Pat Cleary has always been aggressive with his PR tactics. And the National Association of Manufacturers, which this past April named him its communications SVP, is reaping the benefits.
Ever since the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) hired John Engler as its new president in late 2004, Pat Cleary has been clocking longer days at the office. But he isn't complaining. With a high-energy personality, he relishes the challenge of leading the 20-person communications department of one of the most powerful trade associations in Washington, DC.
Engler, the former Michigan governor, promptly began work on a reorganization plan when he joined the 110- year-old association. The makeover included creating a new SVP of communications position, which would oversee NAM's internal and external communications functions. He chose Cleary to lead the combined operation.
"Being an SVP of communications for Engler is like being a quarterback in a West Coast offense," Cleary says. "If you're a quarterback for a Big 10 team, you hand off all day. You never get your uniform dirty. For a West Coast offense, it's a very busy part of the team."
Engler was accustomed to a very aggressive, forward-thinking communications department when he was governor, notes LeAnne Wilson, who worked on the governor's staff in Michigan and now serves as NAM's chief operating officer. "And Pat had all those qualities," she says. "His team is doing a lot of the same type of outreach that Gov. Engler did when he was [in office]."
Before joining NAM in 1997, Cleary held various positions in DC. He served in the Labor Department during the Reagan administration, first as executive assistant in the Office of Policy, and then as deputy assistant secretary. And he spent several years as a member of the National Mediation Board, the federal agency that governs labor-management relations in the airline and railroad industries.
"Everything I know I learned from organized labor," Cleary says. "When I came over [to NAM], some of my communications, both in style and content, frightened some people. My view was, after dealing with organized labor, this was namby-pamby stuff."
NAM hired Cleary as VP of HR policy, a position for which he served as a lobbyist on all workplace issues. Though he didn't have a traditional communications background, Cleary, a lawyer by training, found himself transitioning into senior communications roles.
"All I've done up until now has had a big communications component to it, and now I'm focused solely on communications. I think most of my colleagues would say it was a logical move," says Cleary, explaining his promotion to communications chief in April.
NAM's members noticed Cleary's communications skills as he was assuming new roles at the association. "He has lots of energy, and he loves to communicate," says Kenneth Hutton, EVP of the Wood Machinery Manufacturers of America, an NAM member. "In many ways, it's a perfect position for him. They've stepped up communications another level. They have a quicker pace and a higher activity than before."
During Engler's first six months on the job, he was on the road three-to-five days a week, giving speeches and meeting with the organization's members. "All of a sudden, you now have to crank out many speeches for him," Cleary recalls of that time.
Cleary routinely travels to give speeches to NAM members. He also never turns down a TV interview request. His colleagues sometimes question this policy, such as the time he agreed to be interviewed by Abu Dhabi TV. "I said, 'Because it's sparring,'" Cleary explains. "You want to work out the bugs. I do as much of it as I can because, when you do The NewsHour [with Jim Lehrer], you want to be ready."
One of Cleary's roles is as NAM's resident blogger. For nearly two years, he lobbied the association to start a blog that would provide members, as well as policy makers and the public, a daily glimpse at NAM's positions on issues, from Social Security to the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Once Engler joined NAM, he gave Cleary the thumbs up. The blog has been running since this past November.
"My hat's off to him for having the vision and foresight to say, 'Yeah, this is an emerging medium,'" Cleary says. "A lot of association presidents would say, 'I don't want to muck around with it.'"
Cleary, who also blogs from home on his own time, says he has total autonomy over the site's content. But he concedes there's pressure in trying to strike a balance between being irreverent and staying on message. "It's a narrow band," he explains. "You've got to be north of bland, but south of outrageous."
On the blog, Cleary often targets the views of CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, which NAM believes are "anti-trade" and "anti-immigration." In a recent Washington Post article, Dobbs responded to Cleary's writings: "Their pathetic blog is an expression of the corporate supremacists who lead NAM, but [don't] represent their manufacturers. They use personal attacks because the facts don't support their faith- based libertarian economic philosophy."
As the blog has grown in popularity, Cleary says, he's had several conversations with association officials who want to learn more about blogging. He also travels to conferences to speak about the popular communications tool.
Cleary says it's a PR person's dream to work for someone like Engler, who places a strong emphasis on message and visibility. "It's incredibly fast-paced and exciting. We're out there on every issue," he says. "I'm a type-A personality, and I don't want to be bored."
Ever since he joined NAM, Cleary has been considered a rising star, notes Russ Batson, VP for government affairs for the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. "He is a bundle of energy," he says. "With all the hats he wears - blog, management, marketing, traveling - I don't know how he does it."
SVP of comms, Natl. Assoc. of Manufacturers
VP of HR policy and various SVP posts, NAM
Managing partner, The Brock Group
Member/chairman, Natl. Mediation Board
Partner, The Brock Group
Deputy assistant secretary for policy, US Department of Labor
Labor liaison, Republican Natl. Committee
Staff attorney, US Occupational Safety and Health Administration