As an honors student studying government at Georgetown University, Mike Fernandez landed his first job on Capitol Hill as a researcher for the House of Representatives' House Democratic Study Group. At 23, he became the Hill's youngest press secretary (and only the second Hispanic) when he went to work for Senator Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings (D-SC). He immediately navigated a tough reelection effort and saw Hollings through a challenging 1984 presidential bid. Political experience highlighted for Fernandez the importance of proactive communication.
"Washington taught me that if you do not define yourself, others will," he says.
That tenet has served him well throughout his corporate communications career, which has included leadership positions at several Fortune 500 companies, including ConAgra, Cigna, and Eastman Kodak.
"I've spent most of my career helping large corporations deal with transitions, strategic challenges and crisis, and building brands and reputations," Fernandez says.
Now, as VP of public affairs at State Farm, he's helping the company prepare for the major transition that will occur when its large customer base of Baby Boomers retires and scales back on insurance and financial services products over the next 10 to 15 years.
"The challenge is how to grow and make up for what we'll likely lose over that time," Fernandez explains. "We have to look at other bases that are growing - Hispanic, Asian, and African American. Hispanic is growing most. We're spending a lot of time and resources focusing on the various diverse groups that make up a growing population in the US."
State Farm has been very proactive in developing long-term community engagement programs with multicultural audiences (see sidebar). Fernandez notes that Hispanic outreach has increased, given the overall US Hispanic population growth. For example, "State Farm es Para Mí" (State Farm is for me) is a broad Hispanic program started in 2007. Partners include the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Areas of focus have included citizenship, voter registration, and, most recently, 2010 Census participation.
"The key is to find what matters to a community and build the relationship around that," he says. "Successful programs begin with listening and collaborating, and then creating an effort that resonates emotion- ally with communities you seek to serve."
The 2008 citizenship and voter registration campaign "Ya Es Hora" (It's Time) was part of "State Farm es Para Mí," and offices across the US provided information and forms, helped develop and conduct citizenship workshops, and participated in voter registration drives.
"We were the only major corporation to support ['Ya Es Hora']," Fernandez says. "There was nervousness by some in the aftermath of the immigration reform bill defeat. My grandfather was a naturalized citizen and I know [how favorably] families react to those who help them in their desire to become citizens. I sensed that it would resonate, be embraced, and valued by the community."Leadership comes naturally
NALEO executive director Arturo Vargas praises Fernandez for seeing the value of "Ya Es Hora" and other programs.
"Mike has real-life public service experi- ence and understands the importance of engaging the public," Vargas explains. "With his leadership and support, we've been able to partner with State Farm. I wish other companies would follow suit."
Fernandez was born in Long Beach, CA, of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and American descent. After earning a BA in government, he returned to Georgetown to earn an MS in accounting. The oldest of 25 grandchildren, he was very close to his Cuban grandfather.
"In his mind I was the example," recalls Fernandez. "If I 'made it,' other grandchildren would make it. Virtually every week at Georgetown I would get a note from him written in Spanish along with a $5 bill intended to be 'incentivo' for my progress. When he passed, he left me his wedding band. I wear my wedding band on my left hand and his on my right hand as a reminder of what he meant to me and the burning desire that he instilled in me to do better."
Fernandez has brought "sophistication" and "a multidimensional perspective," says Kim Brunner, EVP, chief legal officer, and secretary of State Farm, who helped recruit him.
"Mike has strategic thinking capabilities that go way beyond PR," he says. "He helps us think about where we're going and how we'll get there. He's got political judgment, great interpersonal skills, creativity, and he's not afraid to tell you what you need to hear. It's imperative that we successfully penetrate [markets that] constitute the changing demographics of the US. The sensitivity and communications acumen Mike brings to the multicultural area is clearly an asset."
State Farm has more than 450 PR pros in North America. Multicultural outreach spans all operating units and hiring bilingual agents is a big priority. The company has very strong execution capability in local communities with 17,000-plus agent offices, more than 4,000 of which include bilingual staff.
"We have storefronts in virtually every community across the country," Fernandez says. "That creates a nexus for give and take and, ultimately, for trust to develop."
Integration across marketing disciplines is key to overall strategy. Ads, direct marketing, and websites are created in-language (Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean). Developing general market crossover opportunities, which have included a relationship with Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz, is also vital, as are internal bilingual spokespeople.
"PR is working hand in glove with marketing, so there is more connective tissue and greater recognition," Fernandez explains. "For instance, we sponsor Univision's largest Saturday night program, Sabado Gigante. The host was so pleased with our sponsorship, the show created a State Farm es Para Mí song."
Fernandez has become more active in speaking out about multicultural outreach. For example, he was a keynote speaker at the inaugural Hispanic PR and Social Media Marketing Conference in Dallas last month.
"Early in my career, I was reticent for fear of being pigeonholed," he admits. "Now my reputation has been made on helping companies manage transition and crisis. Few had the opportunities I did at an early age. Young folks encourage me to share my experience. It's not my main gig, but surely important."
Building relationships with multicultural audiences requires a long-term commitment and deep understanding of many nuances, including acculturation. Fernandez notes that many companies have viewed multicultural outreach as a nice add-on and often halt efforts as budgets shrink. He also notes that meeting with national multicultural groups does not constitute a strategy or a relationship.
"That doesn't cut it because the market is much larger than even those community elites," he says. "The other challenge is that we literally have multicultural individuals. President Obama has two cultures. To forge relationships, the answer isn't simply reaching out to a few national groups that represent Latinos, Asians, or African Americans. It's more complicated. The science beneath the art will be more important than ever."Multicultural outreach at State Farm
50 Million Pound Challenge. Worked with Dr. Ian Smith of Celebrity Fit Club to address health concerns in the black community.
Dollars & Sense. A financial literacy and economic responsibility program for black youth that began in 2006. It teaches financial planning and wealth management principles. State Farm agents and employees work with the program as teachers and tutors.
Financial literacy in the Hispanic community. Since 2004, State Farm has had a relationship with financial expert, radio personality, and author Julie Stav. State Farm advertises on her Spanish-language radio program. Stav also takes part in the company's financial literacy efforts in the community, including hosting a series of financial seminars on tape.
GradNation. Since 2008, State Farm sponsors America's Promise and its effort to encourage students to graduate with a special focus on 2,000 underperforming schools and inner-city black and Hispanic students.
VP, public affairs, State Farm Insurance
Chief communications officer, ConAgra Foods
SVP, public affairs, Cigna
VP, PR, US West
Director, communications and public affairs, Eastman Kodak Company
Press secretary to US Senator Ernest F. ("Fritz") Hollings (D-SC