Oral Histories

Gary Weitman

Interview Segments on Topic: Transition to Corporate World

Gary Weitman Biography

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

Transcript

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.