Oral Histories

Bill Nielsen

Interview Segments on Topic: Counselor/Counseling Advisor

Bill Nielsen Biography

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


INTERVIEWER: I think often times young people, young practitioners or students, when they think about public relations, they might only be thinking about that sort of technician role.


INTERVIEWER: But you’ve talked a lot about the counseling role of public relations, and I’m wondering if you could talk more about that counseling role, what you perceive as the status of that counseling role in the corporate world today?

NIELSEN: Well, that’s certainly a multifaceted question. The counseling role, it’s in some jeopardy but not in the right places, not in the best places. CEOs today are smarter and smarter about their roles and they are also surprised, most of them, to learn how much time they have to devote in their roles to communications. And they know they need counsel to do that. It’s an interesting topic to take up with younger people, particularly in college and communications schools because they all ask the question, ‘well how do you become a counselor?’ I usually say, starting right now, everything that you do, every project that you take on needs to be looked at and you need to take from that involvement or that project or that assignment, something that you learned about the execution of that. The development of the strategy for the client that you are working with—that’s the element that you take forward. That becomes eventually a part of who you are. When you turn around and start providing counsel to those who are younger or to organizations, you’re going to find yourself drawing on those experiences. And that’s how you become a counselor. There isn’t any strict academic track that you have to follow. It’s more a matter of paying attention to what’s happening around you, what you’re doing, and the reasons why certain things have occurred. What lessons you can learn and that’s the track. That’s the way to begin to get there. I would also say that the college experience, the university experience—I’m fond of telling young people that…we get into a discussion about why they’re here. Why are they doing this and the bottom line is, they’re there to learn how to learn. The requirement for a bachelor’s degree or whatever is not dependent necessarily on rote memorization of formulas or a perfect recitation of American history or whatever topic. But these subjects are put out to students to teach them how to learn. And that’s a particularly critical element in the background of a good public relations person: the ability to learn, the ability to learn quickly and the ability to take that new learning and to act on it. That’s certainly the bottom line in good crisis management. In this role, particularly in major organizations, things happen very quickly, from phone call to phone call literally. And today it would be from tweet to tweet literally. Or a Facebook post. New things are happening and if they pose some kind of a problem or a threat to your organization—could be that you’ve never ever heard this topic, some problem with a particular line that you haven’t focused on—well, you have to learn quickly. What is that all about? What was behind that? And you have to make a decision very quickly. Do you have enough information or do you need more information and where do you get it? Then based on your background and experience of other kinds of learning and situations that you have gone through, you try to understand what is it you’ve believed about what you’ve now learned. And how is that going to affect your decision or your advice to management for handling that problem?

INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked about values and of course Arthur Page comes to mind when we think about the Page principles and the way those can be really read and understood as values. And I’m wondering if you’ll talk about the Page principles and their value to the profession.

NIELSEN: Well, I think the Page principles have come to represent a real definition of how we intend to practice. They’re not really a definition of the technical aspects of communications, there’s nothing in there about how to write a press release or the quality of the annual report. But what they reflect is Arthur Page’s true understanding of his role in the Bell System and the influence that he wanted to have over decision making. Jack Koten and others reviewed the work of Arthur Page. They knew that these principles were important and that it would be very important for future generations to try to codify this, and that’s what they’ve done. Telling the truth. Too often, in my book, we get down to these one liners; tell the truth, prove it with action, recognize blah blah blah. Once in a while you need to go back and read the whole statement about what do we mean about telling the truth and what do we mean about proving it with action. Proving it with action is probably one of the most important principles for me and it was an issue that I focused on in my career. And that had to do with the behavior of an organization and making sure that that behavior was consistent, always, with the values that it publically said were important to it. The worst thing you can do and lose your integrity totally, is to say that you believe in one thing and create a perception that you’re acting in some other way or in self-interest and away from that. Telling the truth, proving it with action—that is, behaviors, decision-making on tough issues in any business that is consistent with what you’ve said is important to your organization. That’s the crux of it. From there it’s about how do you articulate that, how do you write that, how do you place it, how do you get it? Those are all things that good education programs will teach people to do in our field. But understanding the importance of that function as a part of what we do is very important in the first place. And then secondly, how you execute that within your organization is another dimension of that. The whole issue, I believe, comes down to our experience and our good judgment born on years of experience. But it’s also self-confidence in what we know to be true and what we know to be right about a situation. And to be able to stand our ground, not to back down when you get into an argument with somebody who may see a little differently; but to have the self-confidence to be there and, if necessary, to put your career on the line to prevail on your point of view. So that second principle holds a ton of stuff for me in terms of defining who we are, the importance of what we do; the philosophical underpinnings of what we do. We don’t show up in a management meeting with the decisions of old judges or court cases which general counsel can support. We don’t have the accounting practices and standards board which the chief financial officer is going to bring. We don’t have all the employment laws and practices that the HR person is going to show up with. We don’t have the FDA’s requirement. Sometimes we do but there are people in management who represent those points of view. We don’t have any studied hierarchical academic positioning. So how do you make that dog hunt? Some would say, well, it’s the strength of your convictions about who you are and the relationships you’ve already established with those people who are going to say, ‘you know, I don’t entirely agree with him but there’s a ring of truth in what he’s saying.’ It takes intestinal fortitude and a lot of self-confidence to stand in those positions and to prevail in those arguments. It helps a lot to be able to turn to contemporaries through the Page Society and to know that they’re operating by a statement of principles that are consistent with what you’re advocating. So, there’s huge value in that.

I’m going to speak to one other principle that I think is terribly important. That’s the last one, which is to remain calm, patient and good humored. It sounds silly to mention in the face of telling the truth and prove it with action and all those other dimensions. But it’s really important. What it says is that it’s important for us not to take ourselves too seriously all the time. To recognize that in our free society and the organizations that we represent, there has to be a balance of views. We need to keep the team together, we need to keep everybody advancing on the same track and inspired and committed to supporting one another. We can’t get there if you’re just hammering everyone else saying, ‘we’re not going to do that because it’s not true or it’s not the whole truth. You can take this kind of policing stance in your organization and some people do and policing is a good thing. But I think where you really win acceptance and endorsement is not taking yourself so seriously and that the world is not going to end tomorrow. You’re willing to compromise when it’s appropriate to compromise. I think that that last principle also speaks to maintaining a commitment to a principle for a long term. It’s hard to do in the short term. (Former British Prime Minister) Tony Blair has suggested that you almost need a short-term public policy and then a long-term commitment to your values. You need to be able to live in both dimensions and be okay with that. I know a lot of people who have found the peace of that idea, the commitment to prevail in the long-term and to survive in the short-term. That’s where the art of our practice comes into play, it truly does. And I think it’s a very important understanding that we need to get into for young people who are coming along in this profession.