Oral Histories

Helen Ostrowski

Interview Segments on Topic: Arthur Page/Principles/Society/Center

Helen Ostrowski Biography

Helen Ostrowski joined Porter Novelli in 1993 to head the health care group, and has progressed through a variety of positions including general manager of the New York office, head of global practices and key accounts, president of the Americas, and finally, chief executive officer in 2003.  Ostrowski has over 35 years of experience in public relations and has worked closely with CEOs and senior management of companies such as Wyeth, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Gillette.  She is on the Boards of the Council of Public Relations Firms and the Arthur W. Page Society and is a member of the Public Relations Society of America, the Counselor’s Academy, the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association and was named an Inside PR All-Star in health care in 1996.  She is a John W. Hill award winner from PRSA-NY and serves on the Board of Trustees of Roger Williams University.

Transcript

Interviewer: Has the Internet, the new media—Twitter, Blogging, and so forth—I think it’s kind of an obvious question, but has it made public relations more or less ethical and why?

Ostrowski:   I think that it should in the end make—that sort of begs to question as to whether or not public relations was unethical to begin with, which I would say from a practice standpoint, I don’t believe that to be the case. I have always believed—even before the advent of the Internet in such a big way—that if you were doing some research for a company or a client, you were the PR person or the agency and you were doing some competitive research, it would be patently wrong to call up a competitor and pretend: I am a student at X University and I’m doing some research on your company. Could you tell me about blah, blah, blah? I mean, a lot of people did that and that’s just wrong. That is not what our profession is about.

What is one of the Page Principles, the first one? Tell the truth. So if you’re predisposed to lie or to misrepresent yourself or your company, it doesn’t matter, pre or post-Internet, you’re going to do that anyway. The same thing with Sarbanes-Oxley; if you were going to, like Enron, misrepresent and falsify and lie, cheat, and steal essentially, Sarbanes-Oxley is not going to necessarily prevent that. That behavior will continue. So I think it’s sort of a behavioral issue. What I do think has changed is that due to all the social media tools now, the transparency now is so much greater and it’s immediate. You really have no margins for error. There’s no place to hide. So actually that should be very liberating and it should be very good for public relations. There are no more rocks that people can hide under, or if they can, not for very long. So I think what that has highlighted for our profession, however, is that we have to really be incredibly vigilant about transparency issues, not just the way we practice our craft, but for our organizations, whether they’re our own companies, organizations that we work in or whether we’re agencies and work for them. I think that is what has really changed I think forever, the environment in which we operate.

Interviewer: What are the abilities and characteristics that senior staff looks for when they’re interviewing potential employees? Hopefully ten or fifteen years down the road, scholars, but also students are going to be looking at this and what are the kinds of things that they should know and need to understand?

Ostrowski:   I think certainly there is the technical part of our craft that changes. Twenty or twenty-five years ago media pitching, for example, was an important skill. It isn’t to say that skill isn’t as important in its current configuration today and it will probably look different again in twenty to twenty-five more years. Writing has always been—I can’t imagine it won’t continue to be important to us in a profession; how you present yourself; how you present your ideas; those are important skill sets for our profession. I think there are others that are emerging, perhaps they should have been as important twenty-five years ago, but I think that the skills for success in our profession are the ability to see around the corners. We’ve been more, as you know the writers of the press materials, the statements, and the messaging people. What we need to understand now in a much more integrated world, much more complex world, all the drivers that we have; the three main drivers that The Page Society has identified, between globalization, stakeholder empowerment, and the new media — I like to think of it as social networking on steroids with the new media. Those trends have really created a much more complicated environment for us and the potential of public relations in that I think is huge.

It’s a great opportunity for us, but we have to really step up our game as professionals. We can’t just go in a corner and write our thing or send emails out or write the web page or whatever the current state is of the communications side. We have to be leaders. We have to help motivate our companies. We have to participate as leaders—we earn our place as a senior leader—and a function that is helping drive change or helping organizations deal with change. I think the current state of change that we see now—I don’t know what that looks like in terms of history, but they say that change keeps accelerating with each passing year or second or whatever. That’s just going to continue and I think the ability for our profession to help organizations deal with change and what that means in terms of their relationships with all the different constituents that they have to deal with in order to be successful is huge. That requires a lot of those skills of listening, of being calm, of having a little sense of humor, of being self aware, of being confident but not arrogant, knowing what you don’t know and not being afraid to say I don’t know but I will take care of it. For us, the worst thing to [do] is build a situation in which we’re not trusted. We say we’ll do something and then we don’t follow through. That’s true of any job; but particularly in our profession, we have such a high premium on trustworthiness that it is incredibly important for our ability to survive.

We have to understand all the different stakeholders that our organization deals with. We’re the only people really at the end of the day inside an organization that has that broad view. Nobody else has that, except maybe the CEO, and even then we’re probably best suited to help guide organizations through that. Does that mean that we run everything? No. Does that mean that the marketing function isn’t just as important in its own way? No. But our role has to really be one of being the guide for that web of relationships that an organization has to develop and cultivate in order to be successful.