PRWeek Hall of Famers offer advice for the next generation

Four honorees on the biggest lessons they’ve learned.

Clockwise from top left: PRWeek's Steve Barrett, Coca-Cola's Bea Perez, BCW's Karen Hughes, J&J's Michael Sneed, MWW's Michael Kempner.

NEW YORK: Despite the virtual format, the 2020 PRWeek Hall of Fame brought together world leaders and celebrities to recognize the talent and contributions of this year’s six inductees

During the event’s first panel, Sending the Elevator Back Down, PRWeek VP and editorial director Steve Barrett spoke with four honorees: Beatriz “Bea” Perez, SVP and chief communications, public affairs, sustainability and marketing assets officer for The Coca-Cola Company; Karen Hughes, worldwide vice chair of BCW and a former top aide to President George W. Bush; Michael Kempner, founder and CEO of MWWPR; and Michael Sneed, EVP of global corporate affairs and chief communications officer at Johnson & Johnson.

Barrett asked the four about the unprecedented impact of 2020, what they’ve learned in their careers and what they would say to PR pros who aspire to be part of the next generation of comms leaders.

Barrett: It's been a crazy year on so many levels, and it continues to surprise us. How did you deal with it? How have the events of the last nine months changed your perspective on PR and communications? 

Perez: People needed information 24-7. They needed to know what was happening in terms of, ‘Is the business going to be open? Are we going to have temporary office locations? Are we going to come back at some point?’ We were fortunate to be an essential product in terms of water, juices and our milk products. It was really important that we kept that supply going, but from a communications perspective, it was the always-on, the 24-7, the empathy, the transparency and the clarity.

Sneed: As we were looking into this emerging pandemic, we very much leaned on our credo and our purpose. It became clear that this was going to be a moment for every company to see how they actually act on whatever set of values they have or whatever purpose statement they have, because now is the time to act. 

Hughes: I took away a few things. One is just the [importance] of empathy and flexibility. As our work life and our home life all became blended, our leaders at BCW worked to find new ways to show our employees how they mattered to us and that we care about them and that we understand what they're going through. 

Kempner: This was an unprecedented era of fear, of uncertainty, of what happens to our company, what happens to clients, what happens to their families, what happens to society? The greatest lesson was that you can't communicate too much. The other thing that became critically important on the client side was that you were going to find out, are these companies true to their values? Are they going to actually do what they've been professing to do?

Barrett: I'm sure our readers would love to get some hints, tips or advice from the Hall of Fame honorees and their storied pasts. Please share an anecdote with some advice attached to it.

Hughes: One of my best pieces of advice is to really carefully listen. As communicators, we think of speaking. As a reporter, I had to walk into a room, listen to what was being said and then decide what was important and what was not, and how to communicate it. And that's what I did every day at the White House.

Our branding of President George W. Bush as a compassionate conservative really started with me carefully listening to him. He was doing an interview and a reporter was pressing him on his political philosophy. And he said, ‘Well, I'm a conservative.’ And the reporter pushed back and said, ‘Well, when you talk about single moms struggling to raise their kids or poor immigrants coming over the border for a better life, you don't sound like a conservative.’ And Governor Bush replied, ‘Well, then call me a conservative with a heart.’ And from that, we developed the compassionate conservative [brand], which really defined, I think, much of his candidacy and domestic agenda.

Perez: We do internal discussion groups and [started to use] a digital tool in the last year called push out the communications. But we found it was also a great tool to listen to the employees, to see what was important to them and to see what topics were rising in importance.

We learned some lessons right in our hometown headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. There had not been a hate crime bill passed [in the state] to protect people. We started to see a lot of chatter around what policies and legislation could do to protect people from different hate-crime situations. Our employees started to organize a march, and we learned about it through this tool because we saw that as rising in importance.

So when we reached out to those employees who had this passion about it, they said, ‘Well, we want to do this march, and we want an audience with the people making these decisions.’ So it was employee-led, but we leaned right in. We helped with everything from making sure they had a safe route to do the march to giving access so the different legislators would be able to listen to them. It was interesting because they marched two weeks in a row. Then by the third week, [the bill] was actually passed into law.

Kempner: The hardest thing I have found over the 34 years is to teach people how to take risks. It's very easy to get people to follow the rules. That's not the hard part at all. It’s how do you get people to take risks? How do you get them to understand that it's okay to fail? And I would argue, in fact, it's necessary.

Barrett: Can you think of an example where you did that? 

Kempner: Yes. I'm 19 years old and I'm working for the governor of New Jersey in his Washington, DC, office. My boss tells me to go over and meet with the president, Jimmy Carter, to talk about a project. I'm 19 years old, you know? So I went over and it was just me in the cabinet room with the president talking about this program. I knew this was either going to be the beginning of a fantastic career or the end very quickly.

Sneed: I'll never forget the time, early in my career, when I was just fresh out of graduate school and doing a big presentation in front of the president and our board. I was really so excited about being able to use a lot of statistical analysis to make my point around a certain aspect of marketing. I could tell that people's eyes were glazing over. I was so excited about this, and yet it wasn't their world. 

So I quickly had to pivot and talk about the things that I thought they would appreciate, which was more around market share and maybe some of the traditional things that at the time, I think we had already started to move past as a marketing organization.

But it taught me the lesson of really meeting people where they are, and then bringing them along. You can have a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, as hopefully we have even later in our careers. But a part of what we all do is try to find people where they are and then bring them along. I think if you can learn how to do that, you will continue to be very successful. 

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