ANALYSIS: PROFILE - Sears' 'ultimate pro' tools up for anothermakeover - Department store Sears is in the midst of a new brandingcampaign. PR chief Ron Culp is carrying the message - but he won't carryanyone's suitcase

In the late '70s, Ron Culp wanted to be the editor of a small-town

newspaper in his native Indiana, and he achieved that ambition while

simultaneously handling PR at drugmaker Eli Lilly. But Culp soon found

that the realities of newspaper life were far from his initial vision.

When the paper was sold in 1981, he set out for something greater.



Today, Culp is SVP of PR and government affairs for Sears Roebuck - not

an easy task given the number of crises and changes of business

direction the department store has seen since his arrival in 1993. In

the past two years alone, Culp has had to navigate budget cuts and the

arrival of new chairman and CEO Alan Lacy, who is undertaking a review

of Sears' retail business. Such events often signal the exit of a

company's PR chief, but Culp, 53, remains unfazed by the challenges.



Friends and business associates say Culp belongs on any corporate PR

dream team. They give him high marks not only for his work at Sears and

Sara Lee, but for his widespread efforts in the profession (he hosted

the PRSA annual conference in Chicago.)



Clarke Caywood, director of the corporate PR graduate program with

Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, first met Culp 12 years ago.

"There were a lot of stiff PR people then - guys with three names,"

recalls Caywood.



"Ron just seemed more like a natural manager and leader." He also seemed

like a real thinker at a time when most corporate PR people were

following their chairmen around, carrying their bags and issuing their

statements, Caywood recalls. "Ron represented the next generation of

senior PR people," he says.



Indeed, people still joke with Culp about an incident during one of his

first business trips for Sears. Another staffer asked him to pick up the

CEO's suitcase as they were checking into a hotel. Culp refused, and

luckily the CEO, who overheard the conversation, said he was perfectly

happy handling his own bag, so the issue never came up again.



"He has made a mark and a difference in every place he's been," says

Matt Gonring, VP of corporate communications with drug company Baxter

International and a longtime friend of Culp's.



Culp has 50 staff members under his command at Sears. He also works

closely with agencies he hires for project work, including HLB

Communications, Donnellon Public Relations, Ketchum, Edelman,

Circulation Experti, GEM Group, Carrick PR, Citigate Cunningham, and

Margie Korshak. "He has high expectations, but he is the ultimate

professional," says Kevin Donnellon, president of Donnellon Public

Relations in Chicago. Donnellon was surprised when Culp called him into

his office and presented him with Sears' Partners in Progress Award for

his firm's support of Sears' sponsorship of both Christina Aguilera's

tour and the WNBA.



"He takes the 'relations' in public relations very seriously," says Anne

McCarthy, VP of corporate communications at Polaroid, and a former Culp

staffer at Sara Lee. "He lets people come up with ideas, and he gives

them credit." Culp says of his staff, "All I ask of them is that there

be no surprises."



His relationship-building extends beyond coworkers to reporters as well.

"It's not often a senior vice president has relationships with

reporters, but Ron does," says McCarthy.



Indeed, Jennifer Waters, now Chicago bureau chief for

CBSMarketwatch.com, but also a veteran retail reporter, says she's been

impressed with Culp's ability to work with the press. "He has a really

good sense of what his job is," she says.



Culp is skilled at discussing controversial topics and knowing how to

negotiate the sometimes tricky issues of what can be on and off the

record, Waters says. He's also cool in a crisis. "Unlike some other

people who tend to be defensive in a crisis, he's got a good sense that

this isn't about him," she says.



Culp says he doesn't believe in a "no comment" philosophy, even in a

crisis situation. "I don't think I ever gave a 'no comment.' My style is

conversational, not issuing statements," he adds.



He also doesn't believe in making enemies of reporters. In recent years,

Sears has come under criticism from its hometown newspaper the Chicago

Tribune, but Culp has consistently advised senior Sears management to

keep talking to Tribune reporters no matter how negative stories appear

to be. He tells the company staff, "Don't burn bridges."



Culp soon will be calling on all the firm's media relationships to push

the new image that CEO Lacy is crafting. The company launched a new ad

campaign - developed by Young & Rubicam on September 6 - to emphasize

the store's assortment of merchandise.



In reality, Lacy has said Sears will cut its product mix and likely

continue cutting staff and other costs to improve numbers. However, Culp

says he has a PR plan ready to support the company's new image, and has

written talking points for media, analysts, and other audiences. "I've

never had a higher energy level than right now with the possibilities

the company holds," he says.



Retail analysts are waiting to see if Sears can deliver a new image

fresh enough to broaden its customer base. But whatever the outcome,

longtime Culp watchers expect his reputation in the industry to survive

intact.



Says Northwestern's Caywood: "He seems to have an ability to make a real

contribution to the business at Sears. He deserves a lot of credit for

that."



RON CULP

1970-1972: Reporter, The Columbus Republic

(Indiana)

1972: Administrative assistant, Indiana House Majority Leader Richard

Boehning

1972-1977: Director, member services, New York State Assembly

1977-1983: Department head, then manager of corporate communications,

Eli Lilly

1983-1985: Director of PR, Pitney Bowes

1985-1993: Executive director of corporate communications, Sara Lee

1993-1995: Divisional VP of public affairs, Sears Roebuck

1995-1999: Vice president of PR, Sears Roebuck

1999-present: SVP of PR and government affairs, Sears Roebuck



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