ANALYSIS: Profile - The man who spurned a dollars 20m PR budget Don Spetner spent over a decade handling automotive PR, but his engine didn’t really begin to hum until he joined retirement savings giant SunAmerica three years ago. Claire Murphy si

Don Spetner has a heart-warming tale for all of you trying to squeeze those extra few dollars from the executive board for your PR budget, from his days at Nissan. Chief executive Robert J. Thomas wandered into his office one day in 1996 and coolly informed him that the PR coffers were about to be swelled by an extra dollars 20 million, because, said the CEO, ’I believe in the power of PR.’

Don Spetner has a heart-warming tale for all of you trying to squeeze those extra few dollars from the executive board for your PR budget, from his days at Nissan. Chief executive Robert J. Thomas wandered into his office one day in 1996 and coolly informed him that the PR coffers were about to be swelled by an extra dollars 20 million, because, said the CEO, ’I believe in the power of PR.’

Don Spetner has a heart-warming tale for all of you trying to

squeeze those extra few dollars from the executive board for your PR

budget, from his days at Nissan. Chief executive Robert J. Thomas

wandered into his office one day in 1996 and coolly informed him that

the PR coffers were about to be swelled by an extra dollars 20 million,

because, said the CEO, ’I believe in the power of PR.’



Given that Spetner’s 30-strong team was usually only allocated dollars 6

million each year, this came as something of a shock. Although the

corporate bean counters subsequently reduced Spetner’s windfall to

dollars 12 million, the Nissan PR team went to town that season,

planning events like the ’retirement’ of the Nissan 300ZX and a

seven-city media event that involved selling gas at 1961 prices to

celebrate the 35th anniversary of Nissan in the US.



’The CEO wanted to get the Nissan brand into the consumer press and we

certainly succeeded,’ explains Spetner. ’Selling gas at 19 cents a

gallon was so popular - the freeways were packed in Dallas.’



Spetner admits that the PR strategy as defined by his CEO was not

aligned to any sales goals, but after Thomas resigned, Spetner worked

even harder to raise the understanding of PR within Nissan and to

integrate it into the sales efforts.



One particularly successful campaign was the ’disaster specials’ -

offering to give dollars 100 to charity if people braved blizzards in

the Northeast to come out and buy a Nissan vehicle.





Think hard, be clever



But it is indicative of Spetner’s character that he names his favorite

PR task as working on semiconductor firm Emcore’s PR while at Bozell,

with a more modest budget of dollars 60,000. ’We had to think hard and

be very clever with that amount of money. But we really made a name for

them.’



Thinking smart is a preoccupation for the 39-year-old Spetner. After

eight years at Nissan, he moved to Los Angeles-based retirement funds

company SunAmerica in 1997, a move that he describes as a

’life-transforming event.’



’I went from one of the world’s largest corporations, where I had a

staff of 30, to this highly entrepreneurial company with a PR department

of three. It was tough at the start - I had a stomachache for the first

six months!’ he jokes. But SunAmerica has turned out to be a more

natural fit: ’I’m a doer, not a bureaucrat.’



Nissan, he says, had left him used to what he describes as the ’chess

game of corporate politics’ and the need to build consensus, something

that was a big deal for Nissan’s Japanese management. ’But now I think I

couldn’t go back to that classically corporate type of environment where

you have to hold a pre-meeting to set the agenda for the main

meeting.’



At SunAmerica, Spetner has managed the profile of a company on its way

up. In the past 10 years its market capitalization has shot up from

dollars 180 million to dollars 18 billion, while its stock price has

soared by 11,000%. ’It’s been a rocket ship ride,’ he says. What started

out as a regular PR role - handling media relations, internal

communications, corporate philanthropy and public affairs - suddenly

became far more complex when Spetner was handed responsibility for

advertising and corporate branding a year and a half ago. ’It was

initially a dramatic change,’ he recalls. ’I had no experience of the

area and suddenly had to appoint an ad agency and oversee a huge

branding campaign.’



But being thrust into a new area has obviously brought out the best in

him. In what is regarded as a relatively sleepy category of PR,

SunAmerica has distinguished itself for its ability to promote its

brand. And through it all Spetner has served as a mentor for younger

members of the office, according to corporate communications manager

Sonia Fiorenza. Spetner is a member of the governing committee of Public

Relations Seminar and the Arthur Page Society. He is also vice chairman

of the San Francisco Public Relations Academy. ’He knows a lot about the

PR industry, and he’s willing to share that with younger people,’

Fiorenza says. This sharing doesn’t have to take place in the office,

either; when the movie The Insider came out, Spetner led the whole PR

team on a field trip to the local theater.



Spetner’s business philosophy springs from a lesson he learned while

jointly running for high school president with his best friend. ’We

started out with all these idealistic ideas about what we were going to

promise the students, and ended up realizing that if we could just get a

soda machine fitted, we’d be elected! It taught me that whether you’re

in marketing, PR or politics, you just have to figure out what people

want to get them interested.’



At New York University, Spetner harbored aspirations to be a

journalist.



But he was swayed from his first career choice after opting for an

internship at Ruder Finn between his junior and senior years. ’It was

the only job that paid decent money,’ he freely admits. ’I wasn’t

getting much cash from freelance writing and I wanted a job in New York

that would mean I didn’t have to go back to Missouri.’



Within three years he had been headhunted by Bozell Jacobs Kenyon &

Eckhardt Public Relations, becoming vice president at the tender age of

26. Moving to GCI in 1987 meant switching to the west coast to manage

the agency’s Los Angeles office.



’Los Angeles has everything New York has, but in a more humane and

healthy environment,’ he says with a laugh.





Lessons learned



Spetner’s down to earth style has aided his rise in public

relations.



He happily recounts early mistakes while working in agencies in New

York.



’I will always remember the name of the editor at Forbes who screamed at

me when I rang up on his deadline with some inane story. It was a

watershed moment, made me sit up and think a little bit more about how I

was going about things.’



Looking to how he goes about the future, he says he would like to start

his own agency. ’There’s a whole new economy springing up, a new

entrepreneurial mentality in business that I would like to be part of.’

And who knows?



With all those stock options, he may have dollars 20 million of his own

to play with.





DON SPETNER



VP, corporate communications, SunAmerica



1981: Account supervisor, Ruder Finn



1984: VP, group supervisor, Bozell Jacobs Kenyon & Eckhardt Public

Relations



1987: Senior vice president, GCI Group



1989: Vice president, corporate communications, Nissan



1997: Joins SunAmerica.



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