Q&A: Bill Nielsen


The Plank Center is committed to developing the next generation of leaders and advancing the profession. It is our honor to recognize six leaders whose commitment to mentoring generates a powerhouse of influence and accelerates success in our profession.

Our question and answer series introduces the 2017 Milestones in Mentoring award recipients.

Bill Nielsen

Meet Bill Nielsen.
Bill Nielsen retired as corporate vice president of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) in December 2004, after serving 17 years with the company, where he was the chief public relations and corporate communications officer.

Why is mentoring important to the public relations profession?

A mentoring relationship is a relationship that should be treasured and cherished by the mentor and mentee. Mentorships occur throughout one’s career; they certainly did in mine. I don’t know anyone, even our most senior leaders, who is beyond being mentored. As my career progressed, my main focus with mentoring has been to establish connections for people. I am fortunate to have been in leadership positions in major PR organizations, including The Seminar, Arthur W. Page Society, Global Public Affairs Institute and the Institute for PR. Those leadership positions allowed me to make many connections.
While we have principles of practice and ethical codes, we don’t have set procedures or strict organizational models. Therefore, the examples of others who have broad experience become very powerful and important learning opportunities. This is why mentoring is so important to the PR professional.

How important is networking?

Networking was a critical dimension in my role at Johnson & Johnson. It was crucial to be able to reach people quickly, especially those who I knew and were friends, and ask for their help in solving a problem or issue.

Public relations is practiced on an individual level, where our success is influenced by the connections and the networks that we are able to establish. The sooner students get started with forming their own networks with people they trust, the better off they will be going forward. To have success in public relations, one must have a high level of self-confidence in knowing who they are, what they believe, what they do and the responsibilities for how they practice. Networks help build that self-confidence.

How to establish self-confidence?

Most clients need advice and counsel on values, core beliefs and decision-making on doing the right thing. When the truth is under such challenge, PR people, particularly leaders, have become even more important to executive management groups because our primary objective is the success of the organization.

While there are many voices around the table, the PR professional operates as the glue that holds the management groups together. Having self-confidence allows you to have the fortitude to stand your ground, even under the challenges and putting your career on the line, you advocate for the right decision and the right thing to do.

What is your advice for mentees (young professionals, students, etc.)?

It’s important for young professionals and students to pay attention to their achievements throughout their careers. Most careers start in college. Many classes encourage you to get involved with projects in your community. During those projects, similar to evaluating campaigns, we need to evaluate all areas of our life. Look back at what happened and pull the learning out of that experience. In doing so, you begin setting the foundation of how you will react to situations in the future and have a basis from which to apply good judgment.

You will have to get comfortable with juggling multiple projects. During those projects, it’s important to remain calm and have a sense of order to make good decisions.

What is one powerful thing you’ve learned?

No matter how busy your day was or how many projects you are juggling, always count on accomplishing one thing. For me, I always wash the dishes after dinner. It’s the psychology behind getting that one thing done and for me it’s the dishes. No, you don’t actually have to wash the dishes, but find something you can accomplish every day.

What advice would you tell your early-career self?

I would tell my early-career self to gain as much experience as possible and as quickly as possible. Seek opportunities to work with “big tools” early in your career. What I mean by “big tools” is to take on big responsibilities.

One of my “big tools” was serving in the U.S. Air Force as a Public Affairs Officer at Andrews Air Force Base, where I ran the flight line press conferences for President Lyndon B. Johnson. Whether it’s writing for the college paper, working with media or volunteering with your community, jump at the chance to volunteer or to expand your skillset with the “big tools.”

What inspires/motivates you to be a mentor?

The public relations function has become a critical discipline. Our roles are focused on the future. An important part of doing our jobs is to place a priority on the development of future leaders and skilled practitioners. We have to take the time to train those people who are coming along behind us. That is how you serve your organization and our profession.

What have you found to be the most important key to having a successful mentor/mentee relationship?

Mentoring relationships are to be cherished. It’s important for both the mentor and mentee to be frank, open, honest and candid. I’ve found that I’ve learned just as much in the relationship as the mentee does.

As a mentor, it’s been my goal to help put mentees on a course or pathway to make good decisions about their own lives. When speaking to students, one question I always hear is: Where should I start? My advice is

When speaking to students, one question I always hear is: Where should I start? My advice is to go with an agency. When I went to Johnson and Johnson, everything I learned from working in an agency had prepared me for that moment.

What advice would you share with other mentors?

I believe what we do as PR professionals is a calling, particularly since it is practiced on a personal basis. To be successful in this industry, our character and integrity trace back to our individual values and the responsibilities we are prepared to assume for what we do and what we believe. I’ve written a credo that expresses those ideas. Here are four responsibilities of values that I share with mentors and mentees:

  1. Our first responsibility as individuals is to the audiences with whom we communicate and serve. Everything must be based on the truth and the verification of that truth in all forms.
  2. Our second responsibility is to the organizations we represent. We must be informed advocates and maintain a sense of independence and the highest level of integrity at all times in counseling our leaders and management groups.
  3. The third responsibly is to the media, in all its forms. In our democratic society, the public has a right, through members of the media, to inquire about actions, principles and policies of the company. We need to recognize and acknowledge that right and respond promptly to legitimate questions.
  4. The fourth responsibility is to each other. We need to declare what it is we believe, the responsibilities we are assuming and we have a right to expect that of one another.

Favorite drink.

Arnold Palmer.

If given the choice to trade places with anyone (living or dead) for one day, who would it be and why?

The first person I would trade places with is Glen Campbell. He was an extraordinary musician and had a huge influence on developing country music artists for decades. I always admired his love of entertaining people and the joy he received from it.

The second person would be Anthony Kennedy, who is Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. We actually went to the same high school, and I have enormous respect for him. To be on the bench for one day, deciding cases based on the facts as they are presented without fear, favor or politics, in this day in age, it would be a gift.

My leadership tip is…

My leadership tip and personal philosophy is to always expect the best in others.

Published: October 2, 2017


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