Oral Histories

Gary Weitman

Interview Segments on Topic: Mentors

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: 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: 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.

INTERVIEWER: You talked about working with folks in terms of improving their writing and you’ve talked a little bit about mentoring and I guess my question is, can you mentor ethical decision-making?

WEITMAN: Oh I think you can. That’s what I meant earlier when I said I think you have to be around people who are modeling ethical behavior. I think it begins with the youngest person on your staff. They have to see how decisions get made. It has to be somewhat transparent and they have to believe in the ethics behind the decision that you’re making. It has to be within a consistent framework of ethical behavior. If you’re constantly making decisions on a case by case by case basis—some of which kind of tread into the gray area, some of which aren’t so gray and some of which are just wrong—there’s no consistency to it and there’s no consistency both of the decision making or of the ethical nature or the ethical underpinnings of that decision. And so I think you can help mentor younger people into making ethical decisions. You do it with an ethics code, a code of conduct, with values. It’s not any one thing, it’s a combination of things. Its values, codes, behavior, reinforcing those things. It’s seeing how people who break the code are disciplined—all those things I think go into helping people make ethical decisions.