Oral Histories

Kurt Stocker

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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.

Transcript

Interviewer: Did you have a mentor during your early years and how did that relationship affect the development of your career?

Stocker: I did; I had a mentor. The guy’s name was Larry Williford and at the time, he was the head of public relations at Allstate Insurance Company. He had a breadth of knowledge and background and helped me sort of get into that mental place that you have to be in in public relations, which is very different from where I had been in labor relations, which generally was fairly secretive. I mean you’d come back from a trip and they’d say so what did you spend on your expense account? What was this eight dollars for? And you’d say don’t ask. Public relations was very different, so he helped. The true mentors I’ve had frankly were much later in life and they were chairmen that I worked for: Dick Ferris at United Airlines and Tom Thiebold at Continental Bank. They were brilliant men; way smarter than I was; willing to listen; truly understood the difference between what they thought was good and what would work. Tom Thiebold many times would look at an ad or a program and say I don’t like it, but do our customers? If our customers like it, go ahead and do it. Those were the kinds of people you had to work for in this business to grow.

Interviewer: So Kurt, what’s the role of the economic bottom line in ethical decision-making?

Stocker: The economic bottom line obviously has great importance because if the organization doesn’t survive, all the stakeholders lose. It’s the constant question that comes up in your three stakeholder groups; your shareholders; your employees; and your customers, consumers, or clients, or whatever they happen to be. Traditionally we thought about talking to them differently because they had different needs, and the truth of the matter is that they don’t really have different needs. The truth of the matter is that if the customer doesn’t believe in us, if we don’t provide a good product to the customer and the customer doesn’t accept that product and buy that product and think we’re an ethical company, they may not buy that product, because today people are voting with their feet. They know about us. They didn’t know that before. All the shareholders want is the customers to be happy with us. All the employees want is for the customers to be happy with us because if the bottom line isn’t there, the shareholders lose, the employees lose, and the customers lose. So the bottom line is very important, but it doesn’t drive ethical decisions. That goes back I think to whether we’re talking about corporate ethics, which again I’m not sure how corporations have ethics because they’re made up of individual people with individual needs. When you look at some of the major missteps that companies have made, they have made them based on incentive plans provided by the company. The companies incented the wrong things or they didn’t have stops to prevent them from going too far. In sales, and you can look at one crisis after another, so we incense occasional bad behavior by asking someone to sell too much or to sell it in the wrong form, or to not tell us when something went wrong in production, but it comes down to individuals. So it’s a matter of personal values, I believe.

Everyone tries to define PR; somebody says so what do you do? What is PR? I come up with two definitions in all these years. The first one is local because I spent most of my life in Chicago. The Chicago police department has on the side of their vehicles To Serve and Protect. I’ve always thought PR people should have a patch that says we produce and protect. It’s what we do. We either do things that produce revenue or we do things that protect revenue. So that’s sort of my idea if you had to put a shoulder patch on. The other one is it’s just more fun and that is, and I think Arthur Page would totally agree that the definition of PR is finding a theory to fit the facts. Not trying to spin facts or to tell somebody else, but finding context around what someone has done rightly or wrongly. I think that’s sort of what we get with Arthur Page. I think he had a good story well told. I think that’s probably the quote that I love the most from Arthur Page, because it has everything to do with the story. We’re supposed to tell it well, but frankly what it’s come to is the power and as more and more people are at the center of the action—not just at the table—but at the planning sessions of the company, it’s a matter of creating the story and then telling it. It used to be the whole idea was just sort of to tell the story well. I think this profession is moving in the right direction.