PROFILE: Witeck speaks volumes with professionalism, vision

After beginning his career in DC public affairs, Witeck-Combs CEO Bob Witeck finds fulfillment in helping to change the way companies view the gay and lesbian community.

After beginning his career in DC public affairs, Witeck-Combs CEO Bob Witeck finds fulfillment in helping to change the way companies view the gay and lesbian community.

"Words matter." A relatively common expression, and not a surprising one coming from a 14-year book-club veteran, who typically juggles four or five books at once. When Bob Witeck delivers the words, however, one can't help but deduce a more profound meaning. Witeck is cofounder and CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications, a 12-person, Washington, DC-based PR firm dedicated almost entirely to counseling clients on how to reach gay and lesbian audiences. The agency also does work on disability issues. In this case, Witeck makes the assertion - "words matter" - to help explain why he and his partner, Bob Connelly, enjoy living in Washington, and why his business is well-suited to the area. "In Washington, we are very word-based," he says. "We watch Meet The Press with great interest. We are truly interested in connecting with different kinds of people. It is extremely fertile territory for ideas." Witeck, one of six siblings, has been soaking up ideas from the nation's capital for as long as he can remember - initially through his father, who worked on Capitol Hill, and firsthand since the mid-1970s. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1974 and being rejected from UVA's law school, Witeck reluctantly took a job as foreign affairs assistant in the State Department's Office of Treaty Affairs. A year later, UVA accepted Witeck, but after two months of law school, he withdrew after deciding that the law was not his true calling. "Once I got into [law school], I realized it wasn't about the intellectual interest of the law, but about how to be a lawyer," Witeck says. In 1976, Witeck accepted a job as legislative correspondent and press assistant to Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR). Making a career on Capitol Hill was not something Witeck had ever thought about. "But we took a liking to each other because we both enjoyed writing," explains Witeck of his relationship with Packwood. In 1979, he became the senator's press secretary, a fitting role for someone who Robert Dodge, national correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, says "sees the value of bringing interesting people together." Dodge adds, "In a mark of true professionalism, he lets those people stand in the limelight and have the credit." Witeck refers to the time he worked in politics as "simpler" than the way things are today. "We did not have the internet then," he says. "If we did interviews, someone would film them, and then it would run the next day." That level of breathing room, Witeck says, lets people in communications be more thoughtful. "You didn't have to respond right away," he says. "You could be more of an actor than a reactor." By 1982, Witeck decided he'd had enough of the "long hours and low pay" of Capitol Hill. He accepted a job as assistant to the chairman at Gray & Company, a newly opened PR firm that practiced what Witeck calls "Washington's version of PR," i.e., promoting issues and ideas, and not products. He climbed the ladder to eventually become SVP of public affairs at Hill & Knowlton, the agency that acquired Gray in 1986. From 1986 to 1989, Witeck did a stint on the Hill as Packwood's communications director before returning to H&K, this time as an SVP on the PR side. "More and more, my interests were in PR rather than public affairs," Witeck says. "I wanted to focus on messaging in the way of public opinion on issues that I felt close to." Witeck took one final step closer to dealing with those issues in 1993, when he started his own firm, becoming his family's first entrepreneur since his cobbler grandfather. He teamed with Wes Combs, former marketing executive for IBM, and formed Witeck-Combs Communications. Today, the agency helps such big name clients as American Airlines, Sears, Wachovia, and Ford reach gay and lesbian audiences. Tim Kincaid, manager of corporate communications for American Airlines, calls Witeck "the consummate professional." He says, "Bob can see a situation, boil it down to what's really important, and then come up with on-target counsel." Kincaid calls Witeck and Combs "visionaries" for paving the way in marketing to the gay community. Witeck believes that it was his and Combs' pioneering of research and disseminating of data on the gay and lesbian marketplace that has resulted in the current state of affairs in which, Witeck says, "Every firm that I am aware of is either thinking about [targeting gays and lesbians] or at least thinking it would be a good idea. The data has changed the way corporate American is thinking." Witeck-Combs has worked extensively with Harris Interactive to develop consumer profiles of gay consumers. Accumulated data is presented on Witeck-Combs' website, along with highlights about the top ten questions that marketers tend to have about addressing gay audiences. The agency also sends the information out to media outlets, corporations, advocacy groups, and other organizations. Witeck believes disseminating data in what he calls a "shameless" fashion is necessary because of the complex - and sometimes conflicting - needs of the gay community. "There is a great need to be able to make the gay community very ordinary, but at the same time, they don't want to be dumbed down," he says. "There is a need to draw attention to qualities for which the gay community feels it should be respected, but at the same time, they're saying, 'Don't be afraid of us.'" Luckily, in Witeck - described by Dodge as someone who "always knows good PR" - the community has an advocate on its side who is famous for saying the right thing. Bob Witeck 1993-present CEO, Witeck-Combs Communications 1989-1993 SVP of PR, Hill & Knowlton 1986-1989 Communications director, Sen. Bob Packwood campaign 1982-1986 SVP, public affairs, Gray & Company/H&K 1982 Assistant to the chairman, Gray & Co. 1976 Legislative correspondent and press assistant to Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) 1974-1975 Foreign affairs assistant, Office of Treaty Affairs, US Department of State

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