Plank Legends & Leaders: Ron Culp

Ron Culp is an independent public relations consultant and the professional director of the public relations and advertising MA program at DePaul University. Prior to joining DePaul, Ron was the Senior Vice President and Managing Director of the Midwest operations of Ketchum, a leading public relation firm. He also served as a global corporate strategist in the firm’s Global Corporate Practice. Culp’s 30-year career spans a broad range of communications activities with companies such as Citigate Sard Verbinnen and Company, Sears Roebuck and Co., Sara Lee Corporation, Pitney Bowes Inc., and Eli Lilly.

As a student at Indiana State, he served as editor of the campus newspaper, president of the statewide college Republicans, and the first student to have a speaking seat on the university’s board of directors. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and journalism from Indiana State. Culp serves as a board member of the Economic Club of Chicago, the Indiana State Foundation, and the Lincoln Park Zoo.

He’s also a former member of the Arthur W. Page Society and current member of The Plank Center for Leadership and Public Relations at the University of Alabama. Culp has demonstrated a strong commitment to public relations students and education, volunteering as a lecturer and adviser to public relations programs.

He has served a personal mentor to countless students and young professionals.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> I think primarily the way I’ve always looked at it is pretty simple. And that is, pulling together a group of people and somebody from that group emerges as the leader by having found ways of bringing consensus within the group that results in what’s best for the organization.

What are the most important characteristics or qualities of excellent leaders in public relations?

>> I think you start with experience, which is essential, obviously. So some time working within the profession. And then I think, two would be patience. A lot of patience, which you get through the experience. And then, a sense of humor. In patience, I’d probably also include, in that, the ability to listen.

As a recognized leader in the field, what factors most contributed to your personal success? 

>> Many of them. I think that number one would be great mentors at every stage of my life and career, as well as just some great opportunities. I’ve worked for some wonderful corporations that had great leaders that embraced the idea of what public relations can do. And my mentors in that experience, I think, came together to turn me into what I guess you call a leader.

What’s the most powerful learning experience you encountered with respect to leadership in the field?

>> Probably the most important thing I learned was that I’m not always right. And as a result of that, you have to pull in experiences from others. And that’s where you gain your experience of finding out, this is either a new idea that I’ve just heard and how to meld it all together. But I guess the insecurity of knowing that you’re not always right allows you to listen better to others.

Please name one individual whom you believe to be the most outstanding leader in the field today. What makes this individual such an outstanding leader? 

>> There are many but, one I hold in very high regard is, Steve Harris. Steve retired a few years ago from General Motors. And I think the testament to how good he is, the current CEO of General Motors talked him into coming out of retirement to return to the company. And what that CEO saw in him was the ability to motivate his team and provide the kind of senior counsel that management within General Motors needed during this very difficult time for them. And now if you really see what’s happening in General Motors, the company is pulling itself out of the mire it was caught in. And they will immediately credit a lot of it to a whole different attitude in public relations that Steve brings with everything he does. There are many. Most people would, if you say historical, I look at historical going a whole gamut. You can go Ivy Lee and Bernays but I’d like to go historical to when PR really started coming into the golden age and that would be very obviously a Harold Burson, Dan Edelman, Al Golin, people who really led the profession.

In your view, is there a historical figure who exemplified outstanding leadership in the field? Why?

>> There are many. Most people would, if you say historical, I look at historical going a whole gamut. You can go Ivy Lee and Bernays but I’d like to go historical to when PR really started coming into the golden age and that would be very obviously a Harold Burson, Dan Edelman, Al Golin, people who really led the profession.

And then I would add, because we definitely need to put her there, that’d be Betsy Plank. And Betsy not only had a great leadership experience at her company when she was at Ameritech and AT&T, but she carried it on beyond that. And she didn’t just focus on her career, she decided that I am going to be here to help a lot of people in this business.

And so she goes out and as we know through all that she’s done, she’s played instrumental roles in creating PRSSA and nurturing young people and mentoring a number of us along the way. And I would say that of the contemporary historical figures, I’d rank Betsy right up there.

Do you think that leadership skills and values in PR are different in any way from those in other professions? If so, how and why?

>> Having been actively involved in corporations for about 30 years and five years in agencies, and doing a lot of volunteer work for non-profits, I can say no. The only thing that would change would be that in the non-profit world, and especially in academia, that you would find that patience is even more required than it is in corporate settings and agency settings, where I think decisions can be made faster.

What can a new PR professional do to begin to develop the kinds of leadership characteristics and skills that you described?  

>> I think that finding every experience possible. We have a young person on our staff that we just hired probably about seven months ago, Kevin Saghy. Kevin headed PRSSA nationally. And matter of fact, I met him at a Plank Center board meeting and was impressed with the guy to the point that we made him an intern, and within, I think two months, less than two months, he was the fastest promoted person in the office.

And part of the reason is because he doesn’t just stop with doing the job. It’s what else can I do. And in that process, he’s learning far more than a lot of other young people coming into the profession. So he’s the first one to raise his hand to volunteer.

He will check in with his various supervisors and ask what else can I do, and he’s involved outside of the office. And so I think he becomes very well rounded.

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

>> I think the key thing it goes back to, just find ways to get young people involved. And if you just stick to the coursework, it’s not going to happen.

We see book smart people come in for interviews. And people who come in with experience. And every time, I have to choose between the two, experience and college, or nonprofits, or whatever they’re doing outside of the classroom always tilts the scale in favor of that individual. So I think that yep, academics are very important.

But it’s the experience they’re gaining in college that are most crucial in my thinking.

Do you think that leadership can be taught?

>> I think that you can learn the concepts and the theories are very important to understand because, then all of a sudden, you can become self-aware that’s that’s what it’s all about. I’m better at that kind of leadership style than this one. But leadership is, I would almost say you’re born with it but that’s not probably true but I do think it comes very early in your life and probably definitely before college. So I think that a lot of people say well you’re going to go to such and such a college because that’s where you go if you want to become a CEO, you got to be in Boston.

And they had that drive before they picked that academic institution so I think a lot of people will point to those experiences and think that you can teach it but you can’t. I think you’re almost born with it or at least it comes early in your life.

Some have argued that there is a shortage of outstanding leaders in PR today. What can the profession do to help new practitioners, or those with experience in the field, develop greater leadership skills?

>> The profession needs to do a number of things. Number one, which I think we’ve seen through Plank Center with recognizing through its legends book the fact that they’ve identified and presented some role models, some historical and some more recent, that are able to give their insights into the profession, and then they’re willing to share it with others. Or the Page Society does the same thing with creating awards programs and getting recognition. Where it stops short is these leaders once identified, are very busy people, generally. And I don’t think that there is a conduit to get them more engaged in opportunities to go speak to college students.

To speak to PRSSA chapters and to become more engaged, because it’s just the nature of their jobs, there’s so much else to do. So I think there almost needs to be a clearing-house or some way to engage the senior members of the profession especially if they can in one on one situations to really work with young people to build the next group of leaders.

If you will back to Kevin Saghy, he’s going to be a leader in a profession and, so he’s worth the time of investment that we’re going to give to him and if at some time, he’s going to have to make a decision to move into a corporate job or elsewhere, we’re going to be helping make that happen just to make him well rounded as possible.

So, I think that we kind of have to dip in, we have to address issues like diversity as well, and we need to be more active rather than sitting back and not playing a role that’s going to make some change in how we develop these future leaders because I think we are lacking.

There’s a lot of talent but I don’t think we’re really grooming the next Betsy Planks and Dan Edelmans out there.

Can you give a concrete example or illustration of leadership at work in practice?

>> I think it comes out of the fact that a leader has to take risks, and if they feel very strongly about something they have to put a stake in the ground. And too often public relations practitioners, depending on the longevity of their careers or desired longevity, are holding back from giving the counsel that they should. So I think when you say okay, I believe this strongly enough that I’ll get fired over it. That you’re probably going to be the best service to a corporation, organization you work for.

So the example that I would use is when I was at Sears heading public relations we had signed a contract with Benetton, the apparel company. And we were going to be selling Benetton products in the stores and it was going to be a huge new product for the company. And we already committed millions of dollars to this.

Well, unbeknownst to us, Benetton was going to launch and ad campaign featuring convicted murderers. And the minute I heard the ad campaign I said we’re in serious trouble. And we need to do something about and no, no, no and that’s Benetton, they’re going to separate it from Sears Benetton. And I said no Benetton’s Benetton and started the groundswell internally to say we’re going to have difficulties.

Well when I started getting calls from mothers of victims, saying how could you possibly be a party to this? And then organizations around the country started mobilizing, saying they were going to be boycotting Sears. And this was our core customer that was threatening us in that regard. I just told the CEO and the head of merchandising that we had to make a decision on this and they said let’s see if it blows over and I said even if it blows over it’s the wrong thing to do.

I mean, Benetton did not tell us about this, the roles have changed and we really need to make a decision. What was interesting that conversation probably lasted about 11 minutes, and the CEO asked the head of merchandising how much it was going to cost us and it was 15, $16 million. And the CEO agreed and said, pull it from the shelves and the merchandise was removed. And the next thing you know, we were getting awards from all these organizations. And we became, culture rose within our customer base which I think was a very important thing to happen. But what the CEO wanted to hear and the head of marketing, they were desperately wanting to hear that, no we can handle it PR wise.

And we just said, it’s not going to go away.

What’s the one best book on leadership you would recommend to young professionals?

>> Since you’re talking about young professionals and they usually have a lot of other things to read this is a very simple book to read and I’d highly recommend it. It’s by Bob Kornecki and Bob wrote this book How to Thrive in the Public Relations Business.

I have 35 practical tips. It is so easy to read and understand and we’ve purchased these books and we give them to all interns and young people who start in our office. People are coming in for interviews saying, what’s PR all about? And it’s a simple book that has all the right pointers and if you read it and you say it’s a bunch of bunk then you probably shouldn’t be in PR.

But if you read it and say yeah this is really what this business is all about, then we know that they’re going to be long term public relations professionals, because easy, simple advice, and I’d highly recommend it.

What are the most crucial issues confronting the PR profession today?

>> Talent. The fact that we have a groundswell of young people coming into the profession and the need is so broad. What’s happening is we’re not having enough time to train them effectively in many cases for the demand on the kind of quality PR that’s being expected. So what occurs is corporations and others who, if you just use the agency business, they’re asking for people who are already overextended to do the work.

That person’s really good, but I want you there. And all of a sudden, the senior people with the more deep experience are having to appear and do more work because corporations especially are not willing to bring the young people up. So back to the training question is that we have to do more, and I think sometimes we just simply have to say, come with me to this meeting.

And if you’re in an agency, it’s not going to be billable. You’re going to come, but you’re going to learn because it’s not going to happen unless they get the experience. And then the senior people who are being called on can say, you really need to talk to Megan or Joe because they were there when we worked on such and such.

And so we have to build the credibility of the younger people in the profession. And I think until we do that that they’re not going to kind of get the experiences they need to get to the next level. We were fortunate when I was in corporate America, there were a lot fewer PR people out there, and so I had to do everything.

And I was way in over my head in my first couple of jobs on what was being demanded of me, especially in crisis situations. But it was through those crises that I learned and gained all the experience that made me apparently valuable to the next three or four employers that I had.

Does the profession have greater legitimacy (or credibility) today than it did 20 years ago? Why or why not?

>> Absolutely, positively. Twenty years ago we were fighting for credibility. CEOs were very often saying, well, let’s hire a director of PR. I don’t anyone more senior than that. And let’s make them report to the head of Human Resources or the Law Department, but that’d be fine. And today CEOs, as confirmed by the Page study and other work that’s been done are saying, I want the best possible public relations talent I can have.

And if necessary, even if I have a number of direct reports, the person needs to report to me. I need to rely on this person to be the pulse of the organization and tell me straight face-to-face what’s going on. And it’s not perfect yet. I mean, there’s still probably 40% of corporations and major organizations out there that aren’t that enlightened.

But when I started in this profession, maybe it was 2 or 3%, it was very few, and so we’ve made great progress.

What’s your best advice about a career in PR to students who are just entering the work world?

>> Be prepared to probably never work harder in the first few years, but you’re going to have a lot of fun. And when you all of a sudden wake up one day and you realize that all of your friends hate their jobs and you love your job, that it’s a nice profession to be in.

You’ll never feel like you’ve worked in a real job if you’re in PR, and that’s not to belittle it. It’s just the engagement of what this profession offers. I work very hard, but I always finish the day saying, that really feels good, even on bad days when we’re in the middle of a crisis.

So I think you got to pay your dues, though. And I think there’s a lot of desire that I want to jump into this and be successful right away. And what you do is you work really hard, and it will happen sooner. But if you jump in saying I’m going to be a hot shot and I’m going to really go to the top in this profession, it probably won’t happen.

Again, back to patience and don’t take yourself too seriously, and make sure you listen to everyone around you, and you will succeed.

If you were hiring an entry-level PR professional in your organization today, what factors would weigh most heavily in your decision making?

>> I shouldn’t probably give out my secrets, but I have the receptionist test. And if there’s somebody that comes in for an interview and I wonder if this person might be just right for the job, I’ll go talk to Georgia and ask her what she thought of the person.

And usually, it confirms my point of view. And it’s first impressions. It’s being able to treat everyone equally and come in. And if you’re pleasant to the receptionist and everyone along the way, so that goes through personality. And then two writing and too many young people can’t write well.

And I just find that it’s critical, and so we give a writing test. And every time, every time I’ve agreed to hire anyone under a C, like a C minus writer, I made a mistake. So I think that personality and writing, we can train everything into the experience because you will need those two essentials to survive and to thrive in the profession.

Recorded: April 2008

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