Ron Culp Shares Thoughts: Five Replies to a Q and A

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Today, The PRDude continues a time-honored (well, sort of) tradition: A Q and A with a fascinating figure from public relations.

But rather than run down the very, very impressive list of credentials earned by subject Ron Culp, I’ll make it easy: Visit Ron’s online biography and spend a few minutes reading about this consummate pro. You’ll learn how he cultivated a truly remarkable career highlighted by stellar professional achievements and outstanding volunteer contributions to public relations. And, now, the author of the very popular Culpwrit blog has charged forward to nurture the next generation of communicators.

From the “full-disclosure department,” Mr. Culp has graciously re-blogged some PRDude posts over the past few years, and I’m honored to know that along with public relations, he also has a fondness for the towns and lakes of southeast Wisconsin.

Here’s Mr. Culp’s erudite responses to five questions.

1. You’ve successfully navigated the corporate and agency sides of public relations.  What were specific public relations challenges faced in each arena?

Ron CulpAfter working for four major corporations, I discovered that the critical communication processes are remarkably similar no matter if you’re producing pharmaceuticals, office equipment or consumer products. At Sears, I was blessed with an extraordinarily talented team of public relations pros who got to know every aspect of their respective businesses. As a result, the PR team became an integral part of the business. Leaders running major business units sought out counsel on everything from product promotion to internal communication. This relationship with my team allowed me to know critical information about every aspect of the business, which provided me with a unique vantage point within the organization. Without a doubt, the bigger the company the greater the challenges and we were inundated with “opportunities.” Due to the size of the business and promotional nature of the store, we worked with a large number of agencies–nearly 50 at one point during the “good old days.”

Only after I joined the agency world did I fully appreciate challenges facing consultants, especially those who only receive one-off tactical projects. Their access to information is often limited to what is shared by the corporation so they must make assumptions that are sometimes correct and often wrong. Agencies that enjoy longer-term relationships with clients normally deliver the best and most cost-effective results. Agency client directors and teams who fully understand their respective businesses and convey a sincere client-first commitment become top-of-mind when additional assistance is needed. Creating that special esprit de corps is one of the key challenges facing any agency leader today.

2.  Public relations, like advertising, could point to “legendary” figures who shaped the profession from its founding days to not too long ago. Who’s at the pinnacle in today’s digitally-driven world?

We wouldn’t be where we are today without the legends who got us to this point of respectability for what our profession can help organizations achieve. I remain in awe of the contributions to the profession by some of the greats that I’ve been honored to know and work with over the years–Al GolinHarold Burson, David Finn, Dan Edelman and, of course, Betsy Plank. Today, I think the leaders of most large agencies and the CCOs of many of the top corporations are led by incredibly talented and innovative individuals. While there is consensus around Richard Edelman being a current day pioneer thinker in our profession, several of his peers and certainly corporate leaders like Jon Iwata (IBM) and Gary Sheffer (GE) also are significant players in raising the bar of respect and influence for our profession. 

3.  You made a very cool transition from leading a major agencyDepaul logo to leading the PRAD Master’s program at DePaul University.  How did you land that gig and what’s your biggest take away?

While heading Ketchum’s Chicago office, I signed up with the Plank Center for its academic fellows program that places PR profs in a dozen or so corporations and agencies during the summer to gain real-world insights to then share in their classrooms. Luckily, my office was assigned Teresa Mastin from DePaul. At the end of her two weeks of engaging with the Ketchum team, she asked me if I would consider teaching a class. I agreed to do so for one quarter and instantly got hooked and was happy to become an adjunct. When they asked me to help find someone to fill a newly created position of professional director for the grad program, I volunteered after another candidate I tried to help recruit turned down the offer. While I’ve enjoyed every phase of my career, I can honestly say this is the most rewarding work of my life. My DePaul colleagues and I draw incredible inspiration from seeing our students land their first jobs and then excel in them. Realizing that we’re helping train the future of this amazing profession provides a great deal of personal satisfaction.

4.  You’re a fellow blogger with the very popular Cuplwrit.com blog for “guiding the career in public relations.”  What prompted you to enter the blogging community?  And, what advice do you have for fellow PR bloggers?

I knew very little about blogging some eight years ago when I was approached by three Ketchum interns suggesting I consider starting a blog to provide advice for young people pursuing careers in public relations. Dressed as if they were going to an important new business pitch, they presented a persuasive PowerPoint case on why I should blog. They ended with the clever name, which was the brainchild of Kevin Saghy (now on the Cubs PR team). I have been blogging ever since, and I haven’t missed a week in all that time.

My advice to fellow bloggers is to find your passion, and post something regularly. Put dates on everything you write since this will remind you of the need to post at least once a week. 

5.   In 50 words or thereabouts, offer thoughts on the direction PR is headed.

Public relations (and I prefer those two words over the host of others that attempt to camouflage what we do) has never been in a stronger position as a profession. There is growing demand for talent, and colleges are turning out future professionals who are better trained than ever. However, as corporate and agency expectations for our services grow, there are two factors that concern me–writing and business intelligence. With few exceptions, educational institutions place too little emphasis on writing and business basics. Young professionals who can write usually are good thinkers, and those who understand how businesses operate are going to have highly rewarding careers.

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Want to know the thoughts of other PR heavyweights?  (Figuratively speaking, of course.)  Here are Q&A posts from:

  • Gerry Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA and 2013 Chair and CEO of PRSA
  • Nick Kalm, President of Reputation Partners Public Relations
  • Chris Ruys, President of Chris Ruys Communications
  • R. J. Sirois, former PR pro turned successful real estate broker

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Thoughts on the Late Betsy Plank, APR

On Sunday, May 23, the public relations profession lost a true standard-bearer. Her name was Betsy Plank, and she worked her entire career here in my home city of Chicago.

Mrs. Plank had an exemplary life and career.  An obituary in today’s Chicago Tribune provides the details:

  • Started at Edelman in 1952 and excelled there for 20 years
  • Led the communications department at AT&T and Illinois Bell
  • First woman president of PRSA in 1973
  • Established the Plank Center at the University of Alabama

Any one of these accomplishments elevates Mrs. Plank to a very lofty level among those of us who practice public relations.

But the one aspect of Mrs. Plank’s career that strikes a very responsive chord for me is her role in the founding of the Public Relations Student Society of America.   Through her efforts and those of others, future generations of public relations professionals have a direct connection to those of us actively working in the trenches and teaching ethical, effective PR.  As I see it, the very essence of PRSSA is to transcend being a mentor, but to be an example.

I never met Mrs. Plank.   But apparently she is an example for all of us to follow.  And, I’m proud to say that Mrs. Plank believed in the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) credential, which I am proud to hold.  (For the record, I’m on the Universal Accreditation Board, which grants, oversees and promotes Accreditation.)

Public relations is — and should be — an evolving profession.  I’ll use a two-decade-old phrase that’s become a cliche, but still works to underscore what PR should be: cutting edge.  That requires new education, new ideas and new strategists.

Given the never-ending news cycle and digital communications revolution, society needs true public relations professionals today more than ever.  Want evidence?  Read what happened to BP when they did not actively address postings in a phony Twitter account.

Regrets in my life?  To borrow from the lyrics from “My Way,” I’ve had a few.  One regret is that I never met Betsy Plank, APR.