PROFILE: Painter cements his place atop Houston's PR scene

From the mid-1970s Arab oil embargo to his present role at Sterling Bank, Graham Painter's global PR prowess has prompted industry execs to tag him a 'consummate professional.'

From the mid-1970s Arab oil embargo to his present role at Sterling Bank, Graham Painter's global PR prowess has prompted industry execs to tag him a 'consummate professional.'

Graham Painter joined the electric company and saw the world. When he went to work for Houston Lighting & Power (HL&P) fresh out of college, Painter never dreamed the hometown job would take him to Sao Paulo or the Czech Republic, or that global events would anger local customers. In his nearly 30 years with HL&P, the company bought natural gas interests at home and acquired utilities in South America. As Texas prepared for deregulation, HL&P became Reliant, and Painter moved into its distribution subsidiary, CenterPoint Energy. Along the way, Painter became one of Houston's most respected PR pros. "Houston may be the fourth largest city in the country, but it's a very close-knit PR community, and Graham is regarded as one of its leaders," summarizes John Sousa, corporate communications VP for Dynegy. Practically every PR executive in the city will tell you about meeting the former Houston PRSA president on the board of some professional or civic organization, from the Press Club to the March of Dimes. And they almost invariably describe Painter with the words "consummate professional." After helping communicate CenterPoint's transition to an independent company, Painter left to become corporate communications SVP for Sterling Bank, an up-and-coming financial institution with a corporate culture so cushy, Fortune ranked it the US' 26th best place to work. "It's management's job not to get in the way of what's already there," Painter says of the pleasant work environment fostered by company founders and nurtured by employees. Current events, however, remind Painter of the biggest PR challenge his old job presented - the mid-'70s Arab oil embargo. Nothing seemed to soothe customers' ire over higher electric bills. Another Texas utility, Entergy, crafted a textbook campaign advising people to weatherize their homes to prepare for higher energy prices. "It convinced the customers they were about to get screwed," Painter recalls. Consumers also responded negatively to HL&P's efforts to explain that it was just passing through fuel costs. "We were making this an issue," Painter says. "The customers weren't." When HL&P stopped trying to defend itself, the public outcry subsided. Painter found you can't win them all. "If we worked for companies that didn't have problems, we probably wouldn't have jobs," he observes. In no-win situations, including some today's skyrocketing fuel prices might trigger, PR pros should maintain credibility so they can "come out communicating" when the storm passes, he advises. "There's a tendency to take a temporary crisis and throw yourself in front of the media train to protect your company," Painter says. "You can only go to the editor's desk and pound it so many times before he won't listen anymore." Communicators also should resist the urge to bend the truth when their stories aren't positive. "If you're seduced by that thought and do something dishonest, you're of no use to your company or your client," Painter says. HL&P did win a public opinion battle over a nuclear power plant built in the 1980s. Company reps personally visited every resident in nearby communities. Reporters fishing for local criticism found some neighbors worried about the plant's cost, but few fretted over safety, Painter asserts. "They felt they had a friend on the inside," he says. Painter's most fulfilling PR experiences came after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The US State Department's Agency for International Development sent executives from American companies to help privatize infrastructure in newly democratic Eastern European countries. HL&P's size matched that of the Czech Republic's electric utility, so the company helped the Czechs get their books and operations in order. Czechs felt a close affinity with Americans. "You could hardly buy a beer over there," he says of their hospitality. HL&P took along Texans whose Czech ancestors migrated in the 1800s. They amused the Europeans by speaking in their great-grandparents' antiquated Czech dialect. Experiences in the Czech Republic and Brazil proved PR isn't the same everywhere. Painter suggested to the Czechs, for example, that they feature linemen instead of executives in their employee newsletter. " 'Under communism, the workers were always glorified,' " he remembers the Czechs telling him. " 'We want to see how the successful people live.'" To those contemplating global PR, Painter advises, "You can't impose your cultural values on other cultures, but you can function as a PR pro. What you bring to the table is a professional set of procedures." Painter takes that to heart in his new job at a company smaller and vastly different from his old employer. His newly created post consolidates leadership of PR, advertising, employee communications, and community relations. His charge is to position Sterling as a major financial institution throughout Texas using the tagline "It's all about people, and it always will be." Ads feature testimonials from customers. Like many Houston executives, bank president Downey Bridgwater met Painter while serving with him on a volunteer board. Bridgwater took advantage of Reliant's business transition to woo Painter. "Besides bringing over a new level of management experience," Bridgwater says, "the efficiency, productivity, and clarity of all our messages has gone to an entirely higher level." ----- Graham Painter 2002-present SVP of corporate comms for Sterling Bank and Sterling Bancshares 1973-2002 Moved up through the PR ranks as his hometown's electric utility (then Houston Lighting & Power) expanded, changed its name to Reliant, and divided itself into subsidiaries to satisfy Texas deregulation laws. His final position was as VP of public affairs for CenterPoint Energy, the newly independent generation and transmission arm of Reliant 1972 Earned a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Houston

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