PROFILE: Grabowski takes back seat in GMA's lauded PR team

By giving his staff near autonomy, Grocery Manufacturers of America's VP of comms Gene Grabowski has raised the group's PR efficiency while freeing himself up to focus on the big picture.

By giving his staff near autonomy, Grocery Manufacturers of America's VP of comms Gene Grabowski has raised the group's PR efficiency while freeing himself up to focus on the big picture.

Michael Dukakis didn't accomplish much when he ran for President in 1988, but he did help Gene Grabowski find a better job. Back when the Democratic hopeful was still angling for his party's nomination, Grabowski was following his progress as The Washington Times' White House correspondent. Rumors were circulating that Dukakis had been in psychotherapy. Those rumors gave rise to accusations of depression and mental instability - not qualities generally valued by American voters. In early August, Dukakis' doctor held a press conference declaring his patient had never sought therapy - a move that seemed sure to bury the story. But that same day, Grabowski interviewed one of Dukakis' relatives, someone who just happened to be a psychologist. "He told me that when they were on vacation, when Dukakis was governor, he mentioned that sometimes [Dukakis] would be kind of blue, that they would sometimes sit over a cup of coffee and have a heart to heart," he recalls. Grabowski decided that family heart-to-hearts didn't count as therapy. But an editor saw things differently, and demanded his notes. "I still remember the headline," he says. "'Dukakis Kin Hints at Sessions.'" It was the page-one lead the next day, attributed to Grabowski and another reporter, except that neither wrote the story. Within a few days, both resigned, and Grabowski was jobless with no prospects for the first time in his life. After three months of unemployment, a desperate Grabowski accepted a job at C-SPAN as manager of press information. He helped publicize the network's 10th anniversary, placing hundreds of articles around the world about C-SPAN reporters and shows. It turned out the Pittsburgh native was better calibrated to PR than reporting. To this day, Grabowski calls C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb "without a doubt the finest man in DC," and praises the "culture of love, discipline, and devotion" that he created at the network. Grabowski picked up his signature management style from Lamb. The job set him on the road to a successful PR career, but it also taught him how to put together a team that avoids many of the typical communications pitfalls. As VP of communications and marketing at the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), Grabowski, 48, works within the confines of a typically small trade association PR budget: less than a million dollars annually - including ad dollars. Consequently, he doesn't have the luxury of putting together a large, expensive staff. What he has done instead is put together a team of five people who don't need him all that much. "I didn't want to be a bottleneck for everything that was going on," he explains. "So I took each major wing in this organization, industry affairs and government affairs, and I picked two managers and said, 'You will be the PR pros to these two groups.' They have near autonomy. They don't have to tell me every little thing they're doing." The result was a PR staff that, at least according to one reporter, functions better than nearly any other trade group in town. "I can't think of a trade group that's more responsive or quicker to respond to any issue," offers The Des Moines Register's Philip Brasher, who covers food and agriculture policy. "[Gene is] good about putting people on staff who are immersed in the issues." Brasher says he barely knows Grabowski. He says he speaks to GMA often, but the VP rarely - which is just how Grabowski wants it. And Brasher even pinpointed Grabowski's arrival at GMA, early 1998, without realizing it. "I would say they've gotten better in the past five years or so, much better in terms of response," he says. All that good organization has freed this suburban husband and now grandfather to think about the big picture - which today includes some frightening new challenges for his industry. A host of nutritionists and public advocates (as well as a few trial lawyers) have turned their sights on the food industry as the next Big Tobacco. They have filed lawsuits accusing food makers of causing obesity in Americans, and are lobbying for laws that would alter the way food is labeled and the amount of responsibility food manufacturers bear in the obesity issue. It's Grabowski's job to make sure that the people in power entertain ideas somewhat more hospitable to GMA members. To that end, he has helped put together an advisory board of food and nutrition experts who, among other things, are conducting a national listening tour in order to "gather information about the [dietary] ideas and programs that work and share them with the lawmakers and HHS," he explains. Grabowski pauses, then continues, "There is no definitive research out there on why people get fat. The activists will tell you it's French fries. Exercise physiologists will tell you that people are too sedentary. We believe it's a combination." But don't such foggy denials beg comparison to Big Tobacco's disingenuous assertions that smoking doesn't necessarily cause cancer? "We are aware that we come into this debate with some handicaps...a prejudice against us," he responds. "But does that mean we don't have a role to play? We assert that we have a role and that we have been acting responsibly." Lawmakers, judges, and the public will ultimately decide whether that's the case. But one has to question the wisdom of betting against a man who entered PR because he had too much integrity to be a reporter. ----- Gene Grabowski 1998-present VP of communications and marketing, Grocery Manufacturers of America 1995-1998 Director, Burson-Marsteller 1990-1995 Director of media relations, American Council of Life Insurers 1988-1990 Manager of press information, C-SPAN 1987-1988 White House correspondent, The Washington Times 1986-1987 SAE, The Earle Palmer Brown Companies 1977-1985 Reporter and editor, The Associated Press

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