5 questions for retiring Cargill comms chief Mike Fernandez

Mike Fernandez explains why he's stepping down, what he might do next, and from whom he draws inspiration.

Why are you taking time off?
In these itinerate lives some of us have led, it’s sometimes difficult to be there when your family needs you the most. We’ve got family moves, we’ve got people with health issues, and we’re hoping to take some time to address those.

Family has always been important. I’ve been very lucky to have a close relationship with my grandfather. When I graduated from college, he made his first plane trip in his life to see me graduate from Georgetown, and it was the first time I ever saw him cry. Even when I was off in school my grandfather would write me little notes in Spanish every week or so, and he’d include $5 in them, which doesn’t sound like so much, but he’d say, ‘This is incentivo to keep you going."

What’s the next step?
My sense is I’m not one to stay on the sidelines for long, but we’ll take time and look at the opportunities. I don’t know which sector or industry, but I’ve had inquiries from people in the agency world and other large companies and institutions in the last 24 hours.

You’ve been honored as a mentor to established chief communications officers and CMOs. Is there a new guard of CCOs coming up through the ranks?
There always is. I don’t know if there’s a sudden [generational] shift, and I think some people like me who announced their retirement in the last year still plan to be back in the game and maybe back as CCOs. I think about friends like [former GE executive] Gary Sheffer. That said, there are a lot of bright, smart people in their 40s and a couple even in their 30s that are making an incredible mark on the industry. We’ll continue to see that.

There are a number of things that bode well for younger generations, particularly technology, which is interesting. [But] the true measure of excellence in our profession isn’t so much technology, but how to use it, and more importantly, how you strengthen and build relationships. Sometimes [our core duties] get lost as we’re charmed by what the new technology brings.

What advice do you have for PR pros dealing with crises?
The key thing is to be calm. In my personal office, I have a group of photos of various individuals during the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. What’s fascinating about looking at these incredible photos is how these people keep calm in the eye of the storm.

All too often, it’s easy for individuals in the eye of the storm to get flustered. Once you’re in that storm, you have to be careful to be quick, accurate, and consistent, and to make sure you’re putting what is right [in terms of] public safety at the top of your list of priorities and then use all available means to communicate smartly. Make sure to provide concern and empathy for any victims. Understand you’re actually in a moment in time when you can make a real difference as others cede ground. Often it’s the chief communications officer or the head of corporate affairs that’s called upon in a crisis to call the shots when no one else wants that responsibility. To the extent we can do that well as we sit in the eye of the storm, we succeed and we improve the value of the function in our role.

What responsibilities do corporations such as Cargill have to the communities where they source their ingredients and to larger environmental issues?
Cargill is the largest privately held company and the largest player in the world dealing with food and ingredients. As a consequence, it has the ability to make a difference in solving food security so that fewer people go hungry and the world is better nourished. The company has an enormous responsibility in terms of what it needs to do relative to environmental sustainability and climate change. Much of my career over the past six years has been reaching out to environmental NGOs and public policy makers and reaching out to organizations such as Care and TechnoServe that are trying to better feed the planet and reduce poverty on the planet.

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