Speech: Bill Nielsen, 2017 Legacy Honoree



JILL GABE: Hi, everyone. I’m Jill Gabe, and it is my great honor to share in this tribute to Bill Nielsen, and to all of tonight’s distinguished recipients. I’ve known Bill, his wife, Doris, his youngest daughter, Jordan, for nearly 35 years, Bill – yikes, oh my god – first, yeah, first as a colleague at the venerable Carl Beyer, then as a client of my own firm when he was at Johnson & Johnson. And for many years now, as a friend. I am also so pleased that my husband and partner, Jim, is here tonight. He too puts Bill atop the category of most esteemed friend, colleague, and coach.

Many of you in this room know Bill very well. You may have benefited from his support and knack for connecting people, been guided by his insight. You might have been touched by his kindness and compassion, or been inspired by his boundless optimism, enthusiasm, and smarts. And if you have, you also know this to be true. In his humility, he is impossible to thank. I am not alone in this experience.

When Bill – oh, that’s me. When Bill asked me to introduce him, his second words were, now, look. This shouldn’t be about me.


But Bill, that sly way you have of deflecting attention back on someone else isn’t going to get you off the hook. I am going to toot your horn. Bill has influenced so many lives over the years – mine, for sure. There’s no handy mentor tip list that applies to him. He just does mentoring by Bill. And it doesn’t get better than that. He is a case study – if there ever was one – of the hallmarks of a gifted mentor and coach. Here’s what I mean.

Bill is admired for speaking truth to power. Now, this is a term that gets bandied about a lot these days. It dates back to our Founding Fathers and is, in essence, how Bill models behavior. He is unfailingly confident and courageous, honest and honorable. His passion, and commitment, and risk-taking – always accompanied by tact and diplomacy – are aimed at doing the right thing, not ever what’s expedient or self-serving.

When he sees an idea – and I’ve seen him do this many times – that he instinctively knows is – let’s say – off, he pounces, persevering with reasoned comment, and most important, prepared with a clearly superior idea that he just pulls out of his back pocket. Never pompous or pious, Bill offers up his vast knowledge of business, management, life, with a dollop of wit – which, to this Boston girl, means he has a wicked sense of humor.

Bill speaks his truths to all manner of powerful people, with a rare combination of humility, sensitivity, and generosity of spirit. He always expands the center of attention beyond himself – to agency partners, his internal team, colleagues, friends. In doing so, he elevates the function of counselor, and boosts the recognition and the confidence of the people around him. This happens because of his unfailing ability to build trust.

His clients – whether in the corporate boardroom or the executive suite– seek his opinion because they recognize his commitment to helping them do their genuine best. Those of us who’ve worked with him know he’s got our backs. He’s a leader who helps people realize their potential, and gives effusive credit where it’s due. He earns trust – yes – but he bestows it too.

It’s just in Bill’s nature to create extraordinary opportunities. He doesn’t spoonfeed them. He opens doors, he steps aside, and he expects you have the perception and the wisdom to walk through and make things happen.

The consummate connector in-chief, he’ll say, how can you not know so-and-so? You need to know so-and-so. They need to know you. Sometimes, Bill has more confidence and faith in us than we have in ourselves. He is an astute observer and a thoughtful listener. He builds 360-degree relationships in the most informal ways, by inserting himself with little suggestions. You might consider this. Have you thought of that?

He makes you think, and your thinking is better for it. Don’t speak until you really know what you know, and know the business – a classic caution and pointer from Bill. He is a master at this – sizing up the situation and, at just the right moment, delivering truly dazzling ah-ha advice.

I recall a project where a management team was devoid of clear strategic direction. Now, none of us in this room can imagine a thing like that ever happening. There were very lofty expectations for the PR people, though. But no clear pathways to success. Bill said you know the lay of the land. Figure it out. It won’t be the first time someone in PR created a corporate strategy.

His influence is epic as a talent spotter, career launcher, and industry advocate. If he has his way, communicators or at the table on a par with all parties of influence in matters of reputation and perception, especially the lawyers. And he tirelessly walks the talk, demonstrating by doing how professionals can and should devote time and skills to the betterment of society.

You get what you give, and Bill has given untold time, often influencing the course and success of a nonprofit or someone’s life. Bill is a treasure. In these times of often raucous painful discourse and change in the corporate geopolitical, cultural, societal landscapes, Bill’s deeply held values, personal qualities, and humanity are more crucial than ever.

The example he sets extends beyond the professional to all of life, quite a legacy. Since we’re in Chicago, I thought it appropriate to cite your own hometown Oracle, Oprah, who once summed it up best. “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” That’s Bill. Thank you.




BILL NIELSEN: Thank you, Jill, for those very kind remarks. It took me a while to figure out she was trying to talk about me. I appreciate all that background. And thank you all for being here tonight. I am very proud and moved by this honor. And I sincerely appreciate the decision of the advisory board to add my name to the legacy of this great organization. I mean that sincerely.

I also think it’s important to give a shout out on behalf of our profession to all of the work and the support that we receive from the College of Communication and Information Services at The University of Alabama. You have spread Betsy’s vision and influence in many different places. And we are all better off for the commitment that you have done that. So, to all of you who cheer for the Crimson Tide, thank you very much on behalf of our profession.


I have to say that standing here in the shadow of Betsy Plank is very daunting. You’ll recall it was President Lincoln who taught us to think about shadows that were cast by tall trees as an attempt to explain what reputation was all about. He reminded us that the shadow was what we thought about the thing. But the tree was the real thing.

Well, Betsy Plank was the real thing. And although she wasn’t a giant in terms of stature, she cast a very long shadow that continues to be seen through the enormous contributions that she has made to the growth and the development of our profession, and to the development of so many who practice in our field of public communications.

Her genius was that she believed in nurturing the tree and not just the shadow. To be seen in that light of her shadow is – I have to tell you – very humbling. In the 40 years since I’ve been practicing, I have developed a huge passion for our profession – starting in the Air Force as a public information officer, and then with the firm Carl Beyer and Associates, and then Hill and Knowlton, and then finally landing at Johnson & Johnson – where I found a credo that perfectly framed in my mind the importance of what we do, and how it relates to the development of corporate cultures. But that’s another speech.

Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to play leadership roles in most of the or many of the organizations that surround our profession, including the Institute for Public Relations, the Arthur Page Society, the seminar, and now with the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity and Public Communications at Penn State. Through all of these experiences and with all of the people that I have seen, I have come to believe that our profession – this thing we do – is a calling. A calling that demands our acceptance of a number of responsibilities for who we are, what we believe, and the importance of the essential skills that we bring to the organizations that we represent.

Our field, you see, is different from other functions of management, largely because we are driven by a strong sense of purpose, and by the singular objective that we have of helping our organizations to be successful in their chosen fields of endeavor. This, I believe, is a very high calling, especially in these times with such disruption in our society.

I don’t know if we could possibly count the number of ways in which mentoring and mentorships have become so important to our practice, but also to our future. In the midst of such turbulent times, we – I believe – are at the very center of this stormy moment with the skills and the values to help find the way forward. We need to listen carefully and hear clearly the voices of every constituent group.

We know there is great disaffection and loss of trust, but we also know there is great promise. These times demand the very best from us, from each of us. We must commit to meeting that demand, and to answering our calling with the unique skills that we have, and the values that we hold.

In the face of the loss of trust and the disruptions in society, our duty to mentor takes on enormous responsibility and consequence. We must assure the development of a new generation of young women and men who are devoted to the truth and integrity in public communication. The truth and fact-based reporting should be the irrefutable standard for all those who take on the responsibility of communicating with the public. This is the standard against which all should be measured, and especially those who choose to enter our field.

I truly believe we represent the hope for the restoration of public trust in all facets of society – in the institutions that make up the structure of our society, as well as the clients that we seek to serve. This is a high calling and a very important responsibility. It is, frankly, a responsibility that is simply too big to fail. Part of meeting that responsibility is to find the very best and the brightest, to mentor them in ways that will instill our values, and to help them find the opportunities to begin developing their careers. That’s why I am so appreciative of what you are doing through The Plank Center, and why I’m so deeply honored and so happy to be with you this evening. Thank you very much.


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