Dick Yarbrough has been three years in training for the 1996 Olympics
This week Dick Yarbrough bore the Olympic flame through his late
mother’s North Georgia birthplace. The passage may have been Yarbrough’s
most poignant contribution to bringing the Olympics to Atlanta but it
was not the first. As communications managing director of the Atlanta
Committee for the Olympic Games, Yarbrough, 58, has spent the last three
years nurturing the public face of the centennial Games.
Yarbrough, who joins Manning, Selvage and Lee as a worldwide senior
counsellor after the Olympics, went to ACOG from BellSouth in 1993 after
27 years in the telecommunications industry. He joined Southern Bell in
1964, as a PR supervisor, moved to parent AT&T as public affairs
director, in 1977, and after a successful stint of running his own firm
- which was bought by Ketchum after his departure - he rejoined the
divested BellSouth in 1986 as PR vice-president.
Yarbrough’s ACOG remit is huge, with his 75-strong team - swelling,
partly with volunteers, to 3,000 during the Games - covering PR, public
information, press, and state and federal government relations.
The complexity of the press operation is gargantuan, with 15,000 print
and broadcast staff besieging Atlanta. The 5,000 print journalists alone
have been provided with such facilities as a massive central press
centre, 24-hour restaurant facilities, daily press conferences,
transport to and from hotels and the use of 2,000 information screens
covering everything from medal tallies to athlete biographies.
However, media and public obsession with the Games began long before the
main press body arrived. Yarbrough says this constant spotlight brings
‘We could make the headlines every day. When responding to issues, you
have to learn to pick out those things that are erroneous and hurt your
feelings, but do not matter in the long run, and those that could lead a
third party, such as a regulator or the Government, to impact your
ability to do your business.’
Yarbrough reports to ACOG’s chief executive Billy Payne, a direct line
that he demanded on his recruitment. This reflects his conviction that
communications leaders should sit at the ‘top table’ of management, with
their counsel taken as seriously as lawyers.
Such professional pride reflects Yarbrough’s personal pride in his own
work. His long working hours and exacting standards, for himself and
others, are legendary.
BellSouth assistant media relations director Lois Phillips says: ‘I have
never met a manager who demanded such high quality consistently: he
never let it falter. One night, I remember we worked until midnight on
something and then had to be in at eight the next morning.’
Such demands, Phillips recalls, inspired two reactions: ‘You loved him
or you got transferred out, there was no middle ground.’
Despite knowing Yarbrough as a ‘hard taskmaster’ Kent Matlock, president
of Atlanta agency, Matlock and Associates, is one of the former. Matlock
recalls how, while he was still a student, despite his seniority,
Yarbrough freely gave him advice and support. Referring to him as ‘one
of the best mentors you could have’, he talks, almost reverentially, of
Yarbrough’s enlightened approach to PR and the candour and truthfulness
of his guidance.
Yarbrough is continuing to be his own hard taskmaster, working a regular
14 hour day at ACOG. And he seems unlikely to bow out too soon from the
American PR arena, which this year saw him honoured as only the fourth
person to receive an Inside PR magazine lifetime achievement award.
Tellingly, on confirming that his Manning Selvage and Lee role is part
time, he adds, without irony: ‘I would expect to be in most every day.’
1964 PR supervisor, Southern Bell
1977 Director, public affairs, AT&T
1980 Assistant vice-president PR, Southern Bell
1984 President, Bowes/Hanlon/Yarbrough
1986 Vice-president PR, BellSouth
1993 MD communications, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games