Plank Legends & Leaders: Gary McCormick


Gary McCormick is the founder of GMc Communication. Formerly, Gary served as the Director of Public Relations for Scripps Networks where he directed media relations and special events for the DIY Network and Fine Living. Both cable channels are owned by Scripps Network and both are very successful cable stations.

In addition, McCormick is very involved in the Public Relations Society of America, serving in roles such as President of the PRSA’s Board of Directors, Vice Chair of the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. And Co-Chair for the Champions of Public Relations Student Society of America.

McCormick’s past work includes 17 years working for Federal Government Clients. He tackled government programs such as chemical weapons disposal and high-level nuclear waste disposal head on and developed new communication strategies for these federal programs. Other affiliations include work with various environmental and community relations programs. McCormick believes that communicating the right message, to the right people, in the right way, is the crux of the public relations profession.

Define what leadership in public relations means to you.

>> Well it’s interesting because in public relations especially, we are typically helping get the message out behind the scenes. So a lot of times, the leaders in our industry are really not well known and the effects of their job are seen, but they personally aren’t. But I think probably the most crucial things that we provide is a strategic thinking for all of the audiences that businesses impact and are impacted by the business. As well as the ethics and the values of the business. And what that means, in the end, all to both the company as well as it’s consumers.

What are three or four of the most important characteristics of leadership in public relations?

>> I think it goes back to those values. I think that they definitely bring to the table a feeling, an empathy, for their audiences, an understanding of how the communications, and the company, are going to impact the community. And all of those audiences, and, I think, bringing that leadership to the business leader, who is also looking at the bottom line, helps bridge those two, for a better success overall.

As a recognized leader in public relations, what factors have most lead to your success?

>> What’s very interesting, I thought about many things in your career as you go through and you have to talk about your background and how you got where you are. And a lot of it is been luck of being in the right place at the right time, but then having the insight and the understanding to recognize the opportunity and move on it. That coupled with a drive, definitely a competitive nature, and a will to succeed and to win. I think it’s little talked about, but probably well known that public relations is a lot about sales. But, we’re working with people to effect change as opposed to sell a product.

What’s the most powerful learning experience you’ve had in terms of leadership?

>> Probably the most interesting thing that I’ve had to deal with is that you’re not always going to be liked and your opinion isn’t always going to be welcomed. Because one of the things that we have to point out many times is what we believe the long-term impact will be from an action by a company, or an agency. And looking at those and sometimes being the one to step up to say, wait. There may be something here we need to talk about or is that something you really want to do? You’re not always the most welcomed person at the table. And also in a leadership position, I think, you have to have your beliefs, you have to have your values and you have to stick by them. Because I think in the long run that’s what causes people to follow.

Whom do you believe to be the most outstanding leader in the field today?

>> Well, again it’s somewhat of a challenge in our field because we have so many people that work behind the scenes. I think if you look at any number of the agencies and the corporations. I think a lot of the people are making tremendous success for the value and the reputation of our profession really aren’t on the forefront. So I kind of have to look at different areas, and if you look at the Harold Bursons and the John Grahams out of FleishmanHillard and Burson-Marsteller. They really created the public relations agency as opposed to just an advertising agency and created the value Internationally of our profession. And then you have corporate leaders for people like Jack Koten with AT&T who led corporations to really look at how they talked to their consumers internally and externally. But then you also have the people like Jim Grunig, who the academic world has given us a body of knowledge that’s allowed us to grow. Become much more grounded in the research and the models of public relations that make us more successful. So, obviously I can’t pick one, and it’s unfortunate that we can’t name many because there are tremendous areas that have advanced the profession because it’s still so young and I think we’re going to continue seeing more and more leaders.

Is there a historical figure that you believe most exemplifies leadership in public relations?

>> The one that most impacted me because of the way I did public relations in my work over many years in public affairs was Patrick Jackson. And I think his whole behavioral science, his approach to the way we do public relations, grounded in the message but also grounded in sociology, psychology, behavioral research of how people adapt to change, how people accept change. I think he really took us in a direction that many people had not looked at because it had been dealt with strictly from a tactical or publicity standpoint. So that behavioral science resonated very strongly with me. And it was an area that I pursued in doing community relations and understanding the impacts that happen in a community beyond just the messaging that we put out.  So he’s, though Jeff left us recently, his work is continuing, obviously in the industry. But personally, he’s probably one that has impacted me on a daily basis.

Do you think leadership skills and values in public relations differ from leadership skills and values in other fields?

>> I think innately they are the same. I think that probably they’re more paramount in public relation because we sometimes are the keeper of the reputation, the person at the table that really has to speak to value and perception. Because that’s kind of the area that they want us to safeguard. Because of that, I think that our leaders look at those things much more closely. But, I think that that overall is something that every leader has to have. If they don’t have that vision, that value, something that people can actually get behind and believe that goes beyond the person to something that they stand for. So I think that probably we’re very similar but we’re uniquely positioned to probably look at that one in much more close detail.

Do the requirements of public relations leadership vary by type?

>> I think the leadership skills are the same always, but the ironic thing is it’s really much more the type of people you’re leading in each of those different ones. That would make some of the traits that you would need differently. An agency person obviously is working for a company, an outside company, and multiple ones. So you’re going to have to balance a lot of different things and do different types of work. A corporate person is going to have an internal audience, they’re going to have an external investor relations type of position to their consumer. And so they’re going to have a different audience yet. And then you have a corporate or the non-profit who is uniquely positioned and not only do they have to attract people to work for them in many occasions but they also have to get people to fund the work that they need to do. So each of them probably have the same leadership skills but the audiences they have to work through to develop and deliver those skills are uniquely positioned to each of them.

What can new public relations professionals do to develop their leadership skills?

>> The first thing they need to do is to continually read and learn and to watch what others are doing. To find a mentor, to figure out what the people that are successful are doing. And I think there’s any number of ways that you can do that. I mean, the media every day has it, there’s any number of books, there’s any number of classes. But I think that what they have to do is expose themselves to it. Take a risk and find opportunities to try to lead, be it a small task, be it an initiative in their church or their community. You have to expose yourself and take the risk and put yourself out there.

What can university educators do to help PR students develop important leadership skills and values?

>> I think that there’s a large amount of research that could be done about public relations leadership. And the reason I say that is because we are responsible for the messages and the delivery of the messages. I think there’s a unique opportunity to look at how those two things have played in leadership across all different disciplines. It’s very unique, we’re finding out Abraham Lincoln, of course with the last election has become very much of a focus again. And in doing some of the reading about him, we’re finding out that he was writing and his innate curiosity and the amount of reading that he did which we all heard about him reading at the fire light. He had this innate curiosity, but what we didn’t realize or most people didn’t realize that he didn’t have speech writers. Most of what he wrote, he wrote himself. And it was his own passion, it was his own writing style and his own delivery that really overcame somewhat of his shortcomings as a legislator. And I think we will find that, that ability to communicate, that either writing or verbal communication, most times it’s both helps elevate a leader in a circumstance. Not to say that that will create the leader, but sometimes it’s the thing that will bump them up into the forefront.

Can leadership be taught or inherited or something else?

>> Well, it’s very interesting because Peter Drucker, who has written many, many management books, everybody who has had to take a business class knows who Peter Drucker is. He said that management is doing things well. I’m going to get this wrong, I have to start over. Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing, see I’ve got it wrong again. Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things. And I think that’s innately what comes up to play here. I think we can teach people to be good managers, and I think you can learn to be a better manager. There’s a point at which you are in a circumstance where you are asked to lead or have an opportunity to lead that you have to do the right things. And the difference is in management doing things right means that fiscally, you’ll operate professionally, you’ll operate profitably, you’ll do the right things to make the business grow. But in leadership, again going back to the fact that sometimes what you believe and what your vision isn’t always accepted, you have to step out of that comfort zone and you have to push a little. And that takes a certain personality. Now whether you can grow and develop that, I mean that’s not a question I can answer here today. But I think there has to be an innate sense of oneself. Either it’s a maturity level or it’s something that you’re born with that can allow you to step out. And take that leadership position and take that risk.

What can the profession do to help foster leadership in new practitioners? 

>> Well, I don’t know that there’s a shortage of leadership, as much as that we haven’t focused on leadership in public relations. Again, a lot of what our profession does is behind the scenes and should be and we’re comfortable there. And a lot of times if you become the spokesperson, if you become the visible spotlight of a cause, it sometimes can diminish what your effectiveness would be to the organization or to the association or client that you’re working for. I think that we have a lot of people who have led in this industry, it’s a relatively new industry.  I think that as we have new technology and new ways of delivering messages and disseminating messages, the changes that we’re seeing in the way people adapt and the way people innately take any information have changed and we’ve had somewhat of an isolationism of information by people. There will be people that find ways to go around that, to make public relations work stronger, to make communication a better process. There are so many people working on this, there are so many people, and it’s such a diffuse profession. There’s no one collective place that we can say, this is the measurement and this is the person who’s the leader. Unlike you have business leaders that rise because they become Fortune 500 company leaders. You have politicians that rise and become on a national or international level of prominence. You have movie stars and movie makers that rise, and that’s media that promotes them. I don’t know that we typically have that same area to promote our leadership so they’re visible. But I think they’re out there and I think if we just choose as a profession to focus on that, I think we’d be surprised the leadership that we will find.

 Can you give a concrete example of leadership at work?

>> Again, I said earlier that I had been very lucky in my profession and one of the chances that I had was to meet Dr. Robert Bullard, who’s the father of environmental justice. And he, like many leaders, was thrust in an area. He was actually a college professor in sociology. And by asking to work with his wife on a case that she was working on, litigation for some environmental issues, he became aware of basically the environmental injustice that we had from things all over the country and became involved. But what he did is, he really created the awareness, the community relations and brought the people together with a collective voice.

And so the manner in which he approached the community relations public affairs, public relations Changed that whole dynamic and actually created a whole area and a focus of our business and with the government that hadn’t been seen before. So it was amazing that he was called upon to do this. He did it from a behavioral science standpoint, but he really integrated the communication principles that we use and the strategic thinking that he needed to collectively bring audiences together. And I was able to work within that area and to see what he was doing and what others were doing in this area and really watch the entire industry change and the government change. On how it dealt with citizens and how it dealt with communities that before then, it was considered secret information and they didn’t share it. To becoming something that was widely opened and health risks, and the impacts were shared and known and acted upon for the first time ever.

What’s one book on leadership that you would recommend to students and young public relations professionals?

>> I went back through a lot of books that I’ve read, and there are a tremendous amount of books on leadership. And then, what I thought of is when I was first coming out of school, most of those books, I didn’t have any context of the work environment to really understand what they were telling me as far as leadership from the business standpoint. And a lot of our books that you’ll find were that. So I thought about, well, what are the things that I would have really needed to know that I could understand, that I could assimilate as far leadership. And I thought back, and it’s a book I read quite a while ago. But it was by Jack Welch, Straight From the Gut, and it was about the changes within General Electric when he came in that he had to change the industry. He had to change the way they thought about doing business, and he had a very unique principle where he knew there was a Bell Curve of performance. And the upper 20% were going to be high performers, top performers, and he was going to reward them, but there’s a 10% below that he was just going to get rid of. And I mean, there was a lot of controversy and his entire thing. But I think the thing that would help the student who reads this type of book is he didn’t come from a business environment. He was doing things that he, when he say straight from the gut, it was somewhat of what he’d learned, somewhat of what he felt, but it was his value system. It was his perceptions, it was his communication that helped him to lead this. And he also knew that he didn’t always make friends by what he said and did. But he also talks in the book about how the changes he made impacted the environment within the business. So I think that for a person just coming out of school who’s looking for leadership and is going into the work environment, this gives them an idea of what not only the work environment is like.

But those people who are going to be leaders in their companies are going to do these things, and they’re going to hear all different people say different things about it. There’s always more to the decision, there’s always more to the action. And it’s something that they can learn how they can integrate into the company and understand management’s perception and help them, obviously, then communicate that much better on all levels within the company, internally and externally.

Does the profession have greater legitimacy today than it did 20 years ago?

>> I think personally, from what I interact with on a daily basis and the people that I interact with, I’m sure it does. Is there a ways to go? Absolutely. In a profession that is this young, we’re going to continue to learn as we develop even our body of knowledge and understand where about, how people communicate. And with the new social media and technology, it’s going to change it again. We’re seeing that every generation really has a different motive communication. So it’s never going to quit changing, it’s never going to quit developing. But I think the fact that we’ve gone to models of research and public relations models, and we understand ironically what Socrates and Aristotle told us, how long ago. But we’re now coming back and applying those to the business environment and applying this to the public relations work that we’re doing in a communication models that we’re using. So without question, it’s gone well past being a publicist. It’s gone well past party planning and press releases to strategic planning.

I think there really is a very strategic place for us in companies. I think management and companies, thanks to the work of many, many of the people we’ve talked about today, have advanced the profession to the point that. Hopefully today, the students in school, the professionals that are coming out are grounded in a much, much better art and science of public relations so that they understand how research benefits us.

They understand the planning process. They understand the evaluation process. They understand that there is a return to the bottom line for public relations in any organization if it’s done correctly.

What’s your best advice about a career in public relations to students just entering the workforce?

>> A: never quit learning. You may have gotten out of school, and I know that sometimes is the best thing, it feels so wonderful. But you can’t quit learning in this profession, probably any profession. But since this was the one I have chosen, I graduated 30 years ago and have continued to study and continued to learn and been amazed at how much I didn’t know. So the second part of that is networking. Continue to talk to people in the profession, continue to talk to all different types of people in the profession, in agency, in corporate, in research, in academic. People that do events planning, people that do research, people that do any number of things in our business strategic planning to learn about what they do.

And the last thing is, if you’re lucky enough out of that networking, to find mentors who will actually guide your career and help you know what to learn and know who to talk to, you will meet with a lot of success.

If you were hiring an entry-level public relations professional, what factors would weigh most heavily on your mind?

>> Well, beyond the very much writing and oral skills of communication, which are a mandate of anybody in our profession, I actually really look at the individual. I look at the way they conduct themselves, their values, their drive if they’re competitive. I always mention to everybody who I’m talking to about a job that public relations is, in many ways, a sales job. If that scares them then we talk about maybe what other opportunities the profession can give them. But I always look to somebody who’s hungry for answers of why things work. If there’s not an innate curiosity, if there’s not a need to know and a need to help, and then a value in ethics that underpins that, I may move on. Because I think those are really the strong personal tenants that are going to make them successful.

Recorded: July 2009

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