PROFILE: Michelman earns credit for protecting Visa's reputation

From agency life in Hong Kong to politics to the corporate world, Visa USA's Doug Michelman relies on taking risks and working with smart people to provide sound counsel.

From agency life in Hong Kong to politics to the corporate world, Visa USA's Doug Michelman relies on taking risks and working with smart people to provide sound counsel.

You're not going to find Doug Michelman traveling familiar and well-trod roads. "I've always wanted to tackle new experiences and stretch myself," says Michelman, Visa USA's EVP of corporate communications. "I always want to take the road less traveled. It can really help accelerate your career." Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this attitude is Michelman's globetrotting with Fleishman-Hillard. He started with the firm's New York arm in 1988, and helped retool that office. "I spent two great years [in New York] doing corporate work," says Michelman. "I remember [Fleishman CEO] John Graham and I were in Dallas pitching a business prospect. I jumped in the car with John. He was on his cell phone and I was unabashedly listening to the conversation. He said, 'I can't believe so-and-so didn't take the Hong Kong job.' So I said, 'What Hong Kong job? Why didn't you ask me?' A week later, I was on a plane. Three months later, I moved there." That story sums up Michelman perfectly, says John Onoda, a senior consultant with Fleishman who also serves on the agency's internal advisory board. "That's the kind of guy he is," says Onoda, who has held communications positions at Charles Schwab, GM, Levi Strauss, McDonald's, and Holiday Inn, as well as the job Michelman now has. "Doug's the sort of guy who doesn't let those kinds of opportunities get by. And that's something he also brings to public relations. In PR, in any situation, there are myriad things swirling around - messages to hone, people to reach out to, research to conduct. He doesn't miss a beat. He has a complete approach to PR, and a very lucid opinion. He's a very clear thinker. Everybody has a network of people they rely on, and Doug's a 'gotta call' kind of guy because you know he will offer wise and distinctive counsel. He comes in at a slightly different angle than everyone else, and that is what the best counselors bring." Michelman got his start at Duke University, where he studied political science. He took a semester off to join the press office of President Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign, where he met a young Joe Lockhart, who later became President Bill Clinton's press secretary. While growing up in New York, Michelman went to high school with another future press secretary, Ari Fleischer, who worked for President George W. Bush. "In 1980, my dream job was to become White House press secretary," says Michelman. "Joe stayed at it a lot longer than I did. But I'm still fascinated by politics." After Carter's campaign, Michelman went into broadcast journalism at Satellite News Channel (SNC), a fledgling and short-lived competitor to CNN. Ted Turner, CNN's founder, quickly bought and closed down SNC. Michelman then joined another brief endeavor: Walter Mondale's run for the White House. But Michelman only lasted six months, as too many days on the road and too many nights at Howard Johnson took their toll. So he found solace in PR. His first job was at Burson-Marsteller, and lasted two years. He then spent two years at Edelman, before settling down at Fleishman. During his stint there, Michelman also went in-house for a few years as VP of corporate communications at Pacific Bell. That taste of the corporate world apparently wasn't enough, as Michelman came back in 2003, this time to Visa USA. What attracted him to the position was the opportunity to lead the communications team, report directly to the CEO, and work for one of the world's top brands. "I have a great dialogue with and access to my CEO [Carl Pascarella]," says Michelman. "He values communications and the job we do. I have a seat at the management table. And I inherited a very strong team of communicators. They're good people and are good to work with." Michelman's first challenge was to deal with the ramifications of a nearly six-year-old class-action suit by 5 million merchants against Visa and MasterCard, which was settled on the eve of trial. The stakes were high going into the trial, which would have lasted for several months. The potential was there to create severe issues and challenges for Visa USA's reputation. And while a trial was avoided, media and analyst scrutiny has only increased. But that focus and controversy also makes the job intellectually stimulating, and ensures that there's never a dull moment, asserts Michelman. Oddly enough, that increased scrutiny has probably made Michelman a happier man. He admits that he loves new challenges, and sees his charter as a mandate to protect and enhance the company's reputation. All planning is done through a reputation prism, which Michelman says he learned at the feet of Onoda. "We prioritize what we have to do based on what the business needs to do," says Michelman. "We're only expending our time, energy, and resources on communications that will advance the interests of the business. And we have to make sure we hold the trust of our stakeholders, and focus on the value our system provides [them]. "I never believe I have the answer," he adds. "I love to surround myself with people I respect, and hash out a solution to a problem with people I know, respect, and trust. I try to surround myself with those smarter than me, people who are energetic, intellectual, curious, and fun-loving. I set a high bar for myself, my team, and the agencies that work with us. The best clients and bosses I've had were those who didn't accept mediocrity. By setting high standards, you learn a lot at the end of day." ----- Doug Michelman 2003-present Visa USA, EVP of corporate comms 2000-2002 Fleishman-Hillard, West Coast regional president; member, operating committee 1997-2000 Pacific Bell, VP of corporate comms 1988-1996 Various posts at Fleishman-Hillard: SVP and GM, LA office (1996); SVP and GM, SF office (1994-95); SVP and GM, Hong Kong office (1990-94); VP, New York office (1988-90) 1986-1987 Edelman, VP in New York office 1984-1986 Burson-Marsteller, media executive in New York office 1983-1984 Walter Mondale Presidential campaign, member of the advance team 1982-1983 Satellite News Channel, assistant producer 1980 President Jimmy Carter reelection campaign, press officer

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