Charles Connor, SVP of communication and marketing at the American Red Cross, helps the nonprofit reshape its image by emphasizing internal comms and media relationships.
When Charles Connor took on the role of SVP of communication and marketing at the American Red Cross in 2002, an internal memo hailed his arrival as the end of a period "of crisis and negative press."
The nonprofit had fallen under criticism for how it was distributing donations intended for 9/11 victims. And the image problems persisted, even after a PR overhaul to clarify how donations are handled.
President and CEO Marsha Evans calls Connor "unflappable," someone who thinks ahead about crisis work that is, by nature, reactive.
"It was a matter of getting the message out about the changes we'd made, the important work we do," she says.
Connor notes that there is a great deal of overlap between policy and communication at the Red Cross.
"It's clear to me that the public puts the American Red Cross on a pedestal," he says. "An important consideration [with any policy change] is how it will seem to the US public. That doesn't dictate corporate policy; it informs it."
For the Red Cross, "stopping internal wounds" was the first step in restoring public trust.
"Half of good PR is the ability to stop stupid stuff from happening," says Connor. "Image problems are often the result of self-inflicted wounds."
In fact, Connor instructs his staff of 90 PR pros to listen to internal conversations, averting potential crises in their "embryonic stage."
And when crises flare, Connor confronts them head on.
Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, VP of communications for defense industry contractor General Dynamics, remembers a 2003 appearance Connor made on The O'Reilly Factor.
"Bill O'Reilly took the Red Cross to task," Pease recalls. "Chuck said, 'There's no reason for that ... someone needs to talk to him.' He knows how to get out his story."
Going forward, Evans notes, the Red Cross must educate the public about the role it plays in the community.
Although every disaster is different, the PR team has been quicker in getting people on the scene during relief efforts.
"By nature, our business is reactive. Disasters happen; we respond," Evans says. But she adds that Connor has taken preemptive steps to build media relationships. "If Chuck hadn't taken that opportunity, I don't think the Red Cross' story would have been told."
At 20 years old, Connor learned the importance of building press relationships. He'd been working as an usher at a rock concert, which was criticized by a reporter for being poorly staffed.
Connor recalls contacting the reporter and challenging him to try being an usher. The reporter took the bait, and his experiences resulted in a story in the newspaper's Sunday supplement section - and Connor's first placement.
Soon after, Connor was drafted into service aboard the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier. His first responsibilities included giving tours, handling VIPs, and running the daily newspaper.
But it was also a chance to travel the world. "It was energizing," Connor says. "It was something different every day."
Connor spent 25 years as a public affairs officer in the Navy, leaving the service with the rank of captain. He ultimately served as the personal communications adviser to then-Secretary of the Navy John Dalton, as well as COO of the Navy's global communications program.
Crises arose frequently. Connor recalls an incident when a Navy training exercise inadvertently launched two missiles into Turkey.
"When you're at headquarters and it's the first hours of the crisis ... experience tells you that half of the information is wrong, but you don't know which half," he says. "You can only offer information you're absolutely sure is true."
Internal communication also played a key role during a time of "internal culture clash" as the Navy tried to increase diversity, Connor notes.
The conflict between the old and new crystallized in 1991, when 83 women and seven men were assaulted at the Navy's annual Tailhook symposium, an aviator's convention.
"The Tailhook scandal was a self-inflicted wound; this was the spark that lit the fire," Connor recalls. "It caused a gender civil war that actually went on for many years."
Dalton notes that Connor confronts crises by thinking through tough issues. "He's very calm and measured," he says. "Chuck is very creative, thoughtful, and thorough in his approach."
"He does his homework," adds Pease, who was the Navy's chief of information. "He doesn't shoot from the hip."
At the end of his service, Connor went to Washington, DC, to serve as the first director of public affairs for the Federal Judiciary.
"For the first time, the institution of the Federal Judiciary came under attack from conservative sources," Connor notes. "It was being fundamentally attacked by people who felt judges were making law rather than interpreting it."
Connor served as a senior adviser on a range of high-profile cases and implemented a national communications program for the courts.
After three years, Connor joined The Dilenschneider Group, offering strategic advice to corporate, philanthropic, and legal clients.
Armed with his broad experience, Connor stresses that PR pros must be able to sit at the table with top executives. On the advice of a traveling course instructor from the PRSA, he obtained his law degree while serving in the Navy.
"It's important for the lead communicators to be in the inner circle," he says, adding that when CEOs face tricky legal situations, an advanced degree allows him to wear both hats.
Evans notes that Connor often works more closely with her than some of her other direct reports. "It's critical to accomplishing our mission," she says.
"In a few years, I want to be able to say that I was on the team that helped turn around the Red Cross," Connor says. "I think we're almost there."
American Red Cross, SVP of communication and marketing
The Dilenschneider Group, principal for client strategy
US Courts Office, director of public affairs
Secretary of the Navy, special asst. for PA
US Navy HQ, deputy PA chief, fleet PA officer
US Space Command, deputy director of PA
US Third Fleet HQ, PA officer