Oral Histories

Joyce Hergenhan

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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: Here's a hard one: what are the most important issues, those enduring truths that you've learned in your career?

Hergenhan: Always tell the truth. Number one: always tell the truth. Number two: I think that is the thing that I have pounded into people, that I was lucky, its sort of innate to me, and I just pounded it into so many people...always tell the truth. Because number one: you'll never forget what you said and number two: you'll never have to, ya know, go backtracking, like the Hilary Clinton example! That is the absolute number one principle.

Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about, I don’t know when this was, or if you still are...are you still president of the Philanthropic arm of the General Electric Foundation?

Hergenhan: No, no, no. I retired from GE in January 2004.

Interviewer: What was that like, that whole experience, of being president of that organization?

Hergenhan: Oh I enjoyed it. It was wonderful. Jack was about to retire as CEO and Jack was CEO of the company and there was a vacancy for the presidency on the foundation, and I just thought; I’d work for Jack for like 19 years at that point; and I just wanted to do something else. I didn’t want to continue the 24/7 thing with a new CEO, and so I just moved over to them and I asked Jack, and Jack was, "Great idea!" And it was fun. You do good things and you see tangible results of doing good things. You know we did a lot of industry education and so it was very tangible.

Interviewer: Well let’s get back to counselors here. The aim of The Arthur Page Center, that's located at Penn State University, is to help individuals become counselors to leadership. How do you prepare yourself for something like that, to be a good counselor?

Hergenhan: Well I think first of all you better have a pretty good knowledge of the subject matter that’s involved in this, whatever industry or whatever it is. I think that knowledge is so important that you have to make decisions from a point where you know something. So I think, clearly, just become absolute experts on whatever is at hand here and I think you have to show that you are a team player. I think that you have to obviously always tell the truth and that’s like he said, always tell the truth in every situation. But I think you have to be candid. You have to know when to fight back. But you have to be armed with facts. It’s really I think, that knowledge and the ability to communicate clearly. First to the leadership that you are trying to counsel, and then subsequently communicate to whatever the larger audience is whether it’s the media or government or Wall Street or employees. And so I think communication skills. The ability to think and communicate clearly is absolutely, absolutely essential. I am appalled today that so many people really can’t seem to write. I think that I go around saying everybody should take news writing 101. It teaches you how to write clearly and precisely. I used to get all these job applications from people claiming they have great communication skills and great research skills. Well, half the time they spelled my name wrong. Great research skills you have there, kid. And the letters would be so ungrammatical. It was just like, you know, people can’t write today. And I take pride in it. I like it when others do too.

Interviewer: If you were hiring let’s say a student would come to you and they want a position, what characteristics, besides the writing skills, what other characteristics are you looking for?

Hergenhan: High energy. Communication skills, obviously, both written and spoken. High energy. A pattern of accomplishment that they’ve done something and stuck to it. Maybe some actual writing, as in deadlines. I always liked kids who were editors of the college newspapers. I just think that it shows number one, a dedication to the craft, and number two, you know they are not going to edit particularly, so you read and see they can write and can write up to deadline but high energy, and also likeable. You know I always said, I always had my theory that there are probably a hundred people out there or 100,000 people out there who could do this job. Yes, you are going to have lots of people who technically can do this job. But you are going to spend ten hours a day with that person. So make sure it is somebody you want to spend ten hours a day with. True though.