Mike Fernandez: Hall of Fame 2015

Corporate VP, corporate affairs, Cargill

What do you wish you had known before starting your career in PR?
That you don’t know everything and that part of the real challenge of doing this job well is to constantly be unopposed to learning. Just as much as we might want to influence others, we have to be open to influencing ourselves. We have to do this if we’re truly going to engage stakeholders and make a difference in the world.

What would you tell your 20-year-old self?
When I was 25, I was travelling with [former Senator] Ernest Hollings at the time, and we were looking at him potentially running for the Democratic presidential nomination. I happened to be in Atlanta and I was supposed to meet [Hollings] on the campus of Morehouse College, a historically black university where Martin Luther King Jr. went as an undergrad. We were going to meet with [Luther King Jr.’s] mentor Dr. Benjamin Mays, but I got there before Hollings.

I asked [Mays], "What do you tell young people who are looking to make a difference in the world?" And he said, "Never stop learning. Try to learn something every day."

It seems simple, yet smart in a sense that the world I knew when I was growing up is vastly different from the one we face today. I still come back to that advice today – to never stop learning – not just from a book, but also through total engagement with the world.

What has you most excited about the next 10 years of PR?
In the last five years, social media and internal and external comms have all blurred the lines. Now we talk about a global news desk where we’re looking at internal and external [comms] simultaneously, and making sure we can reach stakeholders through the right channels in an efficient way.

That is going to continue to be key to those who are successful. They are going to have to be smart about reaching the intended stakeholder in a world that is only going to continue to be more social, and where the content and context that we can provide always matters.

What concerns do you have about the future of PR?
For many people in our industry the challenge remains: how will we manage and appreciate an increasingly diverse workforce? When I was hired as a Fortune 500 CCO almost 20 years ago, I was only the second Latino at the time to be in such a role.

Even today, we are still fighting that battle to recruit enough diverse talent within our agencies and companies and [ensure] they are able to thrive. My sincerest hope is that we will come to a day when we no longer need awards for inclusion in diversity because we will have achieved our aim.

Mike Fernandez leads Cargill’s global corporate affairs activities, including government relations, global issues management, corporate communications, brand and marketing services, and corporate social responsibility – he is also a member of the company’s Corporate Center.

Before joining Cargill in 2010, Fernandez served as CCO of four Fortune 500 companies: State Farm, ConAgra Foods, Cigna, and US West – he also made history early in his career as one of the youngest people to serve as a press secretary to a Senator on Capitol Hill.

Fernandez cites this political experience as a major factor in establishing his views on the importance of proactive communication, which has served him well throughout his career helping large corporations deal with transitions, strategic challenges and crisis, and building brands and reputations.

Fernandez serves on the boards of the Institute for Public Relations, where he is a former co-chair, and the Arthur W. Page Society.

Over the years he has worked with a number of boards and organizations in support of food security, sustainability, economic development, and education.

He is currently on the boards of TechnoServe, the US Global Leadership Coalition, Immigration Works USA, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and is on the advisory council of the Latino Donor Collaborative and the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Fernandez also serves on the board of advisers for communications schools at the University of Florida and the College of Charleston, and lectures on reputation management, crisis management, and leadership communications at his alma mater and at New York University.

He has been named to PRWeek’s Power List numerous times and he was chair of judges for the 2011 PRWeek Awards. Born in Long Beach, CA of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and American descent, Fernandez has long been a mentor to young PR pros, especially those from multicultural backgrounds.

Fernandez received a bachelor’s in government and a master’s in accounting, both from Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

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