Oral Histories

Maril MacDonald

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

Maril MacDonald Biography

Maril MacDonald is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Gagen MacDonald LLC.  She is a nationally recognized leader in communications and strategy execution.  Prior to Gagen MacDonald, she served as vice president, corporate communications, and was a member of the Executive Management Committee for International Truck and Engine Corporation (formerly Navistar), and with CEO John Horne, directed a successful cultural turnaround, bringing the company from the brink of bankruptcy to being named to the Wall Street Journal’s “Top 10 Performers” list and Business Week’s “Top 50 Companies”.

MacDonald is the current President of the Arthur W. Page Society an is a member of the Arthur W. Page Center Advisory Board.


INTERVIEWER: Can you talk about when you hire senior people, what are you looking for?

MACDONALD: Well, we were talking about ethics so obviously that’s extraordinarily important. Also, people who are very grounded; I think that’s important, and really emotionally healthy. Strong people developers. Obviously, we’re looking for people who are really strong in everything we do, which is leadership, engagement, culture, communications, that area. But the other thing that’s really important, are catalytic learners. So I look for people who love to learn, and who can take what they learn to something way bigger. They can synthesize it. They can pull it together, and you know, if we just learn this, it took us to here, now we can combine it with these three things and take it to there. And that’s what I think is really critical in a senior person. The world is changing so quickly and we need to be able to keep ahead of it. This is a firm that we’ve prided ourselves in pioneering since we started. It was one thing to be pioneering 15 years ago when not many people were in our space, to be pioneering now requires more and more and more. So we really turn to everybody on our team, but certainly the more senior, the more expected it would be that we can really keep ticking and pushing and thinking to the next place.

INTERVIEWER: Can you think of a recent example or an example of this idea of synthesizing? Taking this idea and this idea and taking it to a bigger place?

MACDONALD: Yeah. For a long time we had a really, really strong hold in the area of communication. We’re very well known among the communication people and in the area of employee engagement. And we began then to start looking at the whole issue of the communications function and where it needed to evolve to really have a stronger what everyone refers to as, a seat at the table. I like to say for the communication—to be the table. Bring other people to the table. And it always made me crazy that we always talk about communication -- and then there’s the leaders. How do we get leadership? And I’m like wait a minute, we’re leadership. So we started bringing in people with leadership expertise and started looking at, how do we use leadership expertise to really help propel the communication function and develop communication professionals? And then at the same time, how do you take communication expertise to strengthen the role of leaders and actually help leaders learn to be better communicators? And from that, it enabled us to really begin to look at the whole intersection of reputation, culture, brand and leadership in a very different way in terms of our offerings. So we started really looking at all of our offerings that way probably 8 or 10 years ago. Now with the new model, all of this is coming up as where the functions need to go so, we’re now looking and saying, ‘okay, now we are all that, where are we going next?’ And how do we continue to stay ahead of this then.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about the future for a couple of minutes here looking ahead, what do you think are the biggest challenges that face public relations and communications professionals in the next decade or so? What will those be?

MACDONALD: I think the biggest challenges are going to be how many skills and competencies are required of us, because as you look at where everything is going, we need to be data analysts; we need to be synthesizers; we need to be story tellers; we need to be great people leaders, and people developers. We need to really be able to see around corners and really kind of know where the world’s going. Those are a lot of varying skills and competencies for one person, and they’re very left-brain and right-brain, which is a difficult combination, to which, by the way, is actually a benefit to women, because there are a lot of studies that show women have a much stronger ability to work across both hemispheres of their brain. So there, when we’re looking for something to add to the females, we can give them that. So, I think just keeping up with all of it, and moving more and more as an industry, moving from the people who are brilliant, brilliant doers and executors, to the people who are really able to amass an incredible earning of talent, is going to be the next big challenge. Because, we still have many CCOs who really are brilliant writers and brilliant storytellers and have a very critical role in an organization, beside the CEO, because they’re the person who best crafts the story. I think we’re going to need to give that up. We’re going to need to really be the people managers, and the functional managers that are driving the business. If you’re sucked into crafting the story, you can’t do the other job. It’s just a physics problem. It’s a matter of time and space, so I think that’s the only (or should be one) challenge right now for us.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked a lot about the way the industry is changing and the lengthening list of skills and competencies, and my question to you, is what are the enduring truths, despite the changes in the industry? What are the enduring truths to you that you’ve learned in your career, that are true today, and will be true in 10 years and 15 years out.

MACDONALD: At the end of the day, people are people, and people want to engage with other people in organizations that they trust, that they feel have a mutual view, and path, and vision of the world. That to get that kind of trust; we need to be open and transparent. We need to be willing to share, and we need to be willing to listen. And ultimately it’s going to come down to not what we say but what we do. I think those things are going to continue to carry forward.

INTERVIEWER: Anything that I haven’t asked you about that you think is important for thinking about ethics, values?

MACDONALD: You know, one thing we haven’t talked about is really being true to oneself. I think that for anyone in any field, it’s important, but particularly in this field, because we are often in a room or in a situation where there are many different realities brought to the table, and it can be very confusing. There’s a lot of ambiguity to many of the discussions that we’re involved in. There are many articulate people advocating many points of view, and sometimes we know what the right answer is, sometimes we would go to instinct as to what’s right. I think not losing a sense of center really matters. So here’s where that comes into play, if you really know, and you have the facts, you’ve got to stand up and you’ve got to say it, right? Most often, we have some of the facts; that’s what we know. There’s some things that we feel through our gut, through our experience, through our intuition, you don’t’ want to confuse the two. #1, so never say “no” if you think. Get it clear, here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know but my experience would tell me here’s where we’re going to go. And I think staying true to that, and not getting waked up in having such a strong clear view that you overstate your facts, or feeling that you don’t know enough to take a stance. Either way can be very detrimental, so that getting clarity in that is key.

INTERVIEWER: To me what you were saying really relates back to core values and the Page principles, this idea of authenticity right?

MACDONALD: Yeah, authenticity is everything, because at the end of the day, who wants to die and have been somebody else?

INTERVIEWER: Right. Is there anything else that you want to add? I think we got through all the questions.

MACDONALD: No, I thought you asked great questions. I think we covered a lot.

INTERVIEWER: All right, thank you.