Mike Fernandez | Influence 100
Charting the future of public relations

mike-fernandez

Mike Fernandez

Corporate vp, corporate affairs
Cargill

In an age of increasing specialization, Mike Fernandez demonstrates that a strong senior communications professional develops an expertise that is relevant beyond a single industry sector. In fact, over the course of a 25-year career, Fernandez has moved from cameras and consumer tech to telecommunications, from financial services to food products, developing PR programs that deliver business results for leaders at companies such as Eastman Kodak, US West, CIGNA, ConAgra, and State Farm Insurance before taking on his current role. Reporting directly to CEO David MacLennan, Fernandez is the most senior corporate affairs official at Cargill, where he oversees global government relations, internal and external communications, corporate responsibility, knowledge management, and corporate brand management. Fernandez is also one of the most senior Hispanic- Americans in the corporate communications field, and is active in professional organizations, serving as co-chair of the Institute of Public Relations and on the board of the Arthur W. Page Society. Earlier in his career, he worked on Capitol Hill as press secretary to former US Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings.

What do you consider your career highlight?
The ability to successfully navigate public relations challenges and crises, and build brands and thought leadership across multiple industries.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Back in the early 1980s had the honor of interacting with Dr. Benjamin E. Mayes (former president of Morehouse College and mentor to Dr. Martin LutherKing, Jr. and others in the U.S. civil rights movement). Awed by his many accomplishments I asked him for the best advice he would give to young people interested in making a difference in the world. He shared three words: "Never stop learning."

What is your favorite PR campaign?
I'm a bit partial to work we have done at Cargill in partnership with others to solve one of the most critical issues facing our planet - nourishing people affordably, nutritiously, safely and sustainably as our population climbs to 9 billion by 2050. If you're asking what I'm most impressed with from others, among the best efforts in recent years are Unilever's Dove® Campaign for Real Beauty and McDonald's Our Food. Your Questions.® Both demonstrate the power of being more transparent, and the importance of building trust in products and brands.

What do you enjoy most about working in PR?
This is an exciting time to be in this field. We are not just being asked to communicate. We are being charged with solving real business problems and addressing significant issues that impact our industries and the world. This is requiring us to forge different relationships, drive towards a shared understanding with parties we have not always agreed with, and master new channels and new technologies.

What was your biggest career break?
There were two big breaks. The first came when U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings took a chance on a 23 year old kid to be his press secretary (making me the youngest US Senate press secretary and only the 2nd Hispanic in the history of the US Senate). The other was when US WEST CEO Sol Trujillo gave me my first job as a chief communications officer in 1996.

Who was your mentor and why?
I've never had a formal mentor; but many informal ones. My Cuban grandfather was key. I'm the oldest of 20+ grandchildren and he would spend time encouraging me first to get an education (I'm the first in his family to get a 4-year university degree) and to give back and care about others less fortunate. He'd paraphrase the Bible in Spansih: "A quien mucho se da, mucho se requiere." ("To whom much is given, much is required.")

Who inspires you?
My children. They show me how each of us is different in special ways, and how everyday each of us can make a difference. One is a journalist with an MBA, another is a Ph.D. working in sports medicine, another is a Ph. D. in computational chemistry working on ground-breaking research, and the other is an honor's student at a prestigious University. And to think that there was a time I could hold them in one arm...

What are your favorite media, offline and online?
Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The New York Times, The Daily Show, CNBC, The Atlantic, National Geographic, realclearpolitics.com, Scientific American

What is your favorite gadget?
iPad, Nikon camera, and my espresso machine

In one sentence, sell a career in communications to a new graduate.
If you have exceptional communications, analytical and collaboration skills and see yourself as turning ideas into reality, nightmares into dreams, and work into making a difference for your employers, its customers and the world, there is no better job.

What is your favorite city for business travel?
This is tough. Been to more than three dozen countries in the last four years and have found something special to admire and enjoy in each, but the place I enjoy most is wrapped in the arms of my wife no matter what city it is.