Oral Histories

Anne Barkelew

Interview Segments on Topic: Counselor/Counseling Advisor

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: After you retired from Dayton Hudson, your position was eliminated. And at approximately the same time another woman who held a power position within the corporate foundation also resigned. Her name was Cynthia Myata.

Barkelew: Myata.

Interviewer: Myata, okay.  Now you and Ms. Myata were instrumental in saving Dayton Hudson from the takeover, and the media quoted an insider at Dayton Hudson as saying “the guys are now running the company.”  Talk a little bit about your reaction to the elimination of your position after you retired and what it was like for a woman to be in a position of power in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Barkelew: The, Cynthia and I never really knew that we were running the company so that’s sort of fun. Cynthia, actually I think that Cynthia and I probably became best known during the Planned Parenthood issue because we were both big contributors to Planned Parenthood as individuals and the media liked to make a lot out of that, but at any rate. It always hurts when you’ve built a function, to see it change. But I’m sure that every, it’s the right of every CEO of every company to organize things the way they want to organize them, and when I retired, I had promised myself I would retire by the time I was 60. I worked my whole life and and that was just a couple months before I turned 60 so after my CEO retired, and it was about six months before I retired because it was different and I think when you I sort of felt like the CEO needed his own press secretary. And, and it then, that’s what happens sometimes, you’ll see the function change, get split up whatever. And that always hurts because you are, there’s a certain degree of pride in what you have built. But you go on, you move on and when people ask you what you think you always don’t freely offer advice, because you are no longer part of the company. But it’s a great company and I think that the thing that excites me most is that now, about 13 years later, the function is now coming back together. And it’s that you know the pendulum swings and the function was different when I started; we built it; we added a lot to it. And so, I think probably the media was the most disappointed because we were very open and very accessible to the public. And so I think that was probably the most disappointing part, but nonetheless, it was a great 14 years and I loved my CEO. He was just a great partner. He gave, he paid attention to things we talked about and we really felt like we were at the policy table, so that was important. And if you are not. Why then it’s time to move on and do something else. I think Cynthia felt the same way and she, it because the foundation changed a lot too, the external relations parts. Being a woman in a senior management position is, I guess I just always thought of it as being part of doing what I did. When I was in my first management position in 1966 when there were not many women in public school management, you had a lot of women teachers but not many women principals and your district administrators were primarily all men. When I attended the first meetings of the Public Relations Seminar and even the Page Society when I did first come into that group, there were not a lot of women in senior leadership positions. There were more and more women going into the field, but the leaders were still mostly men. And that was so, I think it’s all there’s just this era of you know what you do is, you work harder and you work longer hours. And you do it because, I don’t know that you feel like you have to prove anything, I think it’s just that that’s the way we are. We, you know we do work harder. We are a little bit more inclusive. I was the first woman named to the Dayton Hudson management committee which was the senior group of managers and that was really an exciting time and people were always asking me what it was like. And I said I was the only one who didn’t have to stand in line at the bathroom breaks, you know, because there were a lot of men and then there was me. But, and it wasn’t, it was just an exciting time to be part of this movement of women proving that we can do whatever anyone else can do. But it was, I guess I never wanted to be part of the mold of women and management. I wanted to be me, so when I arrived at Dayton Hudson, now you have to remember I was a teacher for a long time and I never wore black on a test day because I always felt kids, I don’t’ care how old they are, respond to color. And I wanted them to feel upbeat about taking a test and so I didn’t own a navy blue suit. I didn’t own a floppy tie and yet that’s what people were wearing and I never bought a navy blue suit. And so I thought it was sort of, maybe it’s just because I was in public relations, I thought it was fun to be a little different and pretty exciting to be leading the way. Now a comment I would make and I hope that young women when they, if they pull this tape out and look at it, will pay attention to the fact that my best mentors were men.  I did not find a lot of women really interested in helping other women, and that bothered me a lot, so I think my generation of women, I have a lot of friends who are my same age and they were also, whether they were secretary of state of Minnesota or whatever, we always felt an obligation to try to help other women. And we had, we formed women network groups to try to help women learn the skills. But it was hard because there was something about, there weren’t a lot of women supporting other women. And that bothered me, so I I’m a big supporter whenever asked to speak to a women’s group, I never say no.

Interviewer: That’s wonderful. Let’s talk a minute about counseling. I’ve had other interviews with other Page Society members and they’ve expressed a concern over the current state of corporate public relations and the decline in the number of PR counselors to corporate CEOs. It’s been noted that individuals who have been indicted in recent waves of corporate scandals, and there’s been many of those, have not held PR position. So does that mean that those of you who held the counseling positions were ethics police guiding upper management towards making correct ethical decisions? Is the trend changing now? Are we getting back to having counselors to CEOs and having the PR person at the policy making table?

Barkelew: I don’t feel quite as discouraged about corporate PR in the last decade as some may have been. I think we have fewer companies today because there have been so many mergers and so we don’t see maybe as many people, and a lot of senior people retired and functions may have shifted or changed a little bit or been integrated in a different way. But I feel like there is still wonderful solid corporate public relations practice going on today, and there are still hundreds of people sitting at the table helping CEOs make decisions. So I guess I’m not quite as gloom and doom about that as some may be. Maybe it isn’t all being done the way it used to be, but I don’t think that’s all that bad. I do believe that the role has changed as  you would expect it to because we have more things available to us. I mean, we talk about how the kinds of technology [inaudible]. Boy, you know those of us who started on a manual typewriter and then you know, thought we had died and gone to heaven when we had a self correcting Selectric where you didn’t have to or you didn’t have to use carbon paper anymore or things like that, and going from mailing news releases to faxing news releases, to the electronic transfer of something when you are disclosing information. I don’t mean that everything is news releases but for those times when you have to make public announcements, to now just going on the wire directly. I mean it’s amazing, the speed of information and I think that has changed a lot of what we do. The being at the table, you know, we used to always say oh if we could just get to the table. I wasn’t quite so sure it was all that glorious at times to be at the table, but the fact is what you want is you want to be a place where you have the ear of the CEO, and where you can because [inaudible] doing is really the CEO’s job, and so I mean, in terms of public relationships, the reputation of the corporation and so you become a partner. It isn’t just you doing it, I mean you are the CEO’s partner. So I think that our counseling role is still there. It just may not be in the same form that it used to be. It’s, but I do feel like, like CEOs are still listening a lot, at least the CEOs I know are still paying a lot of attention to what their chief communications officer or chief public relations officer is telling them now. When there isn’t, when you do have a problem and I always say to people, “Pray for a crisis,” you know, because whenever you have a crisis, then everybody says “Where are those PR people. Let’s bring them in here and let them show what they can do.” And that is a time. I mean it’s not all crises are bad. You know you can. It’s a great time to show what we can do. And to really show how we have as much business sense as, as anyone else. If we have lost that key to the door, if we’ve lost that, then I think it’s because we haven’t paid enough attention to how business is changing or we wanted to hold on to an old way of doing something when we needed to move more into an strategic counseling mindset and not just into tactics, or well, we can solve this by working with the media. You know there isn’t’ time. By the time the paper comes out or a television program goes on, you know someone’s been yelling on the, on a blog or somewhere they’ve already changed how people think about a company. So it is it’s an exciting time, but I just think it’s kind of a different time for PR people. It doesn’t fit the old model.