Oral Histories

Kurt Stocker

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Kurt Stocker Biography

Kurt Stocker’s career has spanned all aspects of public relations, having held positions in the corporate, agency and academic worlds.  An associate professor at the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism’s Integrated Marketing Communications Program, Stocker has been recognized for his expertise in crisis management, employee communications, corporate governance, Integrated Marketing Communications, reputation management and professional development. 

Stocker is a member of the New York Stock Exchange Regulation Board of Directors, Chair of the NYSE Individual Investor Advisory Board, member of the Disclosure Advisory Board and is a member of the Hall of Fame and past president of the Arthur W. Page Society.


Interviewer: So you mentioned Continental Bank so let’s move to the years you spent there. Talk about that a little bit, and was there a major challenge that occurred during your time with the bank?

Stocker: Well, reminiscent of what’s happening today, Continental Bank was the first large bank that failed. In fact, at the time it was the third largest bank in the United States; it failed. The federal government—sound familiar?—felt that if Continental Bank failed, the entire financial industry would crash internationally. It was that big a thing. So the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) basically took it over. All the stockholders were disenfranchised to the point where the last stockholder meeting that was held actually had a metal detector at the door; the old board was so afraid of what they might do. So I came in with a new team, basically after it failed. The idea being, put it back in to public hands, build the bank up, and frankly if we could find it a partner to dance with, find it a partner, and we did. We got all of the stock back in public hands. When I got there the stock was selling at $2.50 and the federal government owned it. When we left, it was selling at $55.00, and the public owned it. Not a bad story. So it was an interesting time.

Probably the most interesting story out of that was when Tom Thiebold called his top staff in, and the chairman, and said, “every one of you has to buy stock in this bank equal to four times your annual salary. You cannot take a loan; no stock options; and if you sell it you must leave the company. There are no guarantees the stock will go up or down, but you need to commit yourself to the company.” I mortgaged my house, as did others. As one fellow said as he walked out the door after that, he said it really does tend to focus your mind. It changed the culture of the bank because until that day if you had a great person working for you and some other department wanted him then you’d hold them back. After that day, you’d give him to them. It blew off the silos in an instant, and it obviously has been copied by a lot of companies since then.

Interviewer: What has changed in the PR Profession?

Stocker: I recently went back to my old alma mater and I was asked to give a speech for founder’s day. I asked the president, by the way, had she looked at my record at the college, she had said no and I said don’t or you’ll not invite me. So it was sort of wonderful to go back in that capacity knowing that they were not my finest years. But I was asked by a lot of students, so what’s happened in fifty years because it was fifty years since I had been back there. This profession probably has changed more in the last ten years or five years than it did in the thirty or forty years before that; and when you think about it, first, obviously the whole issue of media. When I got into this business, this business was media relations. The only way you talked to your constituencies was through the media, your shareholders, your employees even, and certainly your customers. People believed what the media said. They didn’t believe what we said, but it was the whole thing, well if the media repeats it, everybody believes it. What’s happened today is people do not believe what the media say. The research is very clear; they believe the media really doesn’t understand business and comes to the table with a skewed thought about business, an opinion. They actually believe what business is saying today versus what the media says. They want the source; they don’t want people to interpret information for them. This is an enormous change. Again much of our profession understands that, but some of it doesn’t. There are still media-centric places in public relations and it’s an old school dying part of our business, truly. Social media obviously is the living part.

The transparency we talked about; there are no secrets left. There used to be secrets. There are none; you can’t keep them; and that’s changed what we do. Diversity certainly, we’ve gone from concentration on content and people spending hours and days editing pieces of work to distribution is now the issue. Content is important, but it’s more can I get it to you? Can I get it to you in the right form and at the right time? People that came into this business used to be journalists. We hired them out of journalism schools; we hired them from newspapers. Today, they’re all coming out of business schools. If you can’t read a balance sheet, frankly you can’t do business as a PR any more. So business has changed enormously and I think some of the problems we’ve got are some of our academic programs and the people teaching them; they don’t understand. It’s changed that much, and there are some people in our profession who are in fairly important positions and don’t really realize it because they’re still back the way things used to be done. The question is what’s going to happen next; I don’t know, but it’s going to be great.

Interviewer: It definitely will be interesting.

Stocker: This profession is getting more and more important because of the changes. It used to be fairly easy. If I can get someone as a reporter to repeat what I had to say about my organization, my job was done. Everybody believed them; I got a pat on the back, a raise, and a decent bonus. Today it’s not that easy. First off there’s more diversity in my audience, there are more ways to get to them, they have all the information about us, and not just what I’ve just given to the media. The job is getting tougher. Therefore it’s getting way more important.

Interviewer: The Page Center has a PR firm that’s helping us get the word out about our scholars and the results of their findings and so forth, and I have been amazed with the releases, the reaction to that, the blogs, and the web sites that are responding. It’s absolutely amazing. Every day I get multiple emails. Well, it’s mentioned here and here. It’s amazing; news just travels very quickly.

Stocker: And they can look behind it. That’s the good news/bad news. We can tell people what we’re doing or how we’re doing something and they can look behind it. They can see what’s driving it. They can actually look at the people who are driving it and understand whether they are credible or not? What’s their background? This has never happened before. Again, it makes the job more difficult, but it takes a skill base that didn’t exist ten years ago, fifteen years ago. The social media is the new hot thing. It’s the blogs, twitter, and all that stuff; and that’s fine. Some people are organizing that well and some people are not. They’re just putting it out there. If we thought reporters had an opinion when they did something, blogs and everything else, and the Internet has way more opinions and you have to deal with that.

Interviewer: You’ve received a lot of awards and honors. Can you identify which one was the most important to you and tell us why?

Stocker: Clearly the most important honor I ever got was to be in the Hall of Fame for Arthur Page. It’s your own peers telling you that not necessarily that they liked you or didn’t like you but that you did good work and that you had given something back to the profession. You had created a body of knowledge. Hands down; the Arthur Page Society. The most interesting stuff is as an old retread silver-backed PR guy, to end up on a couple of boards as I am now, at the New York Stock Exchange and FINRA amazes me. I’m constantly amazed that people who have a depth of experience in these fields; people that used to be the head of the FCC (Federal Communication Commission), the presidents of colleges, there are all these other people on the board who would let an old retread in and actually listen. So it says something about the profession. I’m not sure it says much about me. I happened to be standing in the right place when some of these things happened. But there are other people in the profession that are getting that kind of recognition, which historically we never had. There weren’t a lot of PR people on boards, other than charitable boards. So I think it says something about what this profession is and where it is going, but the Arthur Page Society, how do you not think that’s pretty cool?