GE was the training ground for a generation of PR talent

As the industrial behemoth prepares to split into three separate entities, it’s worth reflecting on the enormous amount of respected communications leaders who plied their trade at GE.

The GE headquarters on Necco Street in Boston, MA. (Credit: Getty Images)
The GE headquarters on Necco Street in Boston, MA. (Credit: Getty Images)

As The New York Times reported last month, GE is one of America’s most iconic companies and has had a storied history since its founding in Schenectady, New York almost 130 years ago.

The industrial conglomerate had grown into a behemoth with assets in business sectors as diverse as jet engines, washing machines, medical equipment and light bulbs. The latter segment provided its link to Thomas Edison, though the company was never quite as closely connected with the famous inventor as it might have sometimes liked to portray.

It was a solid, safe stock known for regular and reliable dividends and it featured on most investment portfolios. If there were common threads it was a focus on technology and innovation.

But the trend toward large industrial giants has lost its luster with big investors, who increasingly seem to prefer smaller, more nimble enterprises. The complexity of the organization at GE had become overwhelming. An investor interested in healthcare had to have aviation and energy in the mix too. And vice versa.

There were so many inter-company and intra-company agreements that it became difficult for Wall Street to get its head around it. The modern mantra is a need for more clarity - and that applies particularly to a communications narrative.

At one time GE even, somewhat curiously, owned a chunk of broadcaster NBCUniversal, maker of TV programs including 30 Rock and Saturday Night LiveFriends didn't really sit easily alongside jet engines, although having the comms and marketing teams based at 30 Rock was certainly an easier sell on the talent and recruitment front than trying to entice people out to a sprawling campus in Connecticut.

Now GE is set to spin off its healthcare and energy arms over the next two years, leaving aviation as its core operating business.

Much has been written by smarter observers than I about the history and subsequent downfall of a business dubbed “world’s most respected company” by the FT multiple times, and the legacies of leaders including Fortune’s “manager of the century” Jack Welch, his successor Jeff Immelt, the short-lived John Flannery and, most recently, the disruptor Larry Culp.

But while a conglomerate such as GE not only became a supplier of top-level C-suite executives throughout corporate America, so it also provided valuable opportunities to a whole cadre of respected PR professionals who are now similarly spread out across U.S. and global enterprises leading communications.

Current CCOs or heads of communications formerly at GE include Heineken’s Stacey Tank, Mastercard’s Jennifer Erickson and Izabela Teizeira, Cognizant’s Jeff DeMarrais, Carlyle Group’s Leigh Farris, Cardinal Health’s Sarah Wills, Dazn’s Nancy Elder, Blackstone Group’s Jen Friedman, Union Pacific’s Clarissa Beyah, ACLU’s Rebecca Lowell Edwards, IBM spinoff Kyndryl’s Una Pulizzi, Hitachi Vantara’s David McCulloch, Activision Blizzard’s Helaine Klasky and Lixil’s Jin Montesano.

Also in this category are Henkel’s Jennifer Schiavone, Signet Jewelers’ Colleen Rooney, Lyft’s Dominic Carr, Apple’s Catherine Franklin, Zendesk’s Alex Constantinople, Binance’s Patrick Hillmann, BlackRock’s Dominic McMullan, Baker Hughes’ Russell Wilkerson, Corning’s Holly Gilthorpe, Wabtec’s Deia Campanelli, Locust Street Group’s Stephanie Cathcart, Synchrony’s Susan Bishop Mangino and Lisa Lanspery and Spencer Stuart’s George Jamison.

Two of the most notable names associated with the PR function are former communications and public affairs VP Gary Sheffer, who spent more than 13 of his 16-year GE tenure in the top comms role. Sheffer reported to Beth Comstock, who rose from head of communications at NBC to head of marketing and comms at GE under Jack Welch and then moved to wider roles within the business.

Other GE alum include former Pearson and Edelman executive Deirdre Latour, former Raytheon comms VP Pam Wickham, the10company’s Valerie DiMaria, Johnson & Johnson’s Kristy Marshall, Coca-Cola’s Serena Levy, Brunswick Group’s Andrew Williams, former Activision Blizzard and Twitter communicator Kristin Binns and Frank Mantero.

It’s an impressive list and there are many others I’ve left out. It did set me wondering whether there has ever been a more influential company in terms of being a training ground for PR talent on the client side.

Having said all this, it is somewhat ironic that, while it still has strong comms leaders including Mary Kate Mullaney and Megan Newhouse, GE no longer has a dedicated chief communications officer. CMO Linda Boff is doing double duty overseeing PR as well as marketing since the last CCO incumbent Jennifer Erickson left the company in September 2019.

If GE’s constituent parts - which can still be strong individually - are to prosper when they eventually split into three separate enterprises, it would behoove them to return to their strong PR roots and appoint chief communications officers for each of the new businesses, with teams specializing in their particular areas of expertise and focusing particularly on taking care of their people.

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