Heading communications for a utility company is no walk in the
park. But Exelon's Don Kirchoffner, who spent most of his career in the
military, seems up to the job. John Frank reports
Don Kirchoffner's PR colleagues have no problem finding positive things
to say about the 56-year-old PR pro. But one question does leave them
without an answer: No one, it seems, knows what Kirchoffner does to
Told of their dilemma, Kirchoffner, VP of corporate communications at
Exelon, breaks into a hearty laugh. "I don't know what I do to relax.
I'm a news junkie. I watch the news."
Watching the news keeps him abreast of events that could come into play
as he guides $12-billion-in-sales electric giant Exelon through
the PR challenges of energy deregulation and, now, heightened concerns
about nuclear power-plant safety from terrorist attack.
He joined Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) in 1998, and took on the VP title
when the company merged to become Exelon last year. Among his tasks at
ComEd was dealing with the issues surrounding the nuclear energy
One might think that after 26 years in the US Army, leaving as chief of
media relations for public affairs, Kirchoffner might have sought a
low-stress job. After all, he led a military police company in Vietnam,
served on the front lines of the Cold War in Berlin, and oversaw public
affairs in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East when the Gulf
But it doesn't end there. He also handled communications for three
hostage release situations, was director of communications for a
13-nation relief force helping the Kurds during the Gulf War, and was a
special assistant and director of communications for the US secretary of
transportation during Hurricane Andrew relief efforts.
Kirchoffner even once worked at the Pentagon, but fortunately didn't
lose any friends in the attack. "I certainly know where that plane hit.
I walked those corridors many times," he says.
Obviously, Kirchoffner doesn't shy away from stress. "He's not afraid of
the media," says longtime friend John Cullen, a partner with Janet
Diederichs & Associates, a Chicago PR firm that has done project work
for Exelon. Ron Culp, SVP of PR and government affairs with Sears
Roebuck, agrees: "You'll hear Don on the radio when some heads of PR
would rather be anywhere but talking to the press."
Kirchoffner credits his military training for his ability to cope. "You
grow up real fast in the military," he says, adding, "Anybody who
doesn't know how to handle a crisis shouldn't be in this business. Our
job isn't a nine-to-five job."
Indeed, Kirchoffner still maintains a military-like daily regime. He
rises at 4:30am and scans the news before driving to work. He arrives at
7:10am, Starbucks coffee in hand, ready to read the major national
newspapers. The TV in his office is never off.
Kirchoffner has handled numerous crises. Two summers ago, ComEd hit the
headlines as hot weather overloaded its system, and stories appeared
alleging the utility had been skimping on maintenance.
Kirchoffner has consistently advised company officials to be open with
the press. He organized regular media roundtables for CEO John Rowe "to
tell the media what we were doing and to establish credibility," he
"We were treated fairly during that," Kirchoffner continues. "I knew
then we had turned a corner with the press," which in the past, had
often taken ComEd to task when power failures hit.
Tammy Williamson, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who covers ComEd
(the company still exists in the Chicago area), says, "I think that
other PR people could definitely take lessons from Don."
"Don's done an incredible job in communications in the toughest of
times," says Culp. John Cullen adds, "I think he does classic PR. He
tells the truth, and he stands up in public. Utilities are a
crisis-based business. Don puts on his hard hat, and he goes on
As current president of the Chicago PRSA chapter, Kirchoffner is also
involved in industry development and training. He's worked hard to mend
fences between the Chicago chapter and a separate suburban chapter, as
the two haven't always seen eye to eye.
"He's good at getting people to collaborate and at being diplomatic,"
says PRSA member Keith Burton, managing director for the central region
of Golin/Harris International. Adds Clarke Caywood, director of the
corporate PR graduate program with Northwestern University's Medill
School of Journalism, "He seems to delight in helping the PRSA. It's
rare that an individual of his stature will dedicate time to
Kirchoffner's challenges at Exelon had been building a new PR team and
establishing the corporate brand in the deregulating utility world. But
the events of September 11 shifted his focus to nuclear-power safety
Exelon has received media requests for interviews on the topic, and
Kirchoffner has been advising senior staff to get out to the media.
Talking about plant safety will bring sanity to the issue, he feels.
"We're not running away from it; we're dealing with it," Kirchoffner
Kirchoffner's world could change dramatically soon, though. His
30-year-old daughter is a former army officer and nurse, now in the
She's told her parents she wants to serve her country again, and is
hoping to be called to active duty. "My children have this sense of
duty," says Kirchoffner, who also has an 18-year-old daughter and a
It's clear to those who know him that his children get their dedication
and devotion to what they do from their dad.
Chief of media relations for the US Army. Served in Vietnam and Germany,
retired a colonel
Director of communications for the biomedical services division of the
American Red Cross
VP of corporate comms at Commonwealth Edison. He joins as director,
external comms, then becomes director, corporate comms, nuclear
Named VP of corporate communications at Exelon following the merger of
ComEd and Peco Energy