DYNAMIC DUOS: Great PR teams - What does it take to gain the respect and support of your CEO? Tony Seideman talks to five dynamic duos to unlock the secrets behind a winning relationship

It was an almost instantaneous connection, the spark flying across a crowded meeting room. Within moments, the two people knew they were meant for each other. But the link was a business, not a personal one - a bond built of attitudes, energies and ideas.

It was an almost instantaneous connection, the spark flying across a crowded meeting room. Within moments, the two people knew they were meant for each other. But the link was a business, not a personal one - a bond built of attitudes, energies and ideas.

It was an almost instantaneous connection, the spark flying across

a crowded meeting room. Within moments, the two people knew they were

meant for each other. But the link was a business, not a personal one -

a bond built of attitudes, energies and ideas.

One of the executives was Marcia F. Appel, who was then executive

director of the Association of Area Business Publications. The other was

Jack W. Eugster, chairman and CEO of Musicland Stores, one the nation’s

leading record retailers. Both had strong interests in public policy and

in 1992 the two were appointed to a committee on efficiency in state

government in Minnesota, where they lived.

Though they worked on different subcommittees, Eugster and Appel got to

know each other. And they liked what they saw. From the moment they met,

the partnership was one of equals, equals who enjoyed challenging each


’He is volatile, dynamic, interesting, fun, energizing,’ Appel says of

the man who eventually became her boss.

’She’s bright and very capable and very creative,’ Eugster says of the

woman who now leads his PR and marketing operation. ’I like that in

people. I like people who are interesting and different, because I’m a

bit wacko.’

Though they became friends, at first Eugster and Appel had little

thought of working together. Then in the spring of 1993, a sad fate


’The fellow running our Request magazine died, and I asked Marcia if she

had any idea who might be a good candidate for the job,’ Eugster


’Then the two of us gave a look at each other, and that was it.’

They’ve been together ever since.

As senior vice president of advertising, brand marketing and

communication, Appel is one of Musicland’s top corporate officers. She

plays a fundamental role in shaping the company’s vision.

An important part of her success is that she is part of a team with her

boss. Although many companies are only now awakening to the importance

of communications, there are others out there that caught on long


Some of these are lucky enough to have long-term and tight-knit teams

made up of their CEOs and heads of communication.

Similar traits

Successful CEO/PR duos across business sectors and even industries

display surprising similarities in traits, attitudes and beliefs. And

although the relationships are very much businesslike, they’re also

imbued with a sense of fun and humor.

Both the CEOs and PR pros say that these ’dynamic duos’ have brought

major benefits to their companies. But with all the talk of ’chemistry,’

there’s a temptation to think that these successful relationships just

happen. That’s far from the truth.

The CEOs on these teams tend to be very much aware of the importance of

communication to effective leadership. Duos evidently don’t thrive very

well under the hot glow of ego; most executives who created effective

partnerships with their PR people put their companies, rather than

themselves, in the spotlight.

The PR executives are excited about their bosses and show their


But their admiration doesn’t keep them from being challenging and even

confrontational. They do see the PR department as a tool for helping

implement the ideas of the CEO. Getting in sync with the boss isn’t a

matter of matching pace with his or her ego. It’s a key step toward

creating an effective partnership and serving the company better, says

Maril G. MacDonald, who until March was vice president of corporate

communications for Navistar Corp. (now International Truck and Engine

Corp.), one of the nation’s leading truck makers. ’When you look at a

corporation today, you realize that no CEO can lead a company on his


CEO’s voice

What’s critical for PR people to understand is that their job is to

function as an extension of their boss’ leadership. In effect, they need

to project his or her vision, corporate voice, beliefs and attitudes

both inside the company and to the outside world. Projecting an accurate

version of the CEO means doing an enormous amount of groundwork,

MacDonald says.

’It’s critical to have the kind of relationship with the CEO that makes

it so that the leadership you’re extending is really his.’

MacDonald joined the company in 1993, the result of an executive


She had been vice president of communications at Pitman-Moore, a

veterinary specialties company. In March 1998 she started an agency,

Matha MacDonald, but stayed on at the company until last month.

MacDonald’s old job is now filled by Greg Elliott, formerly of General

Motors, and her agency works closely with her former employer.

’When Maril came to the company, communications did actually go up to

the chairman,’ says chairman, president and CEO John R. Horne. ’We were

looking at how to write better newsletters, because I knew we were

communicating terribly; employees said there was no plan, that there was

no leadership.

That was the time when we realized how poor we were at communicating and

how important it was to get all our employees engaged.’

When MacDonald first suggested to Horne that he conduct face-to-face

visits at all of the company’s plants, he couldn’t see how it would


Plants run on three shifts, he said. How could they expect to reach all

of those employees? Besides, he had a company to run.

’This is a priority,’ MacDonald said. ’It has to do with how you lead

the company. Running a company and communicating are the same thing.’

MacDonald convinced Horne to clear his calendar for one face-to-face

each month. Once he opened the door, there was no turning back. Horne

still meets with employees every month.

At the time, Chicago-based Navistar’s relationship with the media was

also stormy. When The Wall Street Journal ran a story about Navistar and

the United Auto Workers that threatened the company’s growing

relationship with the union, John Horne decided he wouldn’t speak to its

reporters again. MacDonald intervened and convinced him of the

importance of maintaining a good relationship with the paper. In the

late ’90s, Navistar went from The Wall Street Journal’s list of worst

performers to its list of best performers.

MacDonald and Horne were among the few dynamic duos PRWeek managed to

catch on the phone at the same time. The energy and dynamics of their

relationship were evident in the way they spoke to, with and - often -

over each other. MacDonald seemed nonplussed when Horne described their

relationship as ’aggressive, loud, volatile,’ then picked up the ball

and ran with it after the CEO made it clear he was complimenting, not

criticizing, her.

’I say that because I like to debate issues and find solutions, and

Maril does, too, so it’s all about finding solutions,’ Horne says.

’We’re very candid, very blunt, very high impact,’ MacDonald says, in

comments similar to those from other dynamic duos about their own


Indeed, anyone with the goal of creating such a team had better be

willing to get in their boss’ face - and had better have a boss with a

face willing to be gotten into.

Part of this centers around being brutally honest. That means that, when

talking to the boss, PR executives should act as a voice for groups that

usually aren’t heard. It’s too easy for a CEO to get so sealed away from

the world that outside voices have a hard time reaching in. PR pros must

represent interest groups that might otherwise be neglected.

’Reality check’

’I try to function as a reality check for senior management as to what

our various key constituencies expect of us as well as how they will

react to various courses of action we consider in our ongoing management

of the company,’ says John W. Clark, senior vice president of

governmental and public affairs of CMS Energy, a major Midwestern

provider of electricity and gas. Clark is responsible for the company’s

overall communications.

PR people who are insecure in their jobs or about themselves will have a

tough time forming true partnerships, Clark says. So will those more

interested in seeking favor through flattery than in achieving


’A person in this job always having to either prove himself-herself or

curry favor with his boss would not be effective for the corporation,’

Clark says. ’It is often necessary to press upon the CEO and other

senior managers unpopular views from key constituencies as to what we

should or shouldn’t do.’

Though a confrontational approach may make things bumpy at times, it’s a

key tool for creating the clarity and connection needed to make a real

duo. ’He knows how I think and I know how he thinks,’ William T.

McCormick Jr., chairman and CEO of Michigan-based CMS Energy, says of

Clark. It’s much easier to do important work with a foundation like

that, McCormick adds. And he and Clark share a belief that is another

key element in dynamic duos: that effective PR is essential for a

company’s success.

’We’re a large corporation that provides a critical service,’ McCormick

says. ’We have to deal with a lot of entities: regulators, political

leaders, legislators and people in various executive capacities.

Virtually everyone in our area buys electricity or natural gas with us,

and we have to communicate with our investor community, our suppliers

and lenders, our customers and the other businesses we do business


McCormick reached out and grabbed Clark as soon as he was appointed to

lead the company in 1985. They had first worked together at the US

Department of Energy in 1975 and later at the American Gas Association.

Before joining CMS in 1985, McCormick was chair and CEO of American

Natural Resources Company.

’I knew he was a talented guy and I needed a good communications

person,’ McCormick says of hiring Clark at CMS. ’John and I have known

each other for more than 25 years. We’ve worked with each other in three

totally different environments - the federal government, a trade

association and a large company, CMS. I think we understand each other

very well.’

Clark’s skills came into good use as soon as he joined the company. CMS

was having problems, financial and otherwise, stemming partly from its

unsuccessful attempt to complete a nuclear reactor. ’CMS had a very poor

image in the eyes of the public, in the eyes of the regulators and in

the eyes of the state politicians. One of the things we had to do was to

restore the credibility of the company,’ McCormick says.

Over several months, company officials met with the governor, the

attorney general, members of the state legislature and the editorial

boards of Michigan’s major newspapers. McCormick notes that Clark played

a vital role in this, helping the company both craft its message and

execute its tactics: ’John was extremely instrumental in facilitating

this kind of campaign, at the end of which we accom- plished our goal in

that we convinced people that, number one, this company is very

important to the state of Michigan and had to get healthy, and that,

number two, it had a new management team that was dedicated to doing the

right thing.’

Access is key

Another element of a well-working duo is access. Ellen W. Hartman, vice

president of corporate communications at AFC Enterprises, has her office

right next to that of her boss, chairman and CEO Frank J. Belatti, who

founded the company in 1992. Atlanta-based AFC owns Churchs Chicken,

Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, Cinnabon and Seattle Coffee Company. ’It’s

apparent to most people that (Hartman) tends to be in my office every

day,’ Belatti says. For one, it removes a great deal of the

communications burden from the CEO’s shoulders. ’There’s a sense that,

if you want to know something, you can ask me or you can ask her,’ he


In addition, the constant back and forth ensures that Hartman will be up

to speed on the company’s key policies and decisions. ’You need to

understand all of the aspects of the business, not just at the

superficial level, to really understand the business as if you were

running it,’ says Belatti.

Hartman and Belatti first met when she worked at Manning Selvage & Lee

and the agency pitched Arby’s; Belatti was then president and COO. As

SVP at Fleishman-Hillard, Hartman began managing the AFC account at the

company’s founding, in 1992. She joined AFC in 1995.

Belatti is particularly disposed to PR; his first job out of college was

as a command information officer in the Army and he worked in PR for a

brief period, managing Hill & Knowlton’s Los Angeles office.

Several years ago Belatti gave a speech at the dedication of one of the

Habitat for Humanity homes the company built in Washington, DC. Though

Belatti and Hartman finished the speech together in his car while

driving there, she says it ’ended up being better than’ that of

President Clinton, who also spoke. Hartman says that Clinton said to her

boss, ’If you want to give up your job as a CEO, you can be one of my

speechwriters any time.’

The incident also points to the importance of the PR person being

familiar with the CEO’s particular needs. The podium was set for the

six-foot-two president and Hartman worried that her boss - who is ’five

foot six or seven or eight’ - would not be seen over it. Sharon Pratt

Kelly, the diminutive mayor of Washington, DC at the time, brought a box

to stand on for her speech, and when she began to leave with it after

speaking, Hartman ran after her and borrowed the box for Belatti. ’Frank

said, ’Only you could understand the real need that I had to have that

box,’’ Hartman says.

(It’s another thing that brings them together: ’We’re both short, so we

see eye to eye,’ jokes Hartman.)

Chemistry is factor

Though these duos obviously have different personalities, they don’t

deny that chemistry is an important factor. Debra Shriver, who is now

vice president and chief communications officer of Hearst Corp., says

she first met Cathleen P. Black in 1994 when she was at MCI and Black

headed up the Newspaper Association of America. One day, Shriver got a

call asking if she would like to meet Cathie Black. ’We wound up talking

for 90 minutes, we totally lost track of time,’ Shriver says. ’We had a

great chemistry. We had a great rapport. She was very personable. She

also had a great sense of humor.’

Four months later, Shriver left MCI to join the newspaper group. When

Black went to New York-based Hearst in 1995, where she is president of

its magazine division, Shriver went with her. Today Shriver works for

Hearst corporate rather than directly under Black, though the two work

closely and talk every day. (Shriver reports to CEO Frank Bennack Jr.)

Her responsibilities are broad, including advertising, ’some marketing,

touching employees through communications, electronic news gathering,

events,’ she says.

Black echoes Shriver’s comments. ’The chemistry between Deb Shriver and

myself is electric,’ she says. ’She brought a set of skills and a

dynamism and a creative energy that was exactly what I thought our

organization needed.’ Black notes that Shriver displays another

important quality - knowledge about various levels of the company’s

business. ’Our editors are crazy about Deb Shriver because she

understands the creative process,’ she says. ’She values them and

respects them, and it’s very mutual. And it’s not easy dealing with a

dozen or so editors.’

One reason the team works so well, Shriver says, is that Black

understands the importance of communications: ’One of the key things she

did was to make technology widely available so that people within the

company could communicate. The other thing she has done is really foster

a collegial atmosphere. She is willing to do all kinds of things to push

the envelope and motivate people. Once she dressed up like Courtney Love

in an evening gown, and left the building dressed in the gown to go to

an event.’ Later, Shriver had to talk Black out of dressing up like

Cruella DeVille of 101 Dalmatians fame.

Despite all the intangibles involved in creating such special teams, the

PR pros involved in them say the high and low points in their

relationships are directly linked to whether or not they are really in

the loop with their bosses. ’The relationship is at its best when I’m

with him in the thick of things operating the business,’ CMS Energy’s

Clark says of his boss, McCormick. ’It suffers when he operates on more

of a ’need to know’ basis that occasionally excludes me from business

activity in which I’m interested.’

On the other hand, CEOs can understand the importance of having the

person closely involved. ’A couple of years ago the whole industry was

in turmoil and we were having some hard times of our own,’ says

Musicland’s Appel.

’Jack and the others on the executive committee decided what we needed

to do was to put down our key strategies for getting to a better place

in terms of our business model. Two things would happen. One, we were

going to be very committed to the model, and two, I would be the

spokesperson for the company solely during that time period so that we

didn’t have mixed messages going out.’

Open dialogue

CEOs who have been part of dynamic duos say they’d find it hard to do

business without a PR pro - and impossible to conduct a company properly

without an excellent PR department. ’If I were talking to a CEO who

thought public relations wasn’t important, I’d ask them to contemplate

any personal relationship that they have that they consider important,

and ask themselves if that relationship would be a good one if the

individuals involved were not communicating,’ AFC’s Belatti says.

’On the other hand,’ Belatti continues, ’I’d ask them how much better a

relationship becomes if the partners or people involved have an open

dialogue, spend time together, and share whatever is important to


And then I’d say, ’If it works on a one-to-one basis, it’s really not

that different if you’re communicating to large audiences.’’

Indeed, these one-to-one dynamic relationships are essential for these

companies to find their voices.


Bring a brain, know how to write, be willing to challenge some very

intense people and learn to listen if you want to become part of a

dynamic duo. These are the PR talents and skills prized by executives

running companies.

CEOs and other execs interviewed by PRWeek are very much aware that they

live business lives that are often sheltered from the realities of the

business world. One of the most important traits they’re looking for in

a PR person is a willingness to cut through the protectiveness and speak

until they are heard.

’If I’m not willing to listen, then the communications people weren’t

strong enough,’ says John R. Horne, chairman, president and CEO of

International Truck and Engine Corp. ’I don’t think you have a great

communications process unless you can do that.’

Excellent PR people must also be able to distance themselves from the

business leaders they work with, says Cathleen P. Black, president of

Hearst Corp.’s Hearst Magazines Division. ’You need to appreciate the

differences between you and the executives you’re working with, so you

don’t ever begin speaking in your own voice for the office for which you

are strategizing about PR.’ It’s vital to speak in the CEO’s voice, not

yours, she says.

Other qualities Black likes to see in her PR people include ’high

energy, intelligence, an ability to look down the road and not get so

consumed with the moment, dexterity, empathy and sympathy because you’re

dealing with human beings here and how they are covered in the press,’

she says.

A good PR person not only speaks to an audience, but listens to it as

well, says William T. McCormick Jr., CEO of Jackson, MI-based CMS Energy

Corp. ’They can size up an audience and tailor a message into what’s

most meaningful to the recipient. A great communicator is not someone

who communicates the same to everyone. It’s a person who can judge his

audience and comment in the way that will be most effectively received

by the person who is hearing it.’


AFC Enterprises


Frank J. Belatti, chairman and CEO

Ellen W. Hartman, vice president of corporate communications

First contact: The relationship started 15 years ago, when Hartman was

at Manning Selvage and Lee.

Working together since: 1995 (She worked for him as outside PR counsel

previous to that.)

Belatti on Hartman: ’She’s very persuasive and very sincere and very

accurate. As a result, there are no secrets. She uses her discretion to

convey and package information in a very appropriate sense.’

Hartman on Belatti: ’He’s a man of good ethics and integrity and people

trust him when he delivers a message about our company and where we’re

going in the future. When he’s out of line I tell him so, and when I

have displeased him in some way he lets me know.’

CMS Energy Corp.

Dearborn, MI

William T. McCormick Jr., chairman and CEO

John W. Clark, senior vice president of governmental and public


First contact: First worked together at the US Department of Energy in


Working together since:1985 (Previously worked together in other


McCormick on Clark: ’John is much more of a verbally communicative, very

people-oriented person. I tend to be a little more reserved, a little

more analytical, and I think we compliment each other very well in that


Clark on McCormick: ’Bill understands the importance of my functions and

reserves a seat at the table for me when tough decisions need to be


Hearst Corp.

New York

Cathleen P. Black, president, Hearst Magazines Division

Debra Shriver, vice president and chief communications officer of Hearst


First contact: Shriver was working with MCI in Washington when she got a

call saying, ’Would you like to meet Cathie Black?’

Working together since: 1994

Black on Shriver: ’The day that I had accepted the Hearst position, Deb

came in and said she was about to accept another job with a different

company. I looked at her and said, ’Oh no you’re not.’’

Shriver on Black: ’Cathie is a very easy person to work with and to work

for. She’s very direct. She has an open-door policy. She gets very

excited about the work that she does. She likes to see things


International Truck and Engine Corp. (formerly Navistar), Chicago

John R. Horne, chairman, president and CEO

Maril G. MacDonald, formerly vice president of corporate communications,

now with Matha MacDonald (Greg Elliott is now vice president of


First contact: MacDonald joined the company in 1993, the result of an

executive search.

Working together since: 1993

Horne on MacDonald: ’When Maril came here, I thought our big issue was

we didn’t have good written communications. What Maril brought to me was

an awareness of how important the verbal, interpersonal communication


MacDonald on Horne: ’As CEO, you depend on somebody who can really push

back on you and take you to the woodshed if you need to be. And so few

people are willing to provide that for the CEO.’

Musicland Stores Corp.

Minnetonka, MN

Jack W. Eugster, chairman and CEO

Marcia F. Appel, SVP of advertising, brand marketing and


First contact: They met while working together on a state commission on

government efficiency in 1992.

Working together since: 1993

Eugster on Appel: ’We always get a little bit at odds, because she would

push for more PR and more advancing of the company than perhaps I


But we work together closely on it, so I think it’s been a stimulant to

the marketing and PR. We love the debate between us: I’m always right,

she’s always wrong.’

Appel on Eugster: ’He insists I sell ideas to him; and I like to do

that. You never stop selling. Never ever ever. It’s not a question of

how strong or how tough either of us is. I’m just more patient and he’s

more impatient. We’ve sometimes agreed to disagree about that.’

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