Oral Histories

Bill Nielsen

Interview Segments on Topic: Selecting a PR Career

Bill Nielsen Biography

Consultant to management of for-profit and non-profit organizations; retired corporate vice president of Johnson & Johnson.


INTERVIEWER: Bill, you have a long career with agency experience, leadership experience at Johnson & Johnson, and consulting leadership in the field. I’ve heard you say in speeches that you believe the best and the brightest young people should go into public relations, and that you’re interested in convincing them to do that. My question to you is, why should the best and brightest young people consider public relations?

NIELSEN: I happen to believe, after a lot of years in this and seeing the essential role that we play in the management of corporations—and other institutions too—that there is kind of a single character about the function.   It is a place where you get a total view and total involvement in the organization; whether it be a for-profit or a not-for-profit organization. And it truly is a place where you can make a difference. You can re-direct an organization. You can help make it more successful than perhaps it was ever thought possible. Certainly in health care where I was with Johnson & Johnson, we frequently dealt with life and death issues and the issue of product quality was terribly important. The whole payment system that surrounded what we were trying to do was very important. So in this role, I really saw the possibility and the reality of the difference that we could make because all the issues in one way or another were resolved only with effective communication so that people really understood what we were doing. I know many people in other industries who feel the same way about their role whether it be in electronics or other consumer product and manufacturing firms—power companies, you name it. The business is involved in every aspect of society and there are very, very few that don’t touch publics and have to be understood by publics. And this function puts you right at the center of the discussion. I find it terrifically exciting, the possibilities that you can make in a career. Now translating that to young people, who have their whole world ahead of them, might seem difficult. But we’re very fortunate with younger generations today. Young people who really do want to make a difference, have been touched by what they’ve heard about environmental degradation, about things like sustainability of raw materials; the carbon footprint. The idea that we should occupy this planet and when we leave, we don’t leave a footprint. They’re really inspired by that and that translates into this idea of wanting to do a life of work that has some value. And as I look at all the jobs in big businesses, quite frankly I can’t see many that hold the potential to have as profound an effect on the future of an organization as public relations or corporate communications. I feel very passionate about that and when I’m out speaking with younger people, unfortunately I sound sometimes like a reformed drunk; I am so passionate about it. But I think the word gets through and I’ve been fortunate to have been able to mentor many young people and see them into jobs in this field that have the potential to make quite a difference going forward.

INTERVIEWER: Just a final kind of a wrap up. We’ve talked a lot today. We’ve really drilled down on values and ethics and corporate character, among other things. Anything that you want to add that we haven’t talked about that you think is important when you think about those issues?

NIELSEN: I think that recognizing the importance of what we do has a lot to do with sense of purpose that we bring to our lives of work. We talked earlier about young people wanting to make a difference in the world. I mentioned Alexander Hamilton and the work he did and it was a real sense of purpose that drove him. I think the sense of purpose is a distinguishing characteristic of our business—public relations and corporate communications. Not that a CEO and others don’t also have a sense of purpose but in the main they’re judged, and incentives provided for them, to meet their responsibilities by their fairly well-defined disciplines, whether it’s law, finance, HR, you name it. I think that we come to a sense of purpose because our commitment is to the truth. It’s rooted in values that are based on principles that we also agree to of this practice; together with the strong sense of the totality of the enterprise and the organization. I don’t think you can seriously touch this work without all of a sudden having a great sense of purpose about who you are and what the organization ought to be accountable to. Because you know what it’s capable of and it’s been successful. And so stretching beyond that is very much a part of who we are. That’s why public relations and communication can be so effective in building businesses, building brands. Because we, by the nature of who we are, carry a strong sense of purpose.

INTERVIEWER: All right. That was terrific.