PROFILE: David Prosperi -- In the line of fire

Being on the scene when Ronald Reagan was shot has made David Prosperi the PR man he is today, says Clare O'Connor.

David Prosperi
David Prosperi

For the vast majority of PROs, the assertion that they would ‘take a bullet' for a client is a euphemism. They would get on the phone to a journalist in a crisis, but that is about as far as it goes. Luckily for most press officers, the most dangerous aspect of a PR job is probably liver damage from boozy lunches or eye-bags from sleep deprivation.

Spend five minutes with David Prosperi, however, and you learn that some PROs have come far closer to the proverbial barrel of the gun. Prosperi was a 27-year-old White House assistant press secretary on the now infamous day in the spring of 1981 when a lone gunman opened fire on President Reagan.

Indeed, he was the person who, after seeing his boss, the press secretary Jim Brady, fall to the ground, ran inside the Washington Hilton Hotel and dialled the White House from a payphone.
‘There were no cell phones in 1981,' recalls Prosperi. ‘I had to charge the call to my credit card. I just said, "Jim's been hit".' That was the first the White House knew that Reagan had been shot.'

Prosperi, now 55 and the global head of PR at risk management firm Aon Corporation (recently responsible for a report indicating the City was at grave risk of flooding) had secured the coveted White House job after completing an internship at the Washington DC office of an oil company.

James Lake, a Reagan campaigner, contacted Prosperi and asked him to travel around with the Presidential contender, following him with a tape recorder. Long before the days of YouTube and 24-hour CNN, Prosperi's tape accounted for one of the most comprehensive documentations of Reagan's election campaign. It is currently in the archival history section of the Reagan Library in California.

On 30 March, not long into his job and only 69 days into Reagan's presidency, Prosperi was talking to a reporter as Reagan finished a speaking engagement.

‘I heard a pop, like a balloon bursting,' he remembers. ‘I heard five more pops in rapid succession, and pulled the reporter down. All pandemonium broke loose. I saw Jim Brady lying face down on the ground. He'd been shot in the head. A friend of mine had a handkerchief; there was frothy blood. I ran into the hotel.'

While Reagan was not badly hurt, Brady has been wheelchair-bound ever since. He is America's preeminent gun control lobbyist and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civil honour in the US.

Prosperi is loath to compare his role with Reagan to the current crop of Washington flacks, one of whom, former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, recently released a tell-all book, called What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.

‘I have a problem with people capitalising on their public service,' says Prosperi. ‘It's a commitment, and you shouldn't be making money out of it. You shouldn't turn around and fill your pockets. There were plenty of people in the Reagan administration who had stories to tell, but didn't.'

Having learned the art of damage control early on in his career, Prosperi knew he would not remain in the public sector for long. Following a stint at the US Department of Transportation, he moved to the Chicago Board of Trade to handle corporate comms. ‘They were fighting insider trading allegations and were at the nadir in terms of image. They needed a strategist.'

Those who know Prosperi from his years in Chicago describe him as personable but utterly professional. Financial Times senior corporate reporter Jeremy Grant met Prosperi during his time as the paper's Chicago correspondent. ‘David was at the Chicago Board of Trade then moved to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange - it was a very backwards organisation,' says Grant.

‘He was the only guy who could lay claim to knowing the industry backwards. He could talk about it off the record, and there was generally always something useful in there. You could see he was his own man.'

Katie Spring, now the MD of corporate comms at a Chicago firm, was fairly junior when she went to work for Prosperi at the Chicago Board of Trade in 1998. ‘He was pretty much chief of staff,' she says. ‘But he was always looking for ways to help people. I was young at the time and he helped me to learn a trade, a craft.'

Spring knew about Prosperi's Reagan years when she took the job, and to this day believes his career has been informed by that one moment in March 1981. ‘He has such a calm head - he's the voice of reason,' she says. ‘When there's a crisis, he is the person you want on your team.'

2007 Vice president, global public relations, Aon Corporation
2004 MD, marketing and corporate communications, CME Group
1990 Vice president, corporate communications, The Chicago Board of Trade
1989 Assistant secretary of transportation, US Department of Transportation
1981 Assistant press secretary, The White House

What was your biggest career break?
Travelling with Ronald Reagan during the 1980 US presidential campaign and becoming assistant White House press secretary in 1981.

What experience has had the biggest influence on your career?
The day Reagan and Jim Brady were shot. Every reporter in DC was there, so it was chaos. They didn't teach us how to handle crisis comms back then - it was on-the-job training.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
Be proactive, persistent and aggressive, but also be nice to people on the way up so they will return the favour.

Who was your most notable mentor?
President Reagan. He, along with my parents, taught me how to treat people with respect and dignity regardless of their place in life.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
A desire to work hard, learn and have fun doing so.

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