PR Legend: Steven J. Harris


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.Harris 2006 pic

A 40-year veteran in communications, one of the first recipients of the SABRE Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Public Relations. Retired as VP of Global Communications at General Motors. Inducted into the Arthur W. Page Society’s Hall of Fame and named an Automotive News’ All-Star for automotive public relations for the eighth time in 2007. Served on the boards of the Page Society and the Institute for Public Relations, which has honored him with its Alexander Hamilton Award.

As I write this nearing the end of 2008, we are all experiencing the most amazing and most painful of times.

We have a presidential campaign that will either elect the first black president or first female vice president. Our nation is divided right down the middle. American military men and women are stretched thin fighting and protecting around the globe. The U.S. housing industry has collapsed. Many of our biggest financial institutions have failed or needed government support. Many corporations, like my own General Motors, are struggling in an environment of too little liquidity and virtually no credit. And it’s not just the U.S.; economies around the globe have been deteriorating for some time as well. And to top everything off, Americans don’t trust the President, Congress or any elected official. They don’t trust corporations. They don’t trust the media. I’m not sure they trust anyone.

So is this a good time to be a PR person? Absolutely!

It is because in an environment like the one I described above people are screaming for authenticity, transparency, the truth, leadership, sensitivity, explanations and context they can understand and the ability to keep things in perspective. And we, as communicators, can play and counsel all those things well.

Even though our PR industry is being rocked by things like the Internet and the power it gives to individuals, globalization, a more aggressive and opinionated traditional media and more, we still can make a difference embracing those attributes and qualities that have always led the way:

  • Personal integrity
  • Building trust inside and outside our own organizations
  • Using good judgment, trusting your gut and having the courage to speak up
  • Willingness to take risks and learn from them, both good and bad
  • Openness to all kinds of ideas and people. There is rarely only one right answer. Many approaches can and do work
  • A sense of timing and an understanding that time itself is precious
  • Ability to step outside yourself and your organization and feel how the wide variety of stakeholders we all deal with today are feeling and how they will react to what you are saying and, most importantly, what you are doing
  • Never taking shortcuts that can betray your personal beliefs and ethics
  • Being a collaborator. Two minds or more are always better than one. Success can be shared by many
  • Creativity, but only with a great execution, always wins
  • An understanding and appreciation for the entire enterprise
  • Adaptability and a thirst to keep learning what is new, what others are doing and taking the time to expose yourself to as many points of view as possible
  • Treating people equally with dignity and respect, letting them be themselves and giving them autonomy

And one final point. I’ve spent almost all my career—42 plus years—in one industry, the auto industry. Certainly, that won’t be the norm for most communications graduates today.

But what has driven me, motivated me, given me joy and pride is that I’ve gotten to work for companies that I truly cared about and that I thought made a positive contribution to America. And equally important, I got to work with talented people that I respected and enjoyed being with. Focus on those two things- what you work on and who you work on it with, and I promise you that you will find satisfaction and joy in what you do.



Published: 2009

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