fellow performers to craft a coherent narrative that leads to a logical conclusion and entertains along the way. Improvising requires skill and practice, especially in the business world. I should know. I’ve been doing it all my life.

Today, I am the CEO of Golin, an award-winning public relations agency with 50 offices around the globe. I have worked with some of the country’s most fabled business leaders, such as Apple’s Steve Jobs, Disney’s Michael Eisner, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. I have introduced the world to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pokémon and seedless watermelon. But my career was not always icons and game changers.

Before joining the corporate ranks at the age of 36, I talked my way into a job as a cabin boy on a Norwegian tanker; peddled fake Italian leather goods to unsuspecting tourists; ran a rock-and-roll record company; started a service chauffeuring drunks home from bars; worked as a doorman at a five-star hotel; substitute-taught in Los Angeles’s worst schools; and winged it as a novice tour guide. These jobs taught me how to improvise.

Improvisation, like evolution, is a critical survival tool. Based on prehistoric genetics, evolution has allowed us to adapt to long-term changes in the biological world. Relying on present knowledge, improvisation enables us to adjust to real-time changes in the modern world. Life is too fast and too complicated for strict ideologies to determine our fate. Our future leaders must learn to play it by ear.

I worry about the people entering the business world today. They’re a commodity. They’ve gone to the same schools, taken the same courses, read the same books, and watched the same movies. Every summer they’ve dutifully worked at internships in their chosen vocation in hopes of landing the perfect job the day they graduate from college.

Meanwhile, companies like mine are desperately seeking fresh minds to help them navigate the massive cultural and technological changes they’re facing. Where will they find these distinctive individuals with diverse points of view to meet these challenges? China? India? Brazil? They shouldn’t have to look that far.

While a college education is a prerequisite for most jobs, a life education should also be a requirement. School delivers information. Life delivers ideas. Ideas drive business. Twitter was an idea. Red Bull was an idea. South Park was an idea.

Humans create original ideas by connecting existing information in new ways. The more data you store away the better. If you expose yourself to unfamiliar people, places and things, you expand the personal Internet inside your head. Need a bright idea? Google yourself.

Think of your experiences as balls on a pool table. If there are only two, your shot options are limited. But when you have fifteen, the combinations are endless. Like many others, I work in a business of ideas, and I usually generate more than most people. I’m not smarter or more creative. I’ve just spent a lifetime refining the ability to put more options on the table.

When you step outside your comfort zone, you learn a lot about yourself and the rest of the human race. The knowledge you gain will give you the skills and the confidence you need to lead others through unfamiliar terrain.

Most people think improvising means making things up. I prefer a different definition—taking the information and resources you have on hand and turning them into something special.

Big businesses thrive on predictability. Managers believe their long-term plans and linear projections will keep them on course and lead them to their desired destinations. But what happens if, somewhere along the way, you lose the map? Experience and information are wonderful things, if you happen to have them. If you don’t, you have to improvise.

Improvisational leaders make dozens of decisions every day. Proceed with a project? Launch a new product? Invest in a business? Hire a candidate?

When they have time, they conduct exhaustive research and obtain extensive advice. When they don’t, they make the call based on the information in their hands and the feeling in their gut. If they wait too long to make a decision, they may be too late. Companies like Nokia and Blackberry have proven that tradition is trumped by speed. Slow kills companies fast.

When technology, media, and politics change as often as Facebook profiles, being president of a company is a lot like being a tour guide who doesn’t know exactly where he’s going.

Many executives rise to the top by adapting to their company’s culture, by meeting quarterly financial goals, and by not getting fired. They follow a well-worn path that includes stops at an Ivy League college, Brooks Brothers, the BMW dealer, and the local country club.

How does someone from outside the corporate fraternity get accepted into this exclusive pledge class and ultimately advance to the executive suite? Sometimes you have to play by their rules. Sometimes you have to improvise. Nobody really gets to make their own rules, with the possible exception of the CEO, and this keeps him on a consistent message.

It takes courage to improvise – to step out of the existing pattern and attempt something original. In the beginning, you may feel shy, anxious and intimidated, like I did. But every time you try something new you gain a little more confidence. Start by reading a different magazine, watching a foreign film, or eating lamb vindaloo. Next, send a thoughtful email to your boss or an outrageous resumé to a company you’re dying to work for. Then, launch your own social network. Experience builds courage.

And failure fortifies it. I was fired as a doorman, ignored in the music business, arrested as a chauffeur, flunked as a teacher, and lost as a tour guide. These days, I don’t like to fail, but I’m not afraid to, because I have learned that when you take side roads, life gets a little bumpy. But signs along the way will guide you and challenges you overcome will give you the courage to continue. In the end, the trip is more interesting than the destination. Make it special.

Published: March 19, 2019
Originally posted: Sept. 1, 2014