John Buckley, EVP of corporate comms for America Online, uses lessons he learned on three presidential campaigns to help his company deal with media scrutiny during a tough time.
Political campaigns might get a bad rap, but John Buckley believes they accomplish something that corporate PR is only beginning to understand. "You actually have to win the news cycle ? just like in a political campaign," says America Online's EVP of corporate communications. "You have to be responsive and strategic so the company isn't always on the defensive."
AOL has surely been on the defensive since its well-publicized ? and some would say disastrous ? merger with Time Warner. But Buckley sees success in how the company managed to launch new products in its toughest hour.
"You couldn't have had an uglier environment to try to stay on offense. And we were successful in doing so,"he says. If politics colored his view of PR, it's because that's where he began. Buckley led communications for three presidential campaigns, two of which failed. Compared to those, he calls the AOL-Time Warner merger a "piece of cake."
"In a presidential election, you are launching a theatrical program performed on a daily basis," he explains. "It's a difficult environment to work in." Buckley started his career as a rock-music critic. It was while he was writing for SoHo Weekly News that an article about Lou Lehrman turned into an opportunity to be the gubernatorial candidate's press secretary. Lehrman's bid ultimately failed, but Jim Lake, then Ronald Reagan's press secretary, soon recruited Buckley to be his deputy on the re-election campaign.
"He was the main front-line guy answering press calls," Lake recalls. "We had two news cycles. CNN was just a baby. John helped me manage all of it."
Lake would later hire Buckley at his strategic communications firm, Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery, a company founded to use political strategy to launch consumer campaigns. Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton's former press secretary and a senior adviser on the Kerry-Edwards campaign, recalls traveling to Chicago with Buckley to pitch McDonald's.
"The two of us proposed that they pretend they're a national political campaign and run their national message operations accordingly," McCurry says with a laugh. "We didn't get the work."
But such clients as Texaco and Burger King did hire the firm to build research-based, strategy-driven campaigns. "Without a strategy, corporate communications is just noise in the wind," Lake says. "John executes on the details in a professional, smart way."
Two years later, Buckley would help Fannie Mae combine political strategy and consumer awareness in what was then a landmark PR operation. By educating the public on what Fannie Mae did, the theory went, the company would ultimately help low- and moderate-income families purchase homes. "I was [an] architect of that strategy ... that was very much a model for financial companies," Buckley says, adding that by the time he left Fannie Mae, more than 10 million low- and moderate-income Americans owned homes. Companies' public profiles also became increasingly important during the 10 years Buckley spent at Fannie Mae.
"The best companies [realize] that marketing, PR, and senior executives must be coordinated," he says. "Companies that understand that are the ones that play to win."
At AOL, Buckley reports directly to CEO Jonathan Miller. "[Our] company has been under both scrutiny and interest from the outside," Miller says. "[PR is] not an afterthought by any stretch; it is part and parcel with what we do." PR was particularly vital in the days after the merger, when outlets assigned reporters solely to cover the company. "Literally every day there was a war-room mentality," Miller recalls. Buckley entered the war room from his first day. "I was hired on the day the companies merged," he recalls. Buckley served initially as VP of communications for Time Warner, eventually moving to AOL.
He stepped into the latter role just as the Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating AOL's accounting practices. But Buckley notes that the move was a smooth one. "I was immaculately conceived," he says, referring to a lack of previous loyalty to either company. As AOL undergoes a rebranding, Miller says that the press is starting to talk about it as a turnaround story. "[John] really understands how other people look at an issue," Miller says. "It's not just communicating a strategy; he's been materially involved in the creation of that strategy." "Until you've lived in the white-hot glare of being scrutinized ... it's hard to understand how challenging it is," says Buckley. "What I'm proud of is, in spite of [that] environment, we were able to push AOL 8.0 out the door in 2002."
Buckley notes that AOL has reached a comfortable rhythm with the media: There are times when it flings open its doors, and other times when it shuts them. But he notes that AOL has built enough trust during "open" periods to work out an understanding for when the company must be more tight-lipped. Working with the media is something he mastered as a 27-year-old deputy on Reagan's re-election communications.
"To come out of that with the respect of the Washington press corps ... that's one of the things I'm most proud of." In 1996, Buckley returned to politics as director of communications for Bob Dole's election campaign, but he swears it will be the last time he'll do so.
"That campaign was like aversion therapy for polita-holics," he says. "We were never in the position to win. It's a miserable position to actually be in." But McCurry, who worked opposite Buckley on the Clinton campaign, recalls Buckley's "enormous energy" and how he took the ups and downs in stride. "He was one of the quickest with the quip on the campaign trail," he says. "He knows what makes people tick."
2002-present America Online, EVP of corporate comms
2001-2002 AOL Time Warner, VP of comms
1996 Dole-Kemp campaign, comms director
1991-2001 Fannie Mae, SVP of comms
1989-1991 Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery, SVP
1989 National Republican Congressional Committee, comms director
1985-1988 Press sec. in Jack Kemp's congressional office and for '88 GOP nomination campaign
1984 Deputy press sec., Reagan-Bush campaign