What lessons do you wish you knew before starting a career in PR?
How to be a leader and how to read a room of senior people and understand
an issue from their point of view – whether they’re an accountant or engineer. We’re from Venus and they are from Mars sometimes.
What would you tell your 20-year-old self?
I was a terrible student, so pay attention in school because the foundational things you learn in liberal arts education, in particular, are really helpful in a comms career. I would tell myself to stop looking out the window. When the teacher is talking about Shakespeare and its meaning, you should pay attention.
What is the best career advice you ever received?
Don’t take things personally. Before I got into corporate comms, I was in journalism and politics, where it’s very personal and there’s a lot of ego. You get into the corporate world and suddenly you’re in a meeting and [former CEO] Jack Welch or current CEO Jeff Immelt is disagreeing strongly with something you’re recommending and it’s hard not to take it personally. That’s the best advice – always put the work first. It’s not about you – it’s about the team and the enterprise.
What has you most excited about PR in the next 10 years?
Comms leaders are in the best position in the C-suite to think about and drive alignment between social values and corporate values. The companies that are going to win are going to align their purpose with broader social purpose.
What has you most concerned?
I’m concerned about loss of some of the foundational skills that we’re going to always need. As the fusion of marketing and comms continues, we can’t lose sight of foundational skills in PR – being a good counselor, having effective comms skills, and understanding the external world and bringing it into our organizations.
What’s your proudest career achievement?
I’m really proud of the team that we’ve built. These people are just fantastic. Jeff Immelt used to say: "Who is in your wallet? Who is someone you’re helping to develop and bring along with you?" And I’m really proud of the [communications] team we’ve built at GE and that Deirdre Latour is now leading. They’re global, smart, and respected within the organization.
What’s the most distinct aspect of your office?
I have a welcome mat that says: "You’re entering the no-spin zone." Over the years, we’ve had some run-ins with Mr. O’Reilly, so my friend sent me a bunch of his paraphernalia.
Gary Sheffer recently stepped down after 12 years leading communications at GE. He is currently serving as a VP of strategic communications and will retire from the company at the end of 2015.
While at GE, he oversaw external and internal communications and provided strategic communications advice to GE executives on a full range of corporate reputation issues. In his public affairs role, Sheffer worked with external groups and individuals to foster understanding of GE policies and businesses.
In 2009, he was promoted to an officer position within GE, which meant his role stretched beyond communications into being a company leader, offering input on strategy for all of GE. He has always worked closely with GE CEO Jeff Immelt and navigated the transition from high-profile former CEO Jack Welch to Immelt. Sheffer has been instrumental in communicating Immelt’s vision across the whole of GE.
He joined GE in 1999 after 17 years in journalism and government communications, including serving as a press aide to two New York governors: Mario Cuomo (D) and George Pataki (R). Before working in government, he was a reporter and editor at several newspapers, including the Albany Times Union, winning several awards for his reporting.
Sheffer earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Siena College in Loudonville, New York, and today serves on its associate board of trustees. He is a member of the board for Columbia’s University’s master’s program in strategic communication and guest lectures on communications at several universities.
Sheffer has held high-ranking positions on PRWeek’s Power List numerous times, and he was chair of judges for the 2012 PRWeek Awards.
Sheffer serves on the boards of several associations for communications professionals, including the Institute for Public Relations and the Arthur W. Page Society. He also serves on the board of the GE-Reagan Foundation Scholarship Program.