Oral Histories

Gary Weitman

Interview Segments on Topic: PR Education/Training

Gary Weitman Biography

Gary Weitman, Senior Vice President, Corporate Relations, The Tribune Company


INTERVIEWER: Thank you Gary for doing this interview. The first question I have for you is about journalism and public relations and your transition from a long career as a journalist into a career in public relations. Can you tell me about that transition?

WEITMAN: Sure. First of all, I had a great career in journalism. I really, truly enjoyed it. I got to do some wonderful things. I got to cover some big events. (I) went to the Olympics, covered presidential campaigns—enjoyed it thoroughly. As I hit 40, I looked around the newsroom one day. I was the managing editor at WBBM here in Chicago and noticed that most of the people in the room were vastly younger than I was. And I decided that I needed to try and see what life was like outside the newsroom and outside television. I spent about a year doing due diligence; talking to friends of mine who were within public relations—within the industry and getting a sense from them of what the industry really was all about. Because for somebody in television journalism like myself—really public relations existed as the embodiment of a voice on the other end of a phone trying to get me to cover a news event or a public relations event or marketing event that I hadn’t either the inclination or the resources to go cover. I thought to myself, oh god I don’t want to be the voice at the other end of that phone. And I found out as I did my due diligence that public relations was so much more than cold calling people to come to a marketing event. I wound up, I think, being equally fortunate in making the transition to public relations. A friend of mine, then working at Hill and Knowlton asked me if I wanted to come over. They had recently lost their managing director for media relations; (he) asked me if I’d be interested in talking to them about the job. I had to take a moment to go [knocks]…me? Really? I don’t have any experience in PR at all. And I went to talk with him. He introduced me to the then general manager of the firm—a gentleman named Keith Burton who within the industry is widely known as somebody who is a wonderful mentor, a great communicator and really a great manager of people. Keith and I hit it off; they asked me to join Hill and Knowlton as the managing director for media relations. Keith has been very gracious to me as have others who have helped me make the transition into public relations. In telling others that I seem to have made an almost seamless transition, it wasn’t as seamless as I think it may have appeared, at least on the outside. When I joined the firm, I had to get a sense of several things. First of all, what was the business of public relations and communication? What was the business itself, the business model? The billable hours, the P&L, the way the office fit in with the other system—the other offices within the H&K system? And then I also had to get a sense of the different practice areas that were a part of the Chicago office and a part of H&K as a whole. And I found then that there was so much more about public relations and communications that I did not know about. Everything from public affairs to—we had an interactive division, we had financial communications—the things that anyone within the industry or anyone who had grown up within the industry would say, “Oh well, sure.” These were all new to me and I was very fortunate, I got great training at H&K. I like to think that one of the things that prepared me for being at H&K was the grounding I got in journalism; in being able to think quickly on my feet, being able to try and anticipate where a news story would go next. Because as a manager in a newsroom I had to do those things. I had to plot out where we were going to take a story next. As the managing director for media relations at H&K, I think that kind of training and those kinds of experiences prepared me to make a pretty good transition into PR and into the communications field. I also began doing media training which I got help with from the firm but as I went through it and as we developed the module for media training that we did with people, I felt like I was a natural at that type of thing. But you would expect that from somebody in television. It was for me, I think outwardly, a fairly seamless transition. I would say inside, especially on that first day, I sat there thinking to myself—if I have to write a press release, I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing here.   And I remember thinking that I was going to need to think on my feet, that I was going to need to learn by watching others do, and that hopefully I could make the kind of transition that would make the firm happy they had hired me. And it turned out to be a great experience.

INTERVIEWER: What was your biggest surprise about public relations?

WEITMAN: I would say, how much I didn’t know. The various disciplines that I didn’t realize public relations had a foothold in. Financial communications, I had no sense coming out of television that there was an area of discipline in public relations that would be related to everything from helping a company go public, to marketing that company, to investor relations, to working with analysts, to earnings calls, scripting earnings calls, complying with the SEC guidelines and regulations—all of those things, to give you just kind of the tip of that. Like I said, doing what I did in journalism, I was very familiar with what I felt like were marketing techniques or marketing communications. But public affairs communications, working at the grassroots levels on behalf of a highway project, working in tandem with a public agency that was trying to sway public opinion—those were all things that were extraordinarily new to me and unknown to me at the time that I made the transition.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember a skills set that you had to develop that you didn’t already have?

WEITMAN: I think I had to develop a skill set on the financial communication side. So I did have to become familiar with trying to counsel companies about SEC guidelines; about how they were going to conduct themselves on an analyst call or earnings call. I had to learn what the guidelines were. I had to learn what an earnings report was—what we would want to put into an earnings report or, a conference call with Wall Street or an earnings call. Those things I had to learn. And I was very fortunate to have people around me who I am friendly with ‘til this day who gave me great training and who I could watch do, what they did so well and learn from. One of my close friends is Jeff Zilka, he is now at Edelmen heading the financial relations practice for Edelmen here in the Midwest. He at that time was heading financial communications for H&K here in the Midwest. I got phenomenal training from Jeff and I got phenomenal training from a lot of people like that in the different disciplines who either took pity on me or saw this is an opportunity to develop somebody within the firm who could be helpful down the line, hopefully.

INTERVIEWER: What education and/or professional experience do you think best prepares a practitioner for the rigors of ethical decision making?

WEITMAN: I think that the best training that people can get is to get a good education and to know how to write and to be what I would call, a citizen of the world; and to be an active citizen of the world so that you know about current events. You know about what’s going on around you, what’s going on in your community. You know what’s going on in your state, in the larger community in which you’re a player and that you’re able to speak conversationally about the important issues of the day. I think getting a good liberal arts education is important to help people frame their decision-making. And then in terms of the decision making itself, I think it helps to be surrounded by people who are living ethical, professional lives and to see the code of conduct that they are living by; that they are conducting their professional lives by and to be associated with a firm or a company that has a code of conduct. I think it says something to walk into a firm and say okay, what are the firm’s values? What is this company’s (set of) values? What’s the mission statement? How do people relate to each other? I think all of those things help make the process of making ethical decisions easier and better for an individual, if you can see around you others making similar decisions and how they go about doing it.

INTERVIEWER: Beyond seasoning and experience, what skills sets or—what do you do to prepare for that?

WEITMAN: To prepare for it I think what you have to be able to do is to have a certain audacity of confidence. And you have to, at the same time, be an excellent communicator yourself. You have to be relatable. You have to be the type of person who—I’ve worked for some really strong personalities, inside Tribune and outside of Tribune—and I think you have to be able to stand up to those personalities as an equal. Not in a brash way, not in an arrogant way, but I think you have to be willing to have the courage of your beliefs and your convictions about what you think ought to be done. And then at the same time, I think you have to know when to fold up your tent and say okay, I made the strongest argument I can make. And if you do that, you earn the respect of the people that you’re working with. I think the other thing that often goes unnoticed until it’s almost too late is good writing. I think you have to be a good writer. You have to know how to communicate in writing in an intelligent, grammatically correct, cogent fashion. Because there is nothing, I think, that will undermine you more quickly than a position paper or a communication plan that is riddled with grammatical errors or just is written poorly or doesn’t get across what you want to get across. And unfortunately, I think I see more bad writing than I have ever seen before. And I think to some extent, that’s a factor of the Internet and of instant communication and I see it even within my own children who are not the greatest spellers around. But I think good writing is essential.

INTERVIEWER: How do you communicate to your team that good writing is essential?

WEITMAN: In my case I tell them. I’ve tried to mentor people who have worked for me whose writing skills needed work and also to provide them with examples so that they see good writing. Writing a press release is not particularly difficult. You can look at how your company has written press releases and pretty much get the model down. I think you can do the same thing with looking at good writing, wherever you find it. So I try to work with people to improve their writing skills and to build their confidence in their writing.