Oral Histories

Anne Barkelew

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Anne Barkelew Biography

Ann Barkelew is a senior counselor of Fleishman-Hillard Inc., and the retired senior partner/founding general manager of the agency's Minneapolis/St. Paul office. She has more than 35 years of top management experience with Fortune 100 and small - to mid - cap companies. She is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions including "Public Relations Professional of the Year;" Fleishman-Hillard's Lifetime Achievement Award, a “Public Relations All-Star”, and in 2003 the Arthur W. Page Society’s Distinguished Service Award.


Interviewer: Well, welcome.

Barkelew: Thank you.

Interviewer: I'm sitting with Anne Barkelew in California at the Page Society conference.

Barkelew: Right.

Interviewer: And it is Sunday, September 16th 2007, and Anne has agreed to chat with me a little bit about her experiences in public relations. So let’s start early on in your life, in your career. After you graduated from Central Missouri State University in 1957, you began your career as an English teacher and a journalism teacher. And you were a school administrator in Missouri and also in the California school systems. And in 1966 you earned a Master of Education degree from the University of Missouri. How did you land in corporate PR?

Barkelew: Well I think to get my start in public relations you have to go back a little before I graduated from college, because I really believe that I got my start selling cookies as a Girl Scout or calendars as a Brownie. I think that all those experiences are experiences teach you a lot about planning and involving other people and working as a member of a team. But after I graduated from college, I became a teacher because it was what I always wanted to do and it mixed my love of journalism. I’d been a junior high school newspaper editor and a senior high school yearbook editor and I went to workshops at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, you know so I really, I didn’t know exactly what it was I wanted to do in journalism but I so admired a teacher I had that I decided I wanted to be a teacher too. So after doing that in Missouri for three or four years, I then had a chance to go west to California. California requires a fifth year for a permanent credential. And so I needed to go back to school. Now during those five years of teaching, I had so many students wanting to take journalism that I had to divide them into two groups and so I set up a news bureau and I assigned beats and we got on the radio and we got on television. So in effect, I was doing public relations for the schools at the time. I was also sort of a militant teacher and I used to go to school board meetings and say why aren’t we told all these things are going on. So when I took a year off to get my master’s degree I audited a course in school public relations and I was absolutely amazed to learn what you can do on purpose to help people understand more what’s actually happening in the world around them. I had a wonderful professor at the University of Missouri and as a result decided to do my master’s thesis organizing a program of public relations for the Santa Barbara schools, which is where I was teaching. I was on leave from Santa Barbara, California. Well I was going to go back and head the English department at a brand new high school, which is every English teachers dream. And one morning my superintendent at Santa Barbara called and said “We are going to assign you to the district office and let you put into practice what you’ve written in your thesis.” So I, it‘s a wonderful, wonderful opportunity and from that point in my life on I never ever applied for a job. It was sort of one public relations opportunity followed another. But in Santa Barbara, we dealt with the closing of schools that weren’t earthquake safe. You know I learned to wheel and deal. Then I had a chance to go into Los Angeles to help them decide what kind of public information program they should have in the Los Angeles County schools and designed a program them sort of out of the goodness of your heart kind of thing. And ended up being offered the job. So I went in and I took that job and that was my first experience with PR assay and I got accredited. I went through accreditation and Betsy Plank signed my accreditation certificate. So think about that. I mean that’s in the 60s and Betsy you know there weren’t’ very many women in the field and here she was signing it so that was a real highlight. While I was in Los Angeles County we dealt with declining enrollment, court ordered desegregation of schools, legislative mandated collective bargaining for teachers with vicious strikes. And I learned very quickly that it’s a lot easier if you have done some things ahead of time to try to avoid these crises in the schools. So I was on a plane going back to talk to someone somewhere about collective bargaining in schools and I sat next to a man from Munsingwear. And he was really interested in the fact that schools had public relations people. And so as I told him about it, I told him about closing schools he said, “You know we have to close half of our plants. And we really don’t want the unions to come in. Do you think you have some advice for us?” And I said “You bet I do.” And so I flew back later and met with the people at Munsingwear and told them what I thought they ought to do. And they said “Well would you come back and help us do it?” So for six months, I went back to work in Minnesota at Munsingwear and ended up staying, and discovered I loved the seasons again. So I guess, and while I was at Munsingwear then they called from Dayton Hudson one day and said “We have a job we’d like to talk to you about.” So I’m really fortunate that I have had such incredible experiences. But the lesson in it all for me is that, and what I try to tell college students whenever I get a chance, is that public relations if you are good at what you do, you can do it anywhere. It’s the same basic thing. A school principal and a store manager and a plant manger act exactly the same. You know the superintendent of schools is not a great deal unlike the CEO of a company. And you are dealing in the court of public opinion. In fact, sometimes I think public sector, public relations is harder than private sector or corporate public relations.

Interviewer: Well, you mentioned Dayton Hudson and you joined them in ’82 as vice president of corporate relations and you were with them for approximately 14 years, directing PR efforts for many business ventures and crisis situations. First, could you talk a little bit about the problems that arose in 1990 when Dayton Hudson Foundation withdrew funding from Planned Parenthood of Minnesota? Dayton Hudson was always very generous, a very generous community sponsor and they received a lot of negative publicity about this. How did you handle both the critics and the supporters of this action, and what eventually transpired?

Barkelew: It was the issue of the year and that’s what you have to understand. That it was the year of a gubernatorial election and a lot of the legislative seats were up for re-election or contested elections and it was a single-issue campaign. You were either Pro-choice or Pro-life. Planned Parenthood nationally had run a lot of ads both on the east coast and all over the country. AT & T had just gone through a shareholder demand that addressed the same things with the AT & T’s funding of Planned Parenthood programs. And so, and it was defeated at their annual meeting, but nonetheless it created a lot of attention. So there was a lot of activism going on. Now Dayton Hudson Foundation was the only part of Dayton Hudson that gave money to Planned Parenthood and it was because one of the founders of the company’s wife was very involved in it. It was a grant in Minnesota for education in the public schools. It had nothing to do with clinics or anything like that. But, and we knew from employee surveys where employees would say I’m a little uncomfortable you know that we are making this grant, or and so we had decided to do away with, to stop making the grant. And we had told them that we always, Dayton Hudson was always well known for making exist (access) grants and so you would say we are not going to fund you in three years but we are going to give you double funding for the next three years. So to tide you over and help you begin to plan what you are going to do, without the Dayton Hudson money. When we announced, when it was discovered that we were not going to continue the funding, I was in my office and I got a phone call from a young man who said “Hi, I’m Cope Moyers, as in son of Bill Moyers, and I’m an intern at the Star Tribune in the St. Paul office and I’ve just learned that your corporation is pulling its funding from Planned Parenthood. And what do you have to say about that? And I said “Can I call you back?” I said “You know I really don’t know what to say to you because I’m not aware of this.” So I called the foundation people and they said oh, we put a copy of that in the, in the interoffice mail to you. And I said “Oh you’ve got some training to do at home.” And I think because they had done the exist (access) grant that they didn’t really rush up and say this might become public. But Cope Moyers very generously gave me a couple of hours to come up with a response. And it was because it fed right into the political climate in Minnesota at the time. It became a really big issue. And, but a big issue because people had already, were already so polarized about it. So we were caught in the middle on that and so we decided that the only thing to do since we were a company that said we listen to our customers that we should find out. We should convene an impartial, bring in an impartial person and then, and do some listening to find out what it is that people really were concerned about. So we brought in Jim Shannon who had headed the General Mills Foundation for a number of years and he did, he talked to every side of the fence and a lot of people sitting on the fence and he came forward with a recommendation. So this was one of those where you can’t win and no matter what you do, because what, what the recommendation was and what the foundation decided to do was to continue to support Planned Parenthood of Minnesota but for a specific line item, a separate line item in their budget that dealt with teaching in the schools, providing materials for teaching in the schools about family planning or safe sex or whatever, and so, but nothing to do with the part that was so volatile. At that point in time we were accused of flip-flopping. And so we received 9,000 cut up credit cards in the first week. We received the ugliest mail that you can imagine. We had people in tears opening the mail. We responded but we decided we knew how to respond because we had to respond to every negative letter. And we did. We responded to every cut up credit card, to everyone who wrote, everyone who called, and over a period of about three weeks. And then we took out an ad in the New York Times and wrote an op-ed piece with a point-counterpoint kind of op-ed piece about why companies continue to give to things that may not fit what everyone thinks is the right way to do it. But I remember my CEO saying to me at that time, because Dayton Hudson was a real pioneer in giving and you know the originator of 5 percent clubs all over the nation. And I remember him saying to me. “I’ve had so many phone calls from CEOs saying is it worth it?” “Is it worth it to give?” And so the op-ed piece sort of addressed that. You know why it is important to continue to support the communities where you do business. In hindsight would we have done anything differently? I suppose so. I’ve had the foundation give me a copy of the memo first you know. But it was we survived. The company came out of it very strong. And the elections were held in Minnesota and it was the big issue. So I think it was one of the retailers always say they want to be on trend. I think we were a little bit too much on trend at that point in time.

Interviewer: Did the, did the op-ed piece really turn the tide for you?

Barkelew: I think it was one of those I don’t know that anything turned the tide. I think that what happens is that you simply have to ride some things out. You are not going to. I mean there is no way. Look at the stories in the papers today, 20 years later. It is still an issue that is a divisive issue and that part of the social agenda I don’t think it is going to change until people learn a new language.

Interviewer: Well let’s move into 1987. At that time, you directed all the PR support that really helped defeat an attempted hostile takeover at Dayton Hudson. Now Arthur Page once said that “All business in a democratic society begins with public permission and exists by public approval.” I don’t know if you actually thought about that statement but would, could that statement I mean did it affect your approach in any decisions? Did you think about any of the Page Principles and the kinds of things that Arthur Page stood for at that time when you were going through that takeover?  And what was your strategy in working with the corporate lawyers, because their first instinct would be to probably not say anything, or as little as possible to the media. And that would be counter, probably to what you would be willing to do. So how did you handle that?

Barkelew: It was a very interesting time. And I was not yet a member of the Page Society. So I didn’t really know about the Page Principles. But being aware of the public and behaving like the public was the most important organization or group that is your responsibility, that’s how we did business all the time. I mean, we were a customer-oriented business. And we, that’s why we gave to the communities where we did business long before the company was a public company. There was a belief that you had to be sure the communities where you did business were healthy and so you gave back. And that was, that gave people a reason to shop in your stores, but you listened to customers, you understood what was important to them. So when we learned, the day we learned when someone was beginning to accumulate shares of our stock, now this is right after we’ve been named the best-managed corporation in America by the University of Southern California, and the general thought was that the only companies that people went after, were companies that were poorly managed or you know had some sort of issue to deal with and that someone thought they could do it better. And so this was quite a surprise. We had another thing going for us and that was we were a Minnesota incorporated company. Unlike many companies that are all incorporated in Delaware, we were incorporated in the state of Minnesota, so we were governed by Minnesota law. So as we sat down and thought to ourselves well, about, I don’t know 60 percent of our stock changed hands in the course of a couple of weeks time, and so we knew that there’s something going on and everyone is trying to track the stock but as always the most valuable source to us is the media because they have all these sources and they would call us and tell us who they had heard it was that was buying our stock. We met as a group. The CEO convened a group of his top advisors and we brought in our outside advisors. And we looked at all of our options, and we decided that the best option, because we had always been so community focused, concerned about our employees, concerned about where we did business, was not to do a knee jerk reaction kind of thing but to very thoughtfully go to the state of Minnesota and say “Let’s look at the law.” “Let’s see, we didn’t’ think it was right. The people that were identified as accumulating our stock were Greenmailers. They were people that would come in and they would they would say. They didn’t really have a lot of money but they would they could get enough money that they could buy a company and then they would come in and break it up and sell it off. Or they would convince you to pay them so much for all their shares that they would ‘greenmail’ you into getting rid of them. Well we didn’t like that. That’s not how we did business. And so we said, “let’s look at the laws.” If someone has good money and wants to buy this company, then you have some fiduciary duties that you can’t ignore, but we don’t think it’s right that you have, that you can come in and break up our company and sell it off.  So we decided that’s the way we were going to go and thus began what we refer to as Seven days in June. And it was a seven-day program that started with a visit to the governor, and who famously said on television that when the CEO called and said I have to meet with you this evening. He said to his wife, “Have you overcharged at Dayton’s?” But at that point in time, we drew up ads to run in newspapers statewide, we commissioned a poll of people in Minnesota to find out if they thought that changing the law, strengthening the law, to prevent people coming in and breaking or busting up companies. We had a slogan that said, “I like Dayton Hudson whole not halved,” because the people were coming after us with halves. And so we launched a seven-day campaign to convince the people of Minnesota that the governor should call a special session and change the law to prevent people from coming in without good money. And so, that was what we learned in the survey of the people of Minnesota, was they all agreed that something should be done. But we had thought it should be because of all the money that we have given or all the contributions we had made. What we found was the people of Minnesota said, “Yes do something for them because they have this wonderful liberal return policy,” and they’ve trusted us all these years, they never asked for a receipt, or they had taken it back if we said we bought it there. So, and that was the tipping point that made it safe for the legislators to agree to have a special session.  And so that was the program and it was the most covered story in the United States, because we were fighting a hostile takeover threat, because so much stock had traded hands and because these people were sort of colorful. And they owned Crown Books, which was a discount bookstore and at the time we owned B. Dalton Bookseller, which was now what you know today as Barnes & Noble. But it was probably, it was, if we could go back and do it over again, there are lots of things we would do over again and one of them was how to deal with lawyers. Because this is something in one of our meetings my CEO said, “have any of you ever done this before?”  And we all said no. We’ve never been through this kind of thing before, so when you have investment bankers and lawyers and everyone telling you, you can’t say this; you can’t say that; you can’t say this. And we kept saying, but we can respond to the media. We can put out news releases, why can’t we communicate with our employees?  But perfect lawyers don’t’ like paper. And so they, they would discourage that. We did a lot of presentations after it was over saying if we could do this again, what would we do differently? And the number one thing is that we would have communicated more quickly with our own employees and I think the turning point was the day that the CEO said “Just tell the lawyers and the bankers to back off, because I’m the captain of the ship, and we’re going to start calling the signals here.” And it was it was an incredible experience for a company. The leadership of a company to go through a threat to the company, not just the way you’ve always had it, but something you believe in. Now the interesting thing with the law is that it was the first time that a law was passed that said that a corporation had to pay attention to its communities where it did business and to its employees and not just to shareholders. So…

Interviewer: It’s so interesting that you brought up about the mentor because I was going to ask you about that. So what was next for you after Dayton Hudson?

Barkelew: Well I promised myself that I’d quit smoking before I turned 50 and I did. That I would return before I turned 60 and I did. But once it was announced that I was leaving. My phone, I got a lot of phone calls from people saying would you come and do this project for us? And this project for us? So I immediately, I retired and went to work on three projects. I helped create some good public relations programs for Musicland working with Marsha Apple the senior vice president and being sort of an outside consultant for her. And then I did a needs-assessment for Kohl’s media to help them determine how they ought to be organized for public relations and communications. And then I had my most interesting assignment, and I got called in to help Minnesota Vikings and head coach Dennis Greene who became one of my very good friends, but he was the first African American head coach in the NFL and he had come to Minnesota with a very successful career behind him, but a lot of people wanting to attack him. And so there were some source, not to be named, kinds of stories that ran in the newspapers, so I was hired to help Dennis and the Minnesota Vikings deal with those issues. And that was, so it was three really widely different assignments. And I was so busy and I really did not like going to Kinko’s to copy all my stuff, so I figured I really did need a copy machine. About the time John Graham from Fleischman Hilliard, whom I’ve known forever and whom I’ve admired for many years, and we’re both from Missouri so we sort of were souls of the same nature, and and he called and said, “I want to put a flag up in Minnesota and I’d like for you to do it for me.” And I said “No, no, no. You have the wrong person.  I don’t like agencies. I never used them.  I thought they were all overrated, so I’m the wrong person for you.” And he said, “Well let’s talk about that.” And there was one exception. I really liked Kexton Company in New York and I told him why I liked them, and he said, “Well why don’t you open an office for Fleischman Hilliard in Minnesota like you would have hired?”  And so I said “Oh that’s a great challenge. I could do that.” And so we did. We opened an office and I gathered together, we started out with five people and our initial budget was, our initial revenues were $400,000 in Minnesota. And then at the end of six years when I retired again, we were at 35 people and $7 million and the third largest agency in the twin cities. So that was pretty exciting.

Interviewer: Great. Yeah what’s interesting is I believe at that time there was some general noise that it was too competitive an environment and they just didn’t, people just didn’t hold out a lot of hope for you or the success of the office, right? And what was the big challenge?

Barkelew: Well the big challenge was that Fleischman Hilliard is an international agency, and  no big national agency had ever survived in Minnesota.  It’s very, very proud of Minnesota offices, very proud of Minnesota companies. That’s why so many companies that are Minnesotan are incorporated in Minnesota, But I think Burson Marstellar had been in there a couple of time. Hilliard Knowlton had been there a couple of times and, and they closed the offices and people moved on to other places. But, so I said, now there was a Shandwick office there but they were there because they bought a local agency and so they just changed names, but most people in town still called it Mona Murry McGrath so and so, that was a challenge because, and it’s what we ran into on every new business pitch.  People would say “Well we understand you are sort of pricey because you are a big national.” We have all these offices and everything. I am competitive with any, any piece of offer that you may get from someone else. What we did was, we really promoted the fact that we were all Minnesota people, and that we did all of our business in Minnesota. We weren’t just housed in Minnesota, but we were an office that focused on Minnesota companies and on Minnesota business and so we were there to stay.  And we also didn’t bait and switch, I mean we looked at all the things that had always bugged me about agencies, and we corrected those and it worked. So it was great fun. And it made my career then, very interesting because I had had public sector PR experience, corporate PR experience and then finally agency experience. So having done all three, I then could retire…sort of.

Interviewer: Well you stepped down from that management position in 2001. Here you are, you are still attending Page Society conferences. What’s going on now? What are you up to now?

Barkelew: I am so busy. I am now doing for free what I used to get paid to do. And I think that’s important, because you do, you don’t lose your interest, you don’t lose your edge. You don’t lose, I mean look around at there’s a cadre of people that haven’t stopped giving back ,just because we’ve stopped earning a salary, which is all it really is the difference and so I am on the board of the, I was on the board of the St. Paul Red Cross and we decided to merge Minneapolis and St. Paul into one new chapter, the Twin Cities Area Red Cross Chapter and so I helped with the unification process. It was not at all unlike merging Dayton and Hudson into one department store division or any kind of merger of companies like that. You just, I mean it’s the same basic principles. I lead a branding effort for the rebranding, the clarified branding, of the Minnesota Humanities Commission and then I’m done, now I’m in charge of marketing and public relations for the, for an organization called Women Winning, which we just had a new name in Minnesota and it’s the Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund, and we raise the money to fund the raises of bi-partisan pro-choice women, so at any rate, it’s there’s a lot to be done and I’m staying very busy.

Interviewer: Yeah you must be in keeping up with 11 grandchildren. You must be extremely busy.

Barkelew: The joy of my life, the joy of my life. There’s an old saying, if you know we could have had grandchildren first. It’s really great and I’m very fortunate to now have the luxury of some time to do that kind of, to pay that kind of attention.

Interviewer: Looking back on your life, which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

Barkelew: I have thought about that since you asked me. Since you gave me a heads up you were going to ask me that question. I have thought about that and I suppose professionally the things, there are two things that I am really proud of. One of them is, I would say, keeping Dayton Hudson whole not half. I think what we did in public relations in that whole program made a difference, and it made it possible for the return policy to still be there and for Santa bear to survive, and it was being part of that team that everyone listened to each other and public relations really had a great strong voice, and it was and I am very proud of that as a professional. I am very proud of the fact that we were given the authority to pay attention to communities and to employees on the same level where publicly-held companies pay attention to shareholders. That’s good. The other thing I am proud of is the fact that there is today in Minneapolis, an institution called the Children’s Theatre.  Dayton Hudson liked for its executives to be involved in the community and I loved that because I’d always like being part of the community. But when they came to me and said would I like to be on the board of the ballet, I said no. I like to see ballet occasionally, but I don’t, there’s no passion. But they had an opening on the board of the Children’s Theatre. Now this is a theatre that is created for children and their families.  As one board member used to say, for the young at heart. It provides professional theatre experience and you train. There are professional productions, playwrights come in, Tommy DePaulo used to write stories just to be performed at the Children’s Theatre. He’s a wonderful children’s author. And it, it makes Minnesota a special place. Well, two weeks after I went on the board, the artistic director of the theatre was arrested for sexual abuse of young boys, and that’s how I spent my summer. I was suddenly, I immediately said “We have to have a PR committee” how to respond to this. And every television station at the time, the general managers went on and did editorials on the air. And they all went on saying the place should be shut down and locked up; the key thrown away. It’s an incestuous awful place. And it was the wrong response for a community. And so there were seven of us that spent our summer, as the editor and executive committee, sort of redoing. Every arts organization in town said, you know we all have a stake in this. None of our policies are all that great for knowing what was going on. How do you get fundraisers to feel good about what they are giving to? We were operating a school but we worked hard and we, and we emerged at the end of the summer with a new season. And five years later, we became the first theatrical exchange representing the United States of America with what was then the Soviet Union. And we went to Moscow and put our company onstage, and it was I sat in the audience and thought to myself, you know if we hadn’t really mobilized and said we are not going to let you shut this place down because it is, this is like eliminating a position when someone leaves. You don’t just simply get rid of something. You hold onto things that make your community special. Two years ago the Children’s Theatre won the Tony on Broadway for the best regional theatre. The day that they learned that they had won the Tony, the managing director of the theatre called and said. “Thank you for helping us be here” which was a wonderful thing. So professionally, you know what you can do as a volunteer and what you can do for what you are paid to do can give you great fulfillment in your life.