Oral Histories

Joyce Hergenhan

Interview Segments on Topic: Crisis Management

Joyce Hergenhan Biography

Joyce Hergenhan began her career as a journalist for Gannet newspapers, was Vice President and Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Consolidated Edison Company, and eventually, in 1982, landed at General Electric as Vice President of Public Relations.  Hergenhan also served as president of the GE Foundation.  As GE’s senior communications executive, she worked closely with then-CEO Jack Welch during the company’s transition from manufacturing to diversified technology and services. She remained at GE for 22 years, retiring in 2004.

Hergenhan’s professional recognitions include the lifetime achievement award in public relations from Women in Communications (1999) and a lifetime achievement award from Inside PR (2000).

Transcript

Interviewer:  It is wonderful to have you here. It is April 9, 2008 and we are at Porter Novelli and Joyce came down from Connecticut, away from the golf course in the middle of the day to spend a little time with us to talk about her career and her thoughts on public relations. So, why don’t we start out looking at your early career. You received a bachelor of arts and then eventually an MBA from Columbia 15 years after that. Worked as a journalist for Gannet and as press secretary and speechwriter for Ogden Reid. Describe your experience working in various fields and how they prepared you for a career at Con Ed (Consolidated Edison Company).

Hergenhan:  When I was in high school and college, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a print journalist.  I loved writing. I loved the world around me, so at Syracuse I had a dual major in political science and the newspaper and I was editor of the college daily newspaper there and I figured I’d start a career at the Associated Press, which was a good place to start a career as a journalist. So they were interviewing on campus, and I went to the interview and the first thing the man said to me was. “I don’t know why I am wasting my time talking with you, I’ve never hired a woman and I never will.  And in 1963 it was perfectly legal for him to say that.  And of course I spent the next ten minutes trying to convince him he was wrong, but to no avail. So I went back to work that summer at the paper that I had worked for in northern West Chester the previous summer. And I was there for about a year. I was a big deal. I was 21 years old and I was covering town government and politics and it was kind of fun. Then I went to work for a Congressman, for Ogden Reid and I did that for four years and then he recruited me. I covered him a few times. He recruited me. Then Gannett Papers in West Chester County were always trying to convince me to come back and after four years of working for the Congressman, I was getting married and I didn’t’ want to be commuting back and forth, so I joined Gannet and I was at Gannet for four years and I covered, once again, I covered politics, government, a lot of business. There were no real business people back then so I feel that I covered a lot of business and I wound up covering Con Ed because there were rather tumultuous times at Con Ed. And they recruited me for a job, so I went to work there, as a manager of public information and in a few years I was vice president then senior vice president of public affairs. And here in Manhattan and it was crazy wild time, and my favorite Con Ed story if I may digress is that in July 1977 was the great black out. And I was the assistant vice president for public affairs at the time. My boss, the vice president, was in Israel. So I was acting vice president. I was also going through a divorce. I was going to school full time at Columbia and it was just so much going on in my life. And I had just moved from my house into a one room sublet apartment on the 29th floor at Columbus Avenue and 66th Street and at 9:30 at night I just walked into the door (I’d been in a study group with my pals Joan Crylich and Emily Marks, my two friends from Columbia Business School), just walked in the apartment. Took off my clothes and the lights went out. Well up until the previous Saturday, four days earlier, I lived all of my life in the suburbs. The lights always went out; car hits pole, lights go out; branch hits wires, lights go out. This is in the middle of Manhattan and the lights go out. I looked out the window and sure enough, I mean all of Manhattan was dark. So I called the Con Edison energy control center, which ironically was two blocks away, was the West End and 66th,  and a guy answered the phone and I said “Hi John. I said this is Joyce. I am here in Manhattan with no electricity. What happened?” And he said, “We lost the system.” And I said “Oh, how did that happen?” And he said, “Well, we lost some lines to lightning, dah-dah-dah.” I said, “Fine, I said I’ll be right over to the control center, just make sure security keeps all the media out on the sidewalk, and I‘ll be right there.” So I quickly got dressed and ran down 29 flights of stairs.  Actually, which put me in the basement, which I forgot. No building has a 13th floor, so I ran up a flight of stairs. I got out onto the street. Of course it was dark. Chaos. Horns were honking. It was just unbelievable and all of a sudden I realized that in my haste to get dressed, I’d put on a pair of jeans and a magenta tie-dyed T-shirt with a frog with a butterfly on its nose. Okay, off goes the Con Ed spokeswoman, dressed like some lost hippie. So I get to the emergency control center and I go upstairs and I get a quick briefing as to what happened.  And so I go down to the sidewalk where there were throngs of media, as you can imagine. I mean, and of course here we were in Manhattan, which is totally blacked out, and those new Trump buildings on the other side of west end had not been built yet so you get a clear view of New Jersey.  And of course New Jersey is all lit up; and here we are in Manhattan and it’s all dark. Terrible place to be standing, I have to tell you. So anyhow, I explained what had happened; that there was this and, oh, for 100 degrees for ten days in a row at that time. The city was so hot. And we were importing a lot of power from upstate New York and from Canada on these big transmission lines. And there was a horrible lightning, thunder and lightning storm up in Duchess County and it took out two of these big transmission lines, and that put the system into total over-balance, because there was more draw on it than it had energy coming into it. And so in order that it didn’t blow up, it shut itself down. Okay short version, anyhow, so I go through all this and I explain all this to these reporters and this guy is giving me a bad time.  Lightning, you mean to tell me that Con Ed can’t design against lightning. I said Con Ed uses the most up to date, you know, advanced things there are, but lightning? You know, lightning is an act of God. You can’t always prepare for an act of God, okay? Two days later Village Voice comes out: Con Ed blames God for blackout. I should have brought it with me, it’s a great headline. Con Ed blames God for blackout. So that was my enduring contribution to Con Ed and Charles Luse, who was the CEO then of Con Ed, long time CEO, died about a month ago from this day, actually two months ago this January, and in his obituary his family asked me to write the obituary which I did, but of course the Times did their own thing of it. And so, in the obituary they had poor Chuck saying, “Act of God” and he never said it, it was I, so, but thanks for going back and that’s how the coverage was so frantic during those 24 hours and the city was without power.  Anyhow that’s my Con Ed story; I wanted to say that for posterity some place.  Anyhow, so I was there and really enjoying Con Ed. And I was senior vice president and so I loved living in Manhattan. By that time, I moved out of the one room sublet and had a nice condo, nice co-op on 79th Street.  And thought I’d spend the rest of my life there, and one cold winter’s day I got a phone call from a search firm guy named John Johnson, from a firm called [inaudible] and Associates and he had a position that I might be a candidate for.  We had dinner to talk about it. He wouldn’t tell me the name of the company. When he told me enough I figured out, that’s probably GE, and so we had dinner and didn’t hear anything for a month or so, so I figured he's not going to call so I don’t care. He also confirmed that it was GE. So then a month or so later, I hear from him again, apologized for taking so long, but they wanted me to go up to Fairfield, Connecticut, to meet with a guy named Frank Doyle, who was the then senior vice president for corporate relations of GE. I said fine. So I get, so I tell Con Ed that I am taking the day off and kind of had dental surgery. I was having so much dental surgery at the time, it was very plausible that I was having dental surgery. And so I took the day off. And the night before going up there, I broke my toe and I don’t know whether you’ve ever had a broken toe, but they hurt. You can’t wear shoes. There’s nothing to treat a broken toe; it will eventually heal itself. And you just try to wear shoes that you can get on your feet, and in my case I had to use something I already owned. I had to leave for Connecticut very early the next morning; I did not have the luxury of going shopping to buy things. So I had this old ratty pair of beat up sneakers and it was the only thing I could get on my poor foot with the broken toe. So I show up in Frank Doyle’s office and I think I said, “Hi, I am Joyce Hergenhan, nice to meet you. I don’t always wear sneakers, but I broke my toe and these are the only shoes I can get on my foot.” I said like all in one word. I was so mortified that I was walking into his office wearing sneakers. I’m sure he wouldn’t have noticed. Moral of the story, you know, don’t obsess about things, like the fact that you are wearing the wrong shoes. Look at me. I am wearing flip-flops. They are comfortable, you know. That’s what I do. So anyhow, so since I met Frank, and then another month went by and didn’t hear and then I had to go back because I had to go and meet the vice chair John Burlingham so again I went up to Connecticut. Okay, again I said I had a dental situation and so then a month passed again and I hear that everybody is a candidate for this job, and, but I have to meet Jack Welch. Okay, well, Jack Welch is famous; Jack Welch had just become CEO and Jack Welch was just a punk kid who had replaced great Gregg Jones.  Obviously I did a lot of research on this subject, pre-Internet I might add. I had to use the old Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, anyhow. He wasn’t Jack Welch. He was a kid who replaced Gregg. So anyhow, so I said to the headhunter, I said I really can’t take another day off to go to Connecticut. So Jack will come and sit and have lunch with you and I walked into the restaurant, which was Le Pear Park and Jack were already there, and I shook hands with Jack. Hi, Hi, okay. He pulls out an envelope and he pulls out the papers from this envelop. And it says here that you are a sports trivia expert. Are you? And I said Jack that search guy talked to everybody that I’ve known since I was four years old. I have no idea what’s in there. But are you a sports trivia expert or not? So what do you do? I said okay. Try me. So he said, “Who played second base for the 1946 Boston Red Sox?” And I said Bobby Doerr and he said but who held the ball? And I said you mean who held the ball when Enos Slaughter scored first base on a single to win the 1946 World Series for the Cardinals against the Red Sox? He said what else would I mean? I said Johnny Pesky. And he said that was too easy.  Let’s talk about something else. That was the beginning of my job interview with Jack Welch. That’s how it started. And the reason why he did that was that he never had a woman officer and he never hired an officer from the outside. All their people had grown up within the company, had gone through their training programs and you know, moved from Fort Wayne to Cincinnati, Schenectady to Lind usually GE way, but they never brought in an officer from the outside, especially a woman. And it was very much of a locker room macho kind of place. And he figured that a woman who knew something about sports, would be less different. And so we had an interview and I got offered the job, but I couldn’t decide whether to take it because I loved living in Manhattan. And I was working for a CEO who didn’t much care about the public affairs aspect of the job at that point; a new CEO, his name was Arthur Harlsburg and he was an engineer and he didn’t care about going to parties at Gracie Mansion or doing all the stuff that kind of went with the territory. And I was enjoying that and I figured going up to suburbia where everyone comes by two by two by two as a divorced woman. This might not be fun. So I agonized over it for like a week and finally I was told, okay make up your mind. We have to know on Monday morning. So that Sunday afternoon, I was with a friend of mine; we were watching the, I was agonizing with him all afternoon. We went bicycle riding and we had gone back to my apartment, no I think we were in a bar, and I was still agonizing over what to do. And the US Open Golf Tournament was on the TV at the bar, and it was when Jack Nicholas was in the clubhouse with the one stroke lead and Tom Watson was on the 18th hole, 17 green, approaching 17th green. When he hit the ball into a bunker and all the announcer said he had to play the safe and just chip it up a little bit and play it safe, otherwise he runs a horrible risk of hitting it way over the green. So what does he do? He goes for it. And it went into the cup. And it was one of the most famous shots in the history of golf. And that happened as I was sitting there agonizing. I said okay, that’s my omen. I am going to go for it. And that’s how I decided to get here. It was because Tom Watson hit a ball into the cup. Anyhow so that’s how I wound up at GE. My life has been fun. In case you are not getting the point. Yeah!

Interviewer: Let me ask you something. This was a time of crisis for you. Did GE have a code of ethics or mission statement you could follow?

Hergenhan: Yeah I don’t know whether there was one before I joined the company. I was not aware of one when I came. But early on, Jack said that we need to do this. What we believe in; who we are; what we believe in. And rather than having some person like me sit down and write something, it was kind of thrown open to all kinds of groups at all levels to come up with ideas. And then there was something developed by a huge you know consensus. Then it was circulated to a whole lot of other people. So it was a thing that had a lot of parents and it was organic. It wasn’t something that was hoisted from above. And so yeah and I think it had a lot more value being done that way.

Interviewer: This was something that, did it get pulled out in times of crisis?

Hergenhan: Absolutely. People are this is hard for them. And you know it'd be nice if everyone carried one in their wallets. And a lot of people did. A lot of people did. We were in staff meetings and one of my guys would pull it out and say well you know while we are doing this we should think of this, you know which I thought was always very interesting.