PROFILE: Nicholson strives for harmony in Tyson's message

Ed Nicholson, Tyson Foods' director of corporate community and PR, works to bolster community relations where the firm has facilities - but still makes time to jam on his guitar.

Ed Nicholson, Tyson Foods' director of corporate community and PR, works to bolster community relations where the firm has facilities - but still makes time to jam on his guitar.

Can a former farm boy turned itinerant guitar player find happiness in a corporate communications job? And not just any such job, but for nine years as a media spokesman for a company that seems to continually find itself in the eye of one controversy after another? The answer for Ed Nicholson, director of corporate community and PR with Tyson Foods, has been a resounding yes. Nicholson, 51, joined Tyson in 1995, moving his family to the Northwest Arkansas area where he grew up, and hasn't regretted it. True, he stays in touch with his music roots. His collection of guitars is legendary among acquaintances - he has 18 and keeps three in his office. He even admits to strumming a late-night tune at work now and then, and still plays with a variety of bands. "I play with lots of folks," he says. "Whoever calls me. I don't discriminate." While music is still in his blood, Nicholson's head has been squarely focused on telling the public about Springdale, AR-based Tyson. Until a recent change in duties, he had been the company's chief spokesman through a variety of crises that involved protests by animal-rights groups and labor unions, and even allegations - of which Tyson was eventually acquitted - that it tried to illegally influence a US secretary of agriculture. Through it all, Nicholson has kept the respect of reporters who deal with him. "He's in that elite group of PR people that gets it," says Jeff Wood, editor of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. "He knows that not every reporter is out to get him and that not all stories will be positive. He gets the company message out and does it like a gentleman." Richard Lobb, media director for the National Chicken Council, a poultry industry trade group, agrees. "He has done a fantastic job for Tyson," he says. Nicholson claims to have always followed a simple philosophy: "The best way is to tell the truth. We open our doors and show people what we do." That is just what Tyson did in 1999 amid union allegations that working conditions in its plants were unsafe after two workers died at a Kentucky facility. Tyson opened its plants to the local media at the time and stepped up internal communications to talk about safety. "They've had more than their share of challenges and have come through them very well," says Lobb of Tyson. Nicholson has a new challenge today. In 2001, Tyson bought IBP, a major beef and pork processor, and has been integrating former IBP management into its corporate hierarchy. Nicholson recently got a new title and moved out of the chief spokesman's role he's held since the late 1990s. That job will now be handled by Gary Mickelson, who had worked with the media at IBP. Nicholson will now focus more on community relations for the 130 locations across the US, Canada, and Mexico where Tyson maintains facilities. Tyson's operations had been primarily in the South, while IBP had locations in the Midwest and Great Plains regions. The two companies had dealt differently with suppliers in those communities. Tyson hires farmers to raise chickens it owns and processes. In the hog and cattle business, livestock is generally owned by ranchers and farmers, who sell their animals to processors. "Culturally, the companies are a bit different," Nicholson acknowledges. He will work to bridge those differences in his community outreach efforts. His plan is to train plant managers to be community spokespeople for Tyson. He also thinks chicken farmers can serve as spokespeople when it comes to such local issues as environmental concerns that go along with raising chickens. "We're putting together a volunteer army" to project a positive image for Tyson, he explains. The company has stepped up plant-manager PR training in recent months. "My challenge is to put a little more focus on it," he says. The new responsibilities don't seem to faze Nicholson, who is the essence of a southern gentleman - cool, calm, and collected, even under pressure. He admits his music helps keep him centered. "There's something magical, a little energy, that's created when you perform," he says. "It's like athletes being in the zone. And possibly, in some way, that transfers into other things you do in life. I would hope it does." Nicholson starting playing in garage bands when he was still in grade school. Only a term short of graduating college, he went on the road with Tanya Tucker's younger sister, opening for the likes of country legends Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, and Barbara Mandrell. However, after two years of life on the road, Nicholson decided that wasn't where he wanted to be for the rest of his life. He decided instead on advertising as a career, working at agencies in Little Rock before starting his own company, The Works, which allowed him to bring the ad and music worlds together - The Works did audio work for ads. He opened a branch of The Works in Northwest Arkansas in 1995 so he could raise his family in the area he loved the most. Archie Schaffer III, now Tyson's SVP of external relations and a friend of Nicholson's father, soon lured Nicholson to Tyson. He made the switch to PR because "I saw it as an opportunity to learn new skills," Nicholson says. His wife wondered if he could fit into a major company like Tyson, but "I started looking at the company and was very impressed with what I saw," Nicholson recalls. He also knew his job would seldom be dull. "We're in a business that has many detractors, which creates a whole lot of challenges and opportunities for a PR person," he says. Nicholson begins tackling those challenges every day around 7:30am. His in-office day usually lasts until 6pm, though he admits to carrying his BlackBerry everywhere and always being on call. He does find time to spend with his three children - his 13-year-old son likes mountain biking, while he fishes with his 13-year-old daughter. And he has a 16-year-old son, who is also a guitar player. So the music lives on in the Nicholson household - and in Nicholson, who thinks that when he retires from the corporate world he might go back to a music career. Guess it's a good thing he's keeping all those guitars in tune. Ed Nicholson 2004-present Tyson Foods, director of corporate community and PR 2000-2004 Tyson Foods, director of media and community relations 1995-2000 Tyson Foods, PR manager 1985-1995 The Works, Little Rock, AR, founder and operator
1978-1985 Worked with various ad agencies in Arkansas

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