Michael Fanning has earned a reputation as a bridge builder at some of the US' most iconic brands, including IBM, Reader's Digest, and Michelin, where he is now VP of corporate affairs.
Michael Fanning moved to Greenville, SC, with a mission to work for one of the world's great brands, Michelin. "I'm a big fan of great brands," he says. "I always want to feel good about the company I work for."
It speaks to his determination and ability that he succeeded in not only being hired by Michelin, but in rising to the role of VP of corporate affairs, replacing Jim Morton in 2000. "At the time we hired him, there was not the expectation that I'd be departing," says Morton, now Nissan North America's SVP for finance and administration. "But he showed that he could be a very successful replacement."
Morton notes that Fanning's success in his old job has not been about preserving his way of doing things, but in taking the team in new directions. "It's not the same team I left. He changed it. He's brought leadership to the team."
Fanning came to PR indirectly. From an early age, he was fascinated by media. His father was a technician at a CBS affiliate in Washington, DC, and he recalls visiting the set one day when he was about 7, intent on seeing the "house" of television character "Ranger Hal." When he found a contrived set instead of a real house, his reaction was probably not that of a typical child, as he found it more exhilarating than disillusioning. "It was an interesting awakening to the reality of broadcast TV," he says. "To me, it was pure magic."
After graduating from University College at the University of Maryland with a degree in radio, television, and film, Fanning went to work at the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) in Washington, DC. He began his career off the PR track as assistant director, safety and health services, a job that seemed like a good fit. As someone who had spent much of his high school and college years working on high-rise building sites as a carpenter, Fanning spoke the lingo.
After a few years, he was recruited into the association's PR team under the leadership of John Berard, who is now an MD at Zeno Group. "I wanted to adopt an agency model for the in-house team," Berard explains. "So I went looking for people who I thought would be good agency people. From the time Michael and I worked together, he was exactly what I hoped for."
Berard says that among Fanning's strengths was his "affinity and appreciation for how communications supports business objectives." One of the team's major projects was a campaign to promote improving and rebuilding America's infrastructure (prompted by the publication of the seminal book on the subject, America in Ruins by Pat Choate and Susan Walter). The program was built on a foundation of research into problems facing US cities. Fanning was excited by the chance to both advance the aims of the AGC's constituency and deal with a crisis facing the country.
Fanning moved from the AGC to IBM Federal Systems, a former part of Big Blue that dealt with government contracts, including work with NASA and the CIA. It was his first chance to work with an iconic brand, and he relished the environment of excellence. "IBM is where I got my best training," he remembers. "They had so many great PR people, many of whom are now VPs in other companies. Communications was just phenomenal there."
IBM also gave him his first taste of speech writing. "I soon discovered there was a fraternity of speechwriters, sharing jokes and stories," he says. "There was a saying at IBM - humor is no laughing matter." A fan of oratory, Fanning has collections of great speeches by Winston Churchill and others.
His career took a turn when the end of the Cold War and declining defense budgets prompted IBM CEO Lou Gerstner to sell the business. Fanning began to take the long view on his career, taking a job with another great brand, Reader's Digest. It was the first job that had global scope, including the launch of the magazine in Poland.
Fanning also worked closely with the IR head, taking him out of his comfort zone of words into a new territory of balance sheets and analyst calls. Developing relationships outside the PR team has been a theme throughout his career.
"His job was in PR, but he provided a positive bridge between communications and every aspect of the company," says Bob Dilenschneider, chairman of the Dilenschneider Group and a colleague of Fanning's at Reader's Digest. "He's a person who understands the needs and wants of virtually every constituency important for a corporation."
In 1997, Fanning moved to South Carolina for a post at The Liberty Corporation, helping it to divest some of its businesses. Since 1999, he's worked for Michelin. Once he took over for Morton, he reorganized the team to focus on five critical areas - PR, employee communications, community relations, corporate image, and government affairs. Lynn Mann, director of PR, also calls Fanning a bridge builder. "He has a nice way of finding common threads and creating consensus between groups."
Fanning, who is married with two daughters, is passionate about great films and about the art of communications, lamenting how some of the traditional skills have eroded over time. "Good writing seems to be something of a lost art," Fanning says. "It's really saddening to see the disrepair of our language. For better or for worse, it's a sound-bite age."
That hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for his profession. "Being in the communications industry, when what you do can affect the way people live their lives, is incredibly exciting."
VP of corporate affairs, Michelin North America. Began as PR director
VP, corporate and marketing comms, The Liberty Corporation
PR director, The Reader's Digest Assoc.
Manager, comms and community relations, Loral Federal Systems
Various posts at IBM, including manager, IBM Gaithersburg Communications; and manager, marketing communications and external programs, IBM Federal Systems
Associated General Contractors of America. Various posts, including public affairs head, asst. director, safety and health services