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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A Q & A Conversation with Nick Kalm of Reputation Partners Public Relations

By Edward M. Bury, APR, aka The PRDude

Last month, The PRDude published a post that chronicled one of the highlights of his long (and hopefully influential and distinguished) career: Being featured in a question-and-answer blog published by a fellow blogger, public relations pro and best of all — fellow dude.

Here, I take the role as the guy — make that “dude” — posing the questions. My interview subject is Nick Kalm, founder and president of the Chicago-based Reputation Partners Public Relations, a boutique firm that, well, here’s what I harvested from their web site:  “At Reputation Partners, we are trusted corporate reputation consultants who earn our clients’ trust by providing effective counsel, delivering the highest quality work and generating meaningful results.”

The agency just celebrated its 10th anniversary, quite an accomplishment for any business in these ever-changing times. Here’s an edited version of my conversation with Mr. Kalm.pic-nick

1.  Public relations can be a stressful way to make a living and is not for everyone. What compelled you to pursue public relations as a career?

I kind of backed into it at first.  I was a political science major in college, and my career goal was to work in Washington for a Congressman or Senator. When I couldn’t find a job in Washington, I returned to the New York City area and found a job in public relations working in the pharmaceutical industry. There really are a lot of similarities between public relations and working for the government.  You have to reach a broad swath of the public and try to convince them to be in favor of something or against it.

2.  After a very successful career at the nation’s largest independent public relations firm (Edelman), you decided to launch your own firm. What three reasons (or more, or less) prompted that decision?

At Edelman, I had a great career working on behalf of some very large multi-national public and private firms.  I attended an event for entrepreneurs and was encouraged to start my own firm. I was 41 years old at the time, and said to myself, “If not now, when?”  I knew I could always go back to the agency or corporate world. But, so far it’s turned out great.

3.  Say I’m seeking PR counsel. Why would I select Reputation Partners over the firm down the street?

Clients go to big PR firms because they need strategic thinking and the depth and breath of experience those firms can offer.  You can get that from Reputation Partners, but at a much more cost-effective rate.  We provide the same level of services and are focused on delivering the same kind of results. We provide all of our clients with senior-level management attention.Reputation Partners

4.  The PRDude has been championing the practice of effective and ethical public relations. Do you believe our profession needs to do a better job of promoting good PR versus hucksterism?

It’s a great question. I think there are many different kinds of public relations practices.  Not to put what we do on a pedestal, but there are practitioners out there who aren’t as ethical or of the same level of quality.  There are a number of slippery characters in the business, and they’re dragging down the entire profession.  We’re not defense attorneys.  Companies don’t have a right to PR counsel.  There are some entities that should not be represented by public relations firms for ethical reasons. I see this happening at big and small firms alike: They tell the client what the want to hear and promise results they can’t deliver.

5.  Back in the day, there were lots of “PR legends,” men (and some women) who pioneered the practice. Who’s at the forefront of public relations today?

They really are few and far between.  Earlier you mentioned Edelman.  I think Richard Edelman is one of the few intellectuals running a major PR firm.  I can’t think of anyone else who comes close.  Ours is an industry that suffers from a big perception problem.  I think there are few programs on college campuses that focus on public relations. Some colleges, of course are doing a good job preparing students for careers in public relations.  We work in a very important profession that impacts people in their day-to-day lives in a very meaningful way.

Do you have questions for Mr. Kalm?  Or The PRDude?  Pose early and often.