Oral Histories

Peter Debreceny

Interview Segments on Topic: PR and Technology/Change

Peter Debreceny Biography

Peter Debreceny, a consultant with the Chicago-based strategy execution firm Gagen MacDonald, and former vice president of the Corporate Relations Department of Allstate Insurance Company, has more than 30 years experience in public relations and integrated communications. Debreceny has had a distinguished career in both corporate and agency life and has practiced in New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

Debreceny joined Gagen MacDonald in 2007, specializing in change management, corporate reputation and social responsibility strategies. In addition to leading several of the firm's client engagements, he started its social media and CSR practices.

Previously, Debreceny was vice president of Corporate Relations at the Allstate Insurance Company where he was responsible for internal and external communications and where he won a Silver Anvil award for his pioneering work in stakeholder engagement and corporate reputation management.

Earlier in his career, he led communications for New Zealand's first two America's Cup yachting challenges in Perth, Australia and in San Diego, for which he also won a Silver Anvil. He also led the communications campaign for New Zealand's first successful environmental campaign and was a senior member of the group that organized the New Zealand entry at the 1988 World Expo in Brisbane, Australia.

Debreceny is a 2009 inductee to the PR News Hall of Fame. He has served as a trustee of the Institute for Public Relations and was chair and co-chair of the Institute from 2004 to 2008. He is chair of the Commission on Global Public Relations Research and a trustee of the Center for Global Public Relations at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He was recently awarded the 2010 Distinguished Service Award by the Arthur W. Page Society.

Transcript

Interviewer:   Well it’s September 12th, 2009, and we’re in Chicago, Illinois right at the beginning of the Page Society Fall Conference. I’m sitting with Peter Debreceny and I think we’d like to start talking probably about your early career and let’s talk about its development following your graduation from college and through your current work as a consultant for Gagen MacDonald. How did you land here? You began with a degree in Political Science and Public Administration. Tell us how you got here.

Debreceny:   OK. Well, my first job out of college, while I was still in college, actually, I was working for the equivalent of the New Zealand State Department, so the Administrator of Foreign Affairs in New Zealand, which is where I’m from.  I was helping oversees students who had come to the country under scholarship from Asia and Africa with their adjustment to the society, with their academic training, I was their sort of case officer, if you like, while they were in the country. It was a great job and I met a lot of really interesting people from different parts of the world. Pretty quickly a job became available in the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, which at the time was the only radio and television broadcaster in the country and it was at the height of the Vietnam War, or actually early I guess, in the Vietnam War. There were a lot of protests. A friend of mine who worked for the broadcasting had organized a conference. The government, which owned the broadcasting system at the time, wasn’t very happy about the fact that he had done this. They were in favor of the war and he was opposed. So he lost his job and he said why don’t you apply for my job? So I was one of the applicants and I was lucky enough to get the job.

So I moved from being in foreign affairs with the state department equivalent officer to being a broadcast journalist. I did first radio then television current affairs; a program a bit like All Things Considered in the afternoons. We did a half hour show every evening, which was a live show on usually, the political topics and the economic topics of the day, both in New Zealand and around the world and we would interview people. So Marvin Kalb, who was a very well known CBS reporter at the time, was our person in the U.S. and we would call him in the evening in our time and get his sense of what was going on in the U.S., for example, people like that. And then in television, a program like 60 Minutes, but again live current affairs programs that was on three times a week where I was one of the on-air talents, telling film stories and in-studio interviews. So I did that for a while and then I decided to move into PR, which was like a lot of folks in my generation. You were a journalist one day and you were a PR person the next. So one day I went from receiving press releases and the next day I was writing them and sending them out.

So I started an agency in New Zealand. I went to work for a client eventually. While I was at that firm I was running marketing and public relations for this particular building company, spent a couple of years in the U.S. early in my career in Ohio as the U.S. representative of the company around the export of its technology to the United States, then went back to an advertising agency in New Zealand where I ran the public relations division inside an advertising agency. So I got a very early taste of what integrated communications was all about. We had what even today would be regarded as a very modern approach, in terms of no matter what the business issues that the client or prospective client had, we would approach it from an integrated, holistic communications point of view. Again, I went to work for a client, this time a very prominent New Zealand investment bank and spent some time. We ended up sponsoring several New Zealand America’s Cup Challenges, so I spent some time in Australia involved with the total marketing and sponsorship around the first New Zealand America’s Cup Challenge and then in the U.S. in San Diego for the second Challenge, as well as running the marketing around the financial part of what the bank was doing also the sporting part. It was our money that everybody was using so we thought we’d run it as well.

I stayed on in the U.S. as a consultant, so I’ve lived in all different parts of the country. I got head hunted back to New Zealand to run an agency, then to Australia for Edelman, and Edelman brought me to Chicago. When I was at Edelman in Chicago, I was hired by Allstate as Vice President of Corporate Relations at Allstate and I was there for nine years; retired a couple of years ago and since then, after a little bit of an interregnum, started doing some consulting work with Maril MacDonald and bit by bit have gotten busier and busier and now I’m back full-time being a consultant with Gagen MacDonald.  So, a pretty checkered career. I think the great thing, when I look back, about my career is that I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in this profession in different countries, New Zealand, Australia, and here in the U.S. Half of it has been inside corporate environments and half inside agency environments. I’ve had the good fortune, particularly because I started in New Zealand really early in the profession’s history in that country. So you don’t specialize, or you didn’t then, and still not so much because it’s a very small market. So I got to do everything; sports sponsorship, arts sponsorship, fast moving consumer goods, mergers and acquisitions and basic relations, annual reports, corporate communications, writing. I used to take the press releases down to the paper in the middle of the night so I actually handed it to the reporter who then walked down to get the story linotyped, so I feel really pleased that I’ve been able to get that eclectic mix of what this business is about, because what you learn in one part of it I think you can really apply to different parts of it and my sense is that in the U.S. maybe we specialize too quickly. You come out of school and you maybe get a year under your belt in an agency sometimes even just as an intern and then suddenly now I’m in health care and I’m going to be in health care forever; I think it’s too quick.

Interviewer:   That’s right. The Gulf Coast experienced a terrible tragedy from the hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At that time you were Allstate’s vice president for corporate relations and you manned the front line. Of course, there were many accusations in the following years about the integrity of the “good hands” of Allstate and you found yourself dealing with the question of the flood versus the wind damage and over 300,000 claims. How did you, as an individual and as a corporation, handle extreme devastation and high emotions with little or no technology to support the normal communication you would have with your employees and your various constituencies? How did you manage that? It’s remarkable.

Debreceny:   Well, let me break that question down into three parts. Firstly, let’s talk about crisis management. I think the one most important thing about crisis management is to understand that a crisis is not normal operations. A crisis is different and everybody in the organization has to behave on the basis that a crisis is different and what you would normally do on a day-to-day basis you had to put to one side and focus on the crisis because if you don’t stay ahead of the crisis, it’s going to overtake you. That was particularly the case with Katrina and Rita, and any time a calamity or catastrophe like that happens. But in any organization a crisis can happen any time and come from anywhere and the organization has to be ready to deal with it. It is really critical and when it happens you really need to be able to put your game plan into operation and really focus on dealing with that crisis and staying ahead of the game. Just to repeat; if you don’t stay ahead of it, it’s going to stay ahead of you and then you’re going to be following it and it’s going to be taking you to places you really don’t want to go. The only way to manage a crisis to get it to where you want it to be is to really focus, keep everything really simple, clear, and do everything that you need to do in order to be able to stay ahead of the game.

Big insurance companies like Allstate and State Farm are really good at dealing with what we would call a catastrophe. So in the Allstate case, we have a whole group of people who do nothing else but look after catastrophes when they happen.  Any time there is a tornado, an earthquake, a hurricane, even something like an ice storm that will take power out and destroy cars, and floods, we have a specialized group that will go in to look after our customers. So we’ve had lots of experience dealing with catastrophes, both from the point of view of running an insurance business, handling claims, and communications. So to an extent, when Katrina came along we pretty much had a game plan that was tried and tested that we were ready to put into operation. Even before Katrina arrived on shore, we had thirty mobile claims facilities standing by waiting. It was a little unclear which way it was going to come. Was it going to come into New Orleans, or was it going to veer a little bit to the east? So we were waiting, ready to bring this facility in. The local region had communications all ready to go. Katrina was really interesting because it was so much different from virtually any other catastrophe of that kind.

Early on, true communications were completely out. An interesting learning point for me was that it just showed you the fragility of our communications system. All of the cell phone towers go because the wind blows them down and if the wind doesn’t blow them down, there are so many people trying to get out on their cell phones that you can’t get a line. So there’s no wireless communication, and there probably wouldn’t be in an earthquake as well. Next time an earthquake hits California, a big one; there won’t be any wireless because all of the towers are going to crumble. The regular landlines worked fine for the first 24-48-72 hours. There was no power but they all had backup generators so they all moved to backup generators. Pretty quickly after about the third or fourth day those generators ran out of gas and there was no way to get extra gas because essentially in that area there was no communication happening. Our claims trucks, once we could get them in, which was really difficult, particularly with the security issues, were OK because they had their own facilities, but just to get our agents back up and running we went and found a mobile telephone exchange and trucked it in and we set it up in order to get people back up and running.

But we had these systems already set up for when any hurricane comes through. We have these mobile claims offices come in, set up, and away we go; looking after customers. That’s our number one priority; how do we look out for first our employees and agents, then how do we look after our customers. Everybody is pretty much focused on that and nothing else but that for the first few weeks in the case of Katrina. The role that communications plays is getting information to people. This is where you go to file your claim. Here are the locations; here is what you can do. We use the news media to communicate to customers so we can do what we are required to do and what we want to do in looking after our customers. Everybody in the Allstate family and in other insurance companies like Allstate is full of people who by their very nature are caring people. That’s why they go work for insurance companies in most cases. We are good neighbors, if you work for State Farm. You’re in good hands means something to the Allstate family. So we are really focused on that. After a while, the communication systems came back up and the role of communication began to change because, to a point, we handled a lot of claims and the insurance industry handled a lot of claims and paid out billions and billions of dollars. There was a small percentage of all of those claims that became problematic and it’s an interesting conundrum for people like an insurance company when essentially you’re bound by a legal document. Although we don’t think of it this way, the policy that you sign is a legal document between you and the insurance company and the insurance company is bound by its requirement to deliver against that legal contract. In the case of an insurance company like an Allstate or a State Farm and most of the other big insurance companies, we will bend over backwards to meet the terms of the contract.

But sometimes you do get into a disagreement about is what just happened covered under this contract or not. That certainly did happen in the case of a relatively small number of homeowners in the region and it is really complicated. Is something covered? Under a normal homeowner’s policy, you’re not covered for water damage from the sort of event like a Katrina. You are covered if a tree falls down breaks the roof and rain gets in; you’re covered. But unless you’ve bought a special flood insurance policy from the government, you’re not covered. There was absolutely a lot of debate about that. Typically, not unusually, there is a lot of news coverage about the people who have the disagreement with the insurance company and not much news coverage about the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve been very happy with the way that their claim was settled. It is complicated trying to explain the legalities of an insurance contract when people’s homes have disappeared and they have the emotional consequences are very real and insurance companies really sympathize. But unfortunately they are bound by the legal contract and so it becomes an issue. How do you deal with that? I think you have to be persistent and you have to try to explain in terms that really make sense for the average individual what’s at stake and why things happen the way they do. Some of these you’re going to lose, I guess, and some you’re going to win. At the end of the day what we know is we’ll be judged by how well our agents and our claims folks relate to customers over time. Allstate does a fabulous job with that, a fabulous job.

Interviewer:   What’s the value of new media and social networking for employees? Why should corporations and CEOs encourage employees to engage in this activity?

Debreceny:   It would be great to see CEOs who do encourage employees to engage in this activity. I don’t think enough CEOs understand it and not enough encourage their employees to engage. Let me just step back a little bit. I think there is definitely a change happening in how companies and their work force interact with each other. So who is an employee anymore? Again I’m going to use Allstate as an example. We have agents that if you’re an Allstate customer you deal with, who are independent business people in their own right, so they’re not employees, but they represent Allstate. Those agents have their own employees. Again, they wear an Allstate badge and an Allstate tee shirt, and as far as you are concerned what is the difference between them and somebody who’s really an employee? When you pick up the phone and you call an 800 number; you might get to a call center in the U.S. and it might have Allstate employees there; real employees, or it might have contract employees who work for some other company but are acting on behalf of Allstate and as far as you’re concerned, that’s Allstate. But the call center may be in the Philippines or in India and you’re still dealing from your point of view with Allstate. So when you think about the organization and the folks who make the delivery of its strategy possible, it always just used to be employees for most companies, but now it’s not employees at all. The whole nature of the work force has changed considerably. So that means that for a company how do you communicate with all of those people and how do you get them all to understand your mission and your vision and how they might participate in it and what’s in it for them, that also has to change. Particularly if they have no direct line of reporting relationship, then you can’t mandate, you can’t be in command or control even if you thought the command or control was a good idea, which I don’t. So that’s a really big change that’s happened in the last few years.

There are other big changes. The changing of the demographic profile of most companies’ work forces is dramatic. As us baby-boomers have begun to roll off the scene and Gen Xs and Gen Ys come in to replace us, now you have way different expectations. A Gen Xer has a completely different expectation than a baby-boomer does about how they’re going to relate to the organization that they go to work for whether it’s as an employee or a contractor or in whatever capacity. They have expectations that they’re very definite about and if those expectations are not met, they’re going to go someplace else. So the whole post-World War II Command and Control structure inside organizations I think is changing very rapidly or if it’s not, it has to. Organizations have to make the changes because they’re going to lose their competitive edge otherwise. So what’s replacing command and control? Well, dialogue is replacing command and control. It’s not just top down anymore. It’s top down and bottom up, and ideally, across as well. Social media is a wonderful enabler of that strategic change which has to happen, I would think very well. How managers relate to their teams can’t just be command and control if you really want to maximize the potential of the work force.

So, I think you have to see social media in a broader context. It gives us lots of wonderful toys to play with, but there has to be a reason to play with the toys. The reason, I think inside the employee work force environment inside a company is because it enables a different style of management. It’s a style of management where there’s much more involvement and participation at all levels of the organization where leading can come from anywhere inside that team. Anybody can have a voice and make a contribution, and you’re expected to. You can’t just wait now to be told what to do. People want you to put your hand up and say we should be doing this and then to lead that opportunity. Social media is a great tool to enable that to happen. The only caveat that I would throw into that though, and I’ve thought a lot about this and at Gagen MacDonald we do a lot in this area, you can’t impose inside a culture something that the culture is going to spit out. So the introduction of social media into the organization can be a great leader of cultural change inside an organization, but you can’t oppose something that is so radically different from the existing culture that that culture spits it out. That won’t work. In fact, that’s a dangerous thing because then all the potential power of the social media inside the organization gets lost forever. People say well we tried that and it didn’t work; it wasn’t us so we’re never going to do it again. So don’t think that you can have a revolution inside your internal communications system just through introducing social media. It’s got to be an evolution, which is staged and appropriate to the existing culture, but is a leader of culture change and a leader of employee engagement.

Interviewer:   OK. Move that into the Page Society, instead of the work force, but the Page Society, and the Page Turner. So how do you see that working within the Society? How many members?

Debreceny:   Almost 400.

Interviewer:   Almost 400 members? How is that working?

Debreceny:   Well, so let’s come back a step. Two years ago the Society published a paper on the Authentic Enterprise and one of the things that paper talked about was the change that was sweeping the world around the empowerment of dialogue through new technology tools. That has profound implications for the profession. So it’s hard to practice what we preach. Even though we’re not necessarily the demographic that ‘s most comfortable with social media tools, we started a blog and many of our members, an increasing number of members are very active in their own blogs and their own Facebook pages and Twitter streams and so forth. So it’s an opportunity inside the Society for members to engage in dialogue about what’s happening in the world in the profession, and aspects that are important from the full leadership point of view; the sorts of subjects that are being covered under the Authentic Enterprise, globalization, ethics, most recently a paper, a vigorous and vibrant conversation around ethics inside business and inside the profession. So has it been? I think in reality, we would have liked to have seen a more rapid pick up and conversation happening, but it’s definitely evolving and growing, so that’s a great thing.

Interviewer:   Are there ethical challenges that corporations are experiencing with all the new portable web-ready devices? Have you experienced any ethical challenges?

Debreceny:   I don’t think that social media tools by themselves or Web 2.0 create additional ethical challenges by themselves. They certainly throw in to sharp relief, the ethical challenges that organizations have because nothing is secret anymore. So in my view organizations should be doing the right thing because that’s the right thing to do. This is a really interesting debate. It goes back for thousands of years. Socrates had lots of interesting things to say about this sort of stuff. But even if you’re an organization now, even if you don’t want to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, you should be doing it. It’s smart to do the right thing because you’re going to be found out if you don’t. So I think Web 2.0 certainly exposes ethical lapses more quickly and more completely than previously was the case. But there are lots of ethical challenges and many for our profession, which we prefer not to talk about.

Interviewer:   Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about that I haven’t covered or that you haven’t covered? This will be on our Web site. There will be future generations who may take a listen and a look-see.

Debreceny:   OK. This is the most amazing time to be starting up in this profession, right now. This profession is in a state of complete revolution and we don’t really see where the revolution is going to take us. If you think about some of the things in the Authentic Enterprise:  globalization; new stakeholder groups being a part in ways that they never have before; the impact of technology—a billion cell phones sold a year—still in today’s climate, most of them now with cameras and now increasingly video cameras and data links. So each year there are a billion new publisher television stations being created, and radio stations and newspapers being created. So the impact on what we do is clear, we are no longer in control if we ever were, of the message. I don’t think we ever were, but we like to think that we were, not any more. So this revolution is happening where we are even more important than we’ve ever been in terms of the contribution that the profession can make to society and to the businesses and organizations that we serve or work for. There’s a whole new world of the profession just waiting to be built and if you’re starting in the profession today, because all of the ground rules are gone, and the environment in which we’ve been operating since Arthur Page’s time is shifting underneath our feet. So we can create a new vision of the profession and a new way that we work, and a new ability to deliver value, and the people coming into the profession now are the people that are going to do that. So us old fogeys, our day is gone. It’s the revolution that’s happening now that the new people can come into. The interesting thing about it is, if you look at the principles, the Arthur Page principles, which the Society and its founders, many of whom are very much associated with the (Page) Center, that they codified twenty-six years ago when the organization began, the sayings of Arthur Page into the Page principles. So there are ideas that he had that are sixty years old or longer; eighty years old. They’re more valid, and more true, and more relevant today than they ever were. And you can think about what’s happening in this unknown and unchartered territory that we’re all in, if you look at the Page principles and if you follow the Page principles, you’ve got a guiding compass to go by. They are really powerful and really relevant and I’m just fascinated by the way that these ideas that he had back then, every day, and every week, and every year get more powerful and more relevant than before.

Interviewer:   Thank you. This was wonderful.

Debreceny:   Thank you very much.