Some Corporate Pros View Non-Traditional Hires Skeptically
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Some Corporate Pros View Non-Traditional Hires Skeptically

“We took a long hard look at public relations, and we thought it was too important to be left to a PR guy,” said the CEO. “We wanted to bring in someone who had more business experience, who could stand toe-to-toe with the legal department."

Paul Holmes

Five years ago, Michael—who is now the senior vice president of corporate communications for a large financial services company—was in the running for the senior corporate communications at another Fortune 500. He had been one of three direct reports to the previous head of PR, and the departing PR chief let it be known that Michael (not his real name) was his choice to take over the department.
So Michael was stunned when the CEO called him into the corner office a few weeks later to introduce him to his new boss. He had not lost out to one of the other direct reports, nor had the company decided to bring in someone from outside the organization. The position was being filled by the number-two guy in the company’s legal department.
It was the explanation that Michael found particularly galling.
“We took a long hard look at public relations, and we thought it was too important to be left to a PR guy,” said the CEO. “We wanted to bring in someone who had more business experience, who could stand toe-to-toe with representatives from the legal department and the finance department, who the rest of the ‘dominant coalition’ would take seriously.”
If you’re a corporate public relations person, that story contains good news and bad. The good news is that corporate executives are taking public relations more seriously—so seriously, in fact, that they are prepared to explore non-traditional hiring channels to find the best person. The bad news is that at least some of them don’t believe the right person is likely to be found in the existing public relations ranks.
When we examined the subject of non-traditional hires in the PR agency business, we found almost unbridled enthusiasm among agency leaders for bringing in talent from outside the business: it reduces the cannibalization that has driven up salaries and led to many young professionals being promoted beyond their level of competence, and it helps foster a diversity of knowledge and thinking that enhances creativity.
But on the corporate side, there is much more ambivalence about non-traditional hires, perhaps because senior corporate PR pros think the interlopers might take their jobs, perhaps because they feel it trivializes the knowledge and skill set they have developed over their years in the business.
Whatever the reason, reactions like the one we got from Greg Baird, head of communications at Novartis, are not unusual. Says Baird, “Too often I have seen public relations diminished by corporate executives who sport a ‘give-anybody-a-try’ notion toward our discipline. It’s not that crossovers in all fields, including ours, can’t work. They do work at times. But it is the distinct exception, and not the rule.”
Baird worries that when people talk about “non-traditional hires,” what they really mean is that there is insufficient talent within the public relations ranks.
“I have not heard of any CEOs exploring this concept when they are looking to fill the general counsel position, or searching for a new CFO. Why not? The same reason should apply to public relations too. Ours is a specialized field that requires a distinct set of talents, skills, knowledge bases, and experience-based judgment. If CEOs are looking to outside-the-box hires for public relations, why? What does it say about their confidence in our unique skills sets?”
One thing it suggests is that many CEOs believe it is easier for smart business execs to learn those unique skill sets than it is for people with those skill sets to become smart business execs.
“When I was asked to run the company’s public relations department, my first reaction was that I didn’t know anything about public relations,” says a former attorney, now head of corporate communications for a large corporation. “The CEO told me, ‘You’re smart, you’ll learn. It’s the things you can’t learn—wisdom, judgment, integrity—that are the most important qualities we’re looking for.’ The other thing was, they knew I knew the business.”
The fact is that public relations, unlike finance or the law, does not require a specific core of knowledge. In fact, it’s a field that welcomes and thrives on a diversity of knowledge. As a result, many of the field’s most successful practitioners come from non-traditional backgrounds. Ann Barkelew, who headed corporate communications at Dayton Hudson for more than a decade before becoming a consultant, is a former English teacher. Jack Bergen, who currently heads corporate communications for Siemens, got his first corporate PR job after serving as an officer in the U.S. Army. Fred Hill, executive vice president of marketing and communications at Chase was a state trooper and then a corporate attorney. John Jacob, chief communications officer at Anheuser Busch, was previously CEO of the National Urban League. Steven Parrish, senior VP of corporate affairs at Philip Morris, was formerly in the company’s legal department.
Of course, there is a significant difference between non-traditional hires who are brought in to fill the most senior position in the organization (and selected by the CEO) and those brought in at other levels (and hired by PR people).
Cigna communications chief Mike Fernandez, who is somewhat non-traditional himself (he came into the field from the political realm, with a master’s degree in accounting) used to work for a non-traditional boss (Mike Benard, vice president for communications and public affairs at Kodak, and a former English teacher) and has hired several himself.
“At US West I had two PhD candidates working for me, one heading employee communications and the other on projects associated with the intranet and Internet,” he says. “Today, 20 to 25 percent of my team at Cigna comes from diverse backgrounds. My head of corporate communications, Garth Neuffer, started in politics and has his master’s degree in international affairs. Greg Deavens, our VP of investor relations, comes from a financial services and accounting background and most recently was head of strategic planning for our healthcare business.
“We also have made a conscious effort to bring people in from other types of businesses so that the team does not just see issues from a healthcare or insurance perspective. Having diverse disciplines within one’s shop can be a big plus. The real key is that we have people who can easily understand our client’s business from multiple perspectives, think strategically, and help them communicate clearly and succinctly.”
Others believe in at least keeping an open mind. Says Don Spetner, currently head of corporate communications at Korn/Ferry, “When I was the vice president of corporate communications at Nissan, the CEO ‘requested’ (read forced) me to take a field sales executive on to my staff as my director of communications, the number two position in the department. I strongly objected, pointing out that the man had no communications experience, would not be respected by my staff, would not understand how to work with the media, had poor writing skills, etc.
“Boy was I wrong. The man was of enormous help in making the PR department more field-oriented and better accepted by the sales and marketing people. He also taught my staff—and me—a great deal about the fundamentals of the car business, the mentality of our dealers, and the best way to work an idea through the organization. He spent two years in the PR department then moved on, but was truly one of the most positive and influential figures in my career.
“On the flip side, at SunAmerica we hired an Ivy League PhD for an entry-level PR position, and though she was smarter than me, was pretty much a disaster in the position.”
Those who have made the transition from other professions to senior public relations roles report encountering some obstacles, but say they had no difficulty getting senior management to take their counsel seriously.
Elizabeth Krupnick was teaching journalism before she was recruited to her first PR position at Aetna (she now heads corporate communications for Bcom3). “Corporate culture was very difficult to get used to, particularly the proclivity for endless meetings, pre-meetings, post meetings, debriefings,” she says. “I was amazed at how much time was spent rehearsing for the boss.
“I was also struck by how people seemed to be so professionally insecure and consistently nervous about their place in the corporate pecking order.”
But Krupnick experienced no difficulty persuading executives that they should heed her counsel, despite the fact that she had no PR background. “If anything, coming in from the outside was an advantage,” she says. “The insurance industry had been a pretty closed culture. I had been teaching undergrad and grad students and this seemed to suggest that I had some intellectual credentials to bring to the party.”
One of Krupnick’s hires when she ascended to the top position at Aetna was Marie van Luling, an attorney with a practice in property and casualty insurance law. Van Luling had become a spokesperson for the industry on tort reform issues and had done government relations work as a lawyer. Her first PR role involved building relationships with interest groups.
“I am still not the person a client would come to if they wanted to deal with a key reporter at The Wall Street Journal,” says van Luling, who now heads the Boston office of Manning Selvage & Lee. “But I can help develop strategy. Many of the things that help you succeed as a lawyer—the ability to think on your feet, recognize issues, position your ideas—are the same things that can help you succeed in public relations.”
As for the attitude of her colleagues in public relations, “There was some skepticism, particularly from people who were media relations specialists. But over time I founds that having a law degree was a credential that gave me credibility with clients.”
Gerald Corbett, who currently heads corporate communications for Hitachi America, is another senior PR professional from a non-traditional background. He started his professional career as an engineer at NASA before going back to school part time to study journalism. He too has found his non-traditional background to be an advantage.
“The fact that I am technically adept has gotten me into various positions throughout my career,” he says. “Technology companies need a PR person who understands the technology.” Corbett recalls being interviewed by the chief technical officer of a company where he had applied for a PR job. “He gave me a technology test, and I was the only PR applicant who passed.
“It’s also been in helpful in terms of being able to communicate technical issues to reporters.”
The success of non-traditional hires in corporate public relations does not imply that CEOs underestimate the importance of public relations skills as much as it suggests that the corporate public relations business is not doing a good enough job of training its younger professionals to take the reins. If the senior public relations positions of tomorrow are to be filled by today’s young PR practitioners, training—particularly in business and management skills—needs to become a much higher priority in the corporate PR business, and succession planning needs to be taken more seriously.
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