Oral Histories

Anne Barkelew

Interview Segments on Topic: PR and Technology/Change

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: 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.