By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)
So, what’s next for a public relations leader who forged a very successful three-decade-plus career in the technology industry and decided to seek a new direction in life? Rick Aspan, APR, will find an answer in the days to come. The first public relations pro to be featured in 2020, Rick shares thoughts on his work at a multi-national firm, the value of earning the Accredited in Public Relations credential and the professional baseball team he’s rooted for all his life.
1. You recently retired after 15 years as VP and global head of Corporate Communications for North Carolina-based CommScope, and you did so based in their Westchester, IL office. On the company website, CommScope is described as a leader “in innovating the network infrastructure of the future.” Please describe your role and responsibilities with the company.
I led a global team of nine talented people, and we provided the media relations, employee communications, social media, industry analyst relations and executive communications support for CommScope around the world. The company now has approximately $10 billion in annual sales and 30,000 employees, with manufacturing, sales, engineering and administrative facilities in numerous nations. Needless to say, we stayed very busy, but I’m proud of all we did—we consistently outperformed and delivered results that enhanced the company brand, perception and performance.
2. How did you gain the experience required to lead communications at a publicly-traded technology company?
Since my dream was to be a sportswriter, clearly there was an early fork in the road and a ton of experience gained along the way! I was fortunate to work at companies and for people who appreciated aggressiveness and creativity, which provided countless ways to learn by doing. And, as a non-technology guy who has worked in technology for 35 years, I quickly realized I’d never be the smartest person in the room, but I sure can be the best business communicator they’d ever seen by being open to learning and developing. It never hurts, either, to have worked with some great leaders—my direct managers and company executives—who trusted me and from whom I’ve benefited tremendously.
3. What were some of the challenges you encountered? Did you ever have to mitigate a crisis?
With a relatively small team and budget, it felt every day presented some sort of challenge just to keep our collective heads above water! And I’m thankful that I never had to manage through a big-scale, headline-generating crisis.
But in the spirit of your question, I’ll point to two specific challenges. First, as a supplier to all of the world’s top networking companies (think AT&T, Telefonica, Comcast, Microsoft, etc.), we serve industry giants and compete against some well-known brands. But CommScope isn’t as well known, especially outside of our industry and because of its rapid growth via acquisition. So the communications team embraced this great opportunity (er, challenge) to make stronger connections to our customers and potential customers via PR and social media, while also building greater brand awareness outside of our traditional industry markets where we’re already well known. So far, good progress that I’m confident will continue after I’ve left.
Secondly, in employee communications, I’ve always joked that CommScope represents the perfect storm of employee communications challenges by nature of its workforce. For example:
- 30,000 or so employees in numerous countries and nearly every time zone
- Approximately 50% of those employees work in manufacturing, distribution or transportation functions where they are “non-connected,” or without workplace access to computers and Internet
- More than 10,000 employees don’t speak English
So every global communication requires additional levels of planning and creativity to ensure that our diverse set of employees have a relatively equal chance to receive it, understand it and embrace it. We’re always translating copy, voicing-over videos, adjusting for time zones, and coaching regional and local leadership to boost our chance of success.
4. We met way, way back in 2003 when you were a panelist on my APR panel presentation. (Thanks again for advancing me!) How did earning Accreditation contribute to your success in public relations?
Wait, we let you through? Haha. Earning Accreditation certainly helped me and was one of the most meaningful steps I took in my career in terms of personal development. And I emphasize “personal.” No one makes us do it, but choosing to take on this challenge and earn APR made it that much more significant to me. I did it for me, while it also helps advance our profession. Sure, I learned some new things even though I was mid-career when I did it. More importantly, the Accreditation process helped me take what I already knew and structured it in a way to be more meaningful and actionable for the rest of my career. Sort of like a guy who has played golf for several years and is good at it, then decides to take his first series of golf lessons. (If you’ve ever done that, you’ll know what I mean!)
5. Now, on to a less serious topic. From your Facebook posts, I see you are die-hard Chicago White Sox fan. The team made some significant off-season moves. So, how will the Sox fare in 2020?
I’m stoked by the team’s progress and changes, but like a true South Sider, I will always be restrained in my optimism and fearful of the worst happening until I actually see good things unfold on the field. There was considerable energy and enthusiasm in the stands last season, despite the lousy team record. So yes, I’m excited. Let me put it this way….for the first time in years, I’m already blocking out my calendar for October.