In the late '70s, Ron Culp wanted to be the editor of a small-town
newspaper in his native Indiana, and he achieved that ambition while
simultaneously handling PR at drugmaker Eli Lilly. But Culp soon found
that the realities of newspaper life were far from his initial vision.
When the paper was sold in 1981, he set out for something greater.
Today, Culp is SVP of PR and government affairs for Sears Roebuck - not
an easy task given the number of crises and changes of business
direction the department store has seen since his arrival in 1993. In
the past two years alone, Culp has had to navigate budget cuts and the
arrival of new chairman and CEO Alan Lacy, who is undertaking a review
of Sears' retail business. Such events often signal the exit of a
company's PR chief, but Culp, 53, remains unfazed by the challenges.
Friends and business associates say Culp belongs on any corporate PR
dream team. They give him high marks not only for his work at Sears and
Sara Lee, but for his widespread efforts in the profession (he hosted
the PRSA annual conference in Chicago.)
Clarke Caywood, director of the corporate PR graduate program with
Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, first met Culp 12 years ago.
"There were a lot of stiff PR people then - guys with three names,"
"Ron just seemed more like a natural manager and leader." He also seemed
like a real thinker at a time when most corporate PR people were
following their chairmen around, carrying their bags and issuing their
statements, Caywood recalls. "Ron represented the next generation of
senior PR people," he says.
Indeed, people still joke with Culp about an incident during one of his
first business trips for Sears. Another staffer asked him to pick up the
CEO's suitcase as they were checking into a hotel. Culp refused, and
luckily the CEO, who overheard the conversation, said he was perfectly
happy handling his own bag, so the issue never came up again.
"He has made a mark and a difference in every place he's been," says
Matt Gonring, VP of corporate communications with drug company Baxter
International and a longtime friend of Culp's.
Culp has 50 staff members under his command at Sears. He also works
closely with agencies he hires for project work, including HLB
Communications, Donnellon Public Relations, Ketchum, Edelman,
Circulation Experti, GEM Group, Carrick PR, Citigate Cunningham, and
Margie Korshak. "He has high expectations, but he is the ultimate
professional," says Kevin Donnellon, president of Donnellon Public
Relations in Chicago. Donnellon was surprised when Culp called him into
his office and presented him with Sears' Partners in Progress Award for
his firm's support of Sears' sponsorship of both Christina Aguilera's
tour and the WNBA.
"He takes the 'relations' in public relations very seriously," says Anne
McCarthy, VP of corporate communications at Polaroid, and a former Culp
staffer at Sara Lee. "He lets people come up with ideas, and he gives
them credit." Culp says of his staff, "All I ask of them is that there
be no surprises."
His relationship-building extends beyond coworkers to reporters as well.
"It's not often a senior vice president has relationships with
reporters, but Ron does," says McCarthy.
Indeed, Jennifer Waters, now Chicago bureau chief for
CBSMarketwatch.com, but also a veteran retail reporter, says she's been
impressed with Culp's ability to work with the press. "He has a really
good sense of what his job is," she says.
Culp is skilled at discussing controversial topics and knowing how to
negotiate the sometimes tricky issues of what can be on and off the
record, Waters says. He's also cool in a crisis. "Unlike some other
people who tend to be defensive in a crisis, he's got a good sense that
this isn't about him," she says.
Culp says he doesn't believe in a "no comment" philosophy, even in a
crisis situation. "I don't think I ever gave a 'no comment.' My style is
conversational, not issuing statements," he adds.
He also doesn't believe in making enemies of reporters. In recent years,
Sears has come under criticism from its hometown newspaper the Chicago
Tribune, but Culp has consistently advised senior Sears management to
keep talking to Tribune reporters no matter how negative stories appear
to be. He tells the company staff, "Don't burn bridges."
Culp soon will be calling on all the firm's media relationships to push
the new image that CEO Lacy is crafting. The company launched a new ad
campaign - developed by Young & Rubicam on September 6 - to emphasize
the store's assortment of merchandise.
In reality, Lacy has said Sears will cut its product mix and likely
continue cutting staff and other costs to improve numbers. However, Culp
says he has a PR plan ready to support the company's new image, and has
written talking points for media, analysts, and other audiences. "I've
never had a higher energy level than right now with the possibilities
the company holds," he says.
Retail analysts are waiting to see if Sears can deliver a new image
fresh enough to broaden its customer base. But whatever the outcome,
longtime Culp watchers expect his reputation in the industry to survive
Says Northwestern's Caywood: "He seems to have an ability to make a real
contribution to the business at Sears. He deserves a lot of credit for
1970-1972: Reporter, The Columbus Republic
1972: Administrative assistant, Indiana House Majority Leader Richard
1972-1977: Director, member services, New York State Assembly
1977-1983: Department head, then manager of corporate communications,
1983-1985: Director of PR, Pitney Bowes
1985-1993: Executive director of corporate communications, Sara Lee
1993-1995: Divisional VP of public affairs, Sears Roebuck
1995-1999: Vice president of PR, Sears Roebuck
1999-present: SVP of PR and government affairs, Sears Roebuck