Oral Histories

Roger Bolton

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

Roger Bolton Biography

Bolton, senior counselor to APCO Worldwide, a leading global public affairs and corporate communications consultancy, began his career as a journalist before serving as a press secretary for a member of Congress.  Bolton became director of speechwriting for the Reagan/Bush re-election campaign, and was eventually confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be assistant secretary of the Treasury for public affairs and public liaison under President Bush in 1989.

As senior vice president of communications for Aetna, Bolton led a group of senior Aetna executives to think about culture and organizational effectiveness, which resulted in the creation of the Aetna Way, with integrity as its first fundamental value.  Roger Bolton is past president of the Arthur W. Page Society and current chair of the Arthur W. Page Center Advisory Board.


Interviewer: What characteristics of yours worked most effectively for you? Was it your ability to write clearly? Speak clearly or how do you get your viewpoints really across in that kind of general atmosphere.

Bolton: Again I think writing is the critical skill that I brought. But I think to be a good writer you got to be able to think clearly and express yourself clearly and so the ability to communicate orally also comes into play. But I think its understanding and having the appreciation for the complexity of issues, respecting a wide set of points of view, being able to understand and assimilate those points of view and look for common ground that really is the critical factor.

Interviewer: I tell you that’s a great story there in more ways than one. What qualities do you think the CEOs look for in someone who holds a senior public relations job?

Bolton: Well I mean the traditional ones of being good at the fundamentals of communications. I think they also look for a sense of calm in crisis. A wise ability to think clearly about difficult issues and the conviction to offer strong and sound advice, sometimes advice that they may not even want to hear. And you can sense when they don’t want to hear it. But you know you don’t throw it in their face but you have to kind of quietly and persistently be a conscious. And I think they want that actually and they look for it. And again I think some people are afraid to speak up and not say what they really believe and to say what they think is right and it doesn’t work out over time.

Interviewer: You have a wide acquaintanceship among the senior public relations people and know quite a few of them. What characteristics do senior public relations people have that are sort of self-defeating tendencies that they [inaudible]? What’s your observation on that?

Bolton: Well you don’t see it often, but there are some who seem to let their own ego get a little bit in the way and they start to become the story. Or to see themselves as being maybe bigger than they really ought to be. It’s a staff role after all and you’ve got to recognize that ultimately you’re not the decision maker. You’re the advisor. And I think it’s important to take that role on seriously with some degree of humility. But also with a centered calmness and conviction that is not, that doesn’t waiver from day to day and issue to issue.

Interviewer: Okay, on selecting people for your department, what characteristics and abilities do you look for?

Bolton: Well I look for several things and I think I would start with integrity and ethics. And you know we were just speculating a moment ago kind of off camera about how where does it come from that some people seem to have it and some don’t. I don’t know that I can answer that question. But I do think that you look for it. And particularly in public relations you have to have a respect for and a dedication to the truth and a willingness to say this is what’s right. This is the way we see it and we’re going to stand up behind that. I think you look for that. I think it’s one of the things you hire for. You also hire for sort of basic communications ability with writing skill being the single most difficult commodity to find and yet the most critical that you must have and so I look for that. I hire for it. I also look for and hire for strategic thinking. I find that there are people who are actually pretty good reasonably good public relations professions who are able to execute well but aren’t able to think critically and strategically about business issues and business problems. And for senior roles I’m looking for the latter. I really do want people who can understand strategic objectives and help a business think about how to accomplish its goals.

Interviewer: Well you’ve answered my next question because I was going to ask you if it makes any difference when you are hiring at the senior-level or an entry-level position. If I heard you correctly you no you look for pretty much the same thing on an emphasized strategic level.

Bolton: Yeah more emphasis on the strategic thinking at a senior level I would say. But you know what I want strategic thinking all up and down my department. Even at the most junior levels. I’ve got people who are advising businesses on important PR considerations. And if they don’t understand that business and if they don’t understand how to think critically about the business needs and about how to apply communications skills to help the business accomplish its goals. And at the same time be strong enough to stand up for truth and doing the right thing. And have a broad perspective on the need of constituents that person’s not likely to be very successful. People who are good at writing and can write press releases but sort of sit there and wait for someone else to say oh go write a press release about such and such aren’t of much value.

Interviewer: I can say amen to that. What about education experiences. Do you look for any particular type of educational experience either in new hires or senior people?

Bolton: I love it when I find journalism experience and journalism training. But I don’t necessarily think that formalized public relations or journalism training is critical to success. I think that experience is and if you’ve got a law degree or an economics degree or a business degree and yet you’ve proven that you can function effectively as a communicator, I think that that’s just fine.

Interviewer: I was going to ask you if you preferred any particular type of business experience or any kind of experience in addition to the educational and personal trades and I gathered that you were saying that you did to some degree like people who have financial background or something else. Are there other ingredients that you would add to that mix as far as prior experience goes?

Bolton: I’m actually pretty open you know. It’s always nice from an Aetna perspective if you can find someone with healthcare experience. But it’s not it’s not essential. I think talent. Strategic thinking. I think an ability to understand business and economic issues is pretty important. But we need a variety of people who understand consumers and consumerism and all those sorts of issues as well.

Interviewer: What would you do you have any way you would assess a public relations experience. If you put them on a layer I’ve heard you put journalism sort of on top and I wonder if you put public relations or advertising or mass communications if there’s any room for somebody. How would you rate those?

Bolton: I don’t you know what no I don’t think you do. I think you hire for what for the role that you are looking for. I mean if I’m looking for a speech writer or an internal communications specialist, it’s nice if they have some background in that. A media relations specialist may have been a PR person for an agency for for a company or may have a journalism background or both. I actually don’t like to hire journalists directly. But people who have a journalism background or training who have been in PR with an agency or another company are often prized.

Interviewer: You sound like an old timer.