PROFILE: MacDonald puts straight talk on wheels

Calling Maril MacDonald a typical PR pro is a bit like calling Alan Greenspan a typical bureaucrat. MacDonald, like the Federal Reserve chairman, is far from a passive observer.

Calling Maril MacDonald a typical PR pro is a bit like calling Alan Greenspan a typical bureaucrat. MacDonald, like the Federal Reserve chairman, is far from a passive observer.

Rather than wait for others to formulate the policies she conveys, MacDonald prefers to get involved in the planning stages of businesses she works with. And don't expect her to be a yes-woman, either: 'I've always been one of those people who says, 'Why don't we say it like it is?''

Her firm, Matha MacDonald, is not your father's PR firm either. It's a business consultancy, specializing in helping firms and their employees get through corporate changes. She and partner Bob Matha talk not so much about PR as about 'culture change' that companies need to undergo.

'We describe it as a consulting firm; we don't really call it a PR firm,' says Matha, himself a veteran of Ogilvy PR and Fleishman-Hillard. 'We get involved with folks and help them to fix the problem.' Since opening its doors in 1998, the firm has snagged high-profile clients like McDonald's and United Airlines.

A new agency concept
Clarke Caywood, chair of the integrated marketing communications department at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, says of long-time friend MacDonald: 'She represents the very best bridge between corporate PR and the new agency concept that's far more managerial. She's building a new type of agency that's much more strategic, much more consultative.'

MacDonald believes in getting involved. She still laughingly recalls the incident early in her career when she boldly told the head of Standard Oil of Ohio he couldn't deliver speech when he wanted until she had checked out the sound system. He was momentarily stunned that a junior-level staffer would talk to him that way, but her moxie and business acumen at Standard eventually prompted the company to give her operational responsibilities, moving her out of PR for a time.

Not bad for a college Russian major who once thought her professional life would take her only as far as a translator's job at the UN. Instead, when she graduated from Purdue in 1978, MacDonald tried working in TV - but then decided on a career in PR. She has since held a variety of PR and operational jobs in the oil and pharmaceuticals businesses as well as working for a PR agency in Cleveland.

She really made her mark during the past few years at Navistar. When she joined the company in 1993, it had been through wrenching changes that saw it exit the farm equipment business and refocus its energies on trucks and engines. Navistar, which recently changed its name to International Truck and Engine, hadn't seen a profitable quarter in eight years when MacDonald came on board.

Despite the company's dismal history, she took the gig because she felt John Horne, now chairman/CEO and then president, was the kind of person she could work with. 'Here's a guy who wants to do the right thing. He wanted to turn this company around,' she says. Horne credits MacDonald with showing him that employee relations had to be more than just newsletters and empty talk. She forced him to get out of the executive suites and visit plants and workers, a mind-set change he credits with helping him turn the company around.

Dollars and sense (and feelings)
MacDonald revels in being a team leader, whether in her new company or at client meetings. 'She's the extrovert, I'm the introvert,' says Matha.

She's also very much the businessperson, able to talk dollars and sense.

'I think Maril considers herself a businessperson first,' says Greg Elliott, whom she hired at Navistar and who has now succeeded her as VP of communications.

'She has a way of taking a very complex set of issues and feeding it back to you in a very understandable form,' says Elliott. Matha adds, 'She does a great job just reading what the real issues are,' cutting through corporate jargon to get people to focus on emotional issues that often underlie their business concerns.

Indeed, while MacDonald doesn't like to dwell on being a woman who has succeeded in male-dominated industries, she does say that being female has made it easier for her to bring up emotional issues in corporate settings.

'I could talk about feelings,' she says, whereas male executives might not for fear of appearing weak.

For example, she convinced senior Navistar execs that what they had to do to turn the company around was 'create an environment where people feel good' about their jobs and their company.

Not surprisingly, that's the same philosophy she's trying to follow with her own firm these days. From a team of 19 pros, she's recruited several colleagues whom she's worked with before and also brought in veterans of the Midwest PR scene such as Rich Nelson, a former General Motors and First Chicago pro highly regarded in Chicago PR circles.

Unlike some entrepreneurs, MacDonald doesn't claim she can do everything.

She's open about her own shortcomings - noting, for example, that writing has never been a strong suit. Rather than hide that, she has gone looking for strong writers whose skills complement her own. 'I love great writing, so I always hire someone else to do it,' she quips.

And rather than open their doors along Chicago's tony Michigan Avenue where most of the large PR shops are, MacDonald and Matha moved into former art gallery space in the city's artsy River North district. The loft-style surroundings are designed to foster creativity and interaction - desks even have wheels so they can be rolled around the office.

Adds Jim Sloan, head of the Chicago corporate practice for Hill & Knowlton and another long-time friend who once had MacDonald for a client: 'She commands true respect from everyone she deals with. She's a corporate communications person who has really had demonstrable impact on how a business is run.'

It's doubtful anyone would have said that if MacDonald had followed her first career inclination and ended up at the UN. But given her personality and her ability to get senior people to act, maybe she could have moved mountains at that bureaucracy, too.

Maril Macdonald
Partner, Matha MacDonald

1978-84 - Standard Oil: rises to become manager of HR development, finance and control department

1984 - Watt, Roop & Co: VP

1987 - Bayer: manager, corporate communications

1991 - Mallinckrodt Veterinary: VP of communications

1993 - Navistar International: VP, corporate communications.

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