Oral Histories

Gary Weitman

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

Gary Weitman Biography

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


INTERVIEWER: How much of a role do you have in being an advocate for the function of journalism? How does that balance against your role and PR goals?

WEITMAN: I’m not really an advocate for journalism. That’s not a part of my job. We have others in the company as you might expect—the editor of the Chicago Tribune or the editor of the LA Times or our publishers or the leaders in our newsrooms on the broadcast side—those folks are advocates for journalism. I have to be an advocate both inside and outside the company for the company itself and for its employees. So that’s what I try to focus my energies on.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about trust and credibility for a few minutes. How do you build that within an organization?

WEITMAN: I think you have to be willing to work with everybody. You have to be a team player. You have to step up and be willing to help. And I think you have to exercise good judgment. In doing those things and doing it again and again and again over time, you engender trust and you engender a certain level of confidence that enables you, down the line, to push back when you feel like you need to. To speak out when you feel like you need to and to have your opinion matter—even if it’s not necessarily an opinion that everybody around the table agrees with. I think you have to be willing to demonstrate you are able to and willing to push back from time to time because I think actually, that engenders even more credibility. And you have to also be willing to know when to fold up your tent and say okay, I lost on this one—and not have it matter. This isn’t something you can take personally. I work in a large company. When I joined the company there were 24,000 employees. There were dozens of senior level managers…there were probably 100 senior level managers across the company—all of whom look to me to lead the communications function. All of whom had very different personalities. All of whom had to respond to their own business needs and concerns. I have built credibility with that group by demonstrating good judgment and by being willing to listen and to go the extra mile for them. Which at times literally meant whatever time of day or night; I live by my cell phone and my email. But after a while what happens is, people know they can rely on you and so they come looking for you. And more and more—I know you’re going to get to this—more and more I feel like, my job is less about the practice of public relations and more about the art of management consulting than it’s ever been. I have advised the CEO of our company about everything from security issues in the wake of 9-11 to safety issues relating to our employees to business continuity plans that have to get developed to layoffs to employee benefits to healthcare benefits to a variety of topics that aren’t just always about communication. In fact, there are moments where you will sit down to pull together a presentation and an executive will look at you and say, well what do you think I ought to say? Now you can cower from that—you could sit there and say well geez I don’t know, you’re the CEO…you’re supposed to be telling me. Or you can come in with a sense of what the company is about, what you think its mission is or ought to be and you can be—within reason— be bold enough to say, were I presenting to this group, I’d want to know about, X, Y and Z. I’d want to say to them, the following six things. I’ve had more than my share of executives say, ‘that sounds good, let’s do that.’ In the wake of 9-11, I sat down at the end of the day, on that day with the chairman and CEO of the company and with the treasurer of the company. The treasurer happened to have the building security people reporting up through his organization. We had spent the day communicating to our employees about early dismissal, about coming back to work later in the week, etc. The three of us sat down and the CEO and chairman looked at me and said, what else can I do to make our employees feel safe? What can I do around the building to make our employees feel safe? What can I do at our business units to make our employees feel safe? And yes, inside there’s part of you that says, I’m the communications guy, I shouldn’t be advising you on this stuff. But there’s also part of you that seizes the moment and says ‘well, as an employee of this company, I don’t like the fact that the entrance to our building isn’t monitored by security personnel. Here’s what I would do. We can put security personnel in place in the lobby. We can develop an ID system where people have to card their way in to get access. We can improve the security patrols around the building. We can put cameras up in the parking lot.’ There are a variety of things you can suggest, none of which have anything to do with communication or public relations. They have to do with making your employees feel safe. And that was a situation that I loved because I felt like this is a situation where you’re working as colleagues, together to deliver something better for your employees.   And who wouldn’t enjoy that?

INTERVIEWER: And there’s always, ultimately, a communications function involved in these things right?

WEITMAN: Yes. What the CEO and chairman was essentially saying to me is, what can I tell our employees that will reassure them about our environment? When you ask the question like that, it is incumbent upon you to know what the existing security and access systems are and to know what you might want to recommend that would make people feel safer. Eventually you’re going to be communicating about what has been done or is being done. When Arthur Andersen was imploding, when there was all sorts of focus on corporate ethics and business models, when the world was discovering that people were trumping up earnings reports and things of that nature, I sat down with the CEO and said we need to talk to our employees about why that can’t happen here; about the checks and balances we have in place. Especially since so many of our employees own company stock. We need to be reassuring them that Arthur Andersen can’t happen here; that the company’s ethics and the checks and balances that we have in place are such that it can’t go on here. And we did. That’s an instance where you get to go to the CEO and recommend something that may not even be on his radar screen. And hopefully you’re working with a CEO that looks at that as an opportunity and says, ‘wow, you’re right, let’s go do that.’

INTERVIEWER: Do you think your experience, in terms of counseling and advising, is typical of folks in your position?

WEITMAN: I think at the best companies it is. I hope it is. But I think at the best companies it probably is. In order to do your job effectively you need to have unfettered access to the executive management team. You need to be a part of the executive management team. The thing that I love probably most about my job is the fact that I sit kind of at the hub of everything. I’m not the guy who’s going to make the decision that we should invest in this or change this policy for our employees or decide we’re going to divest this business. But I am in a position where when I’m knowing about those things, I can advise the executive management team, of which I’m a member, how it’s going to be perceived by our employees. How is it going to be perceived by the market place? How is it going to be seen on Wall Street? And what are the implications for the different audiences that are going to be affected by the decisions that we make? And then I can be in a position of being a true consultant—not just on the communications side but on things that can be done to mitigate the negative impact of something we might be doing. And those things I think are important and that’s what makes my job fun. It’s what turns me on about what I do.

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: We’ve covered a lot of ground, is there anything that I perhaps, didn’t ask you about that you were expecting to talk about? Or anything that you want to add when we think about public relations and values and ethics.

WEITMAN: I think the vast majority of public relations professionals act in an ethical fashion. Have the best interest of their clients or their company foremost in their minds and I think that as a field, I’m proud to be a public relations professional. And I’m confident that the people that I’m working with are good, ethical people making good, ethical decisions. And that’s true for the most part across the industry.

INTERVIEWER: All right, thank you.


INTERVIEWER: Very helpful, very informative.