Interview Segments on Topic: Selecting a PR Career
Ron Culp is the professional director of the Graduate PRAD program at DePaul University and an independent public relations consultant. He was the Senior Vice President and Managing Director of the Midwest operations of Ketchum, has a 30-year career that spans a broad range of communications activities in government and the business-to-business, consumer products, pharmaceutical and retailing industries. Most recently, he was Managing Director and Chairman of Citigate Sard Verbinnen, where he established the agency's highly successful Chicago office. Culp also served as SVP of PR, government affairs, communications, and community relations for Sears, Roebuck and Co. for 10 years.
Interviewer: Well, we’re sitting with Ron Culp at the Arthur Page Society conference in California. And it’s Monday, September 17th in 2007. Thank you for spending some time with us today.
Culp: It’s good to be here.
Interviewer: Great. Well I want to start out talking to you a little bit about how you got into PR and selected that. You graduated from Indiana State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and journalism…
Interviewer: …in 1970, and you held a series of positions in journalism, local and state government, and then suddenly in ’77 you were manager of corporate communications with Eli Lilly. How did all that transpire?
Culp: It is an interesting story. The fact that I started out as a newspaper reporter you should say. And then a friend who was in politics at the time in Indiana got me involved in a political campaign for a congressional candidate and during that process this candidate brought in a consultant from the east coast who worked on the campaign. Long story short, we lost the primary and as a result of that, the consultant said you know you need to get out of Indiana for a while. And I have a couple of campaigns that I’m working on in New York State. So I want you to come up to Albany. I looked at the atlas to see where Albany was and my wife and I said “What the heck. It sounds like an adventure.” So we went out there to work for a year on political campaigns. This was in the 1972 period when Nixon was running for re-election and Republicans were very much in control. As a matter of fact, as a result of that election, you know the in New York State the governorship under Nelson Rockefeller in both houses of the legislature are Republican. Then what happened is in 1974 Watergate occurs and things change. And so we went from being the majority power where I ran a large public relations organization by then within the New York State Assembly to being in the minority where we had to say excuse me can we get some service over here. And so things changed a lot. Fortunately during that time, we befriended a number of people in Albany including a lobbyist for Eli Lilly. And he said, “You know, I detect that you are probably not as excited about this whole scene as you used to be. When you are ready, you ought to come and talk to us about a job at Lilly.” So I actually went there, thinking that I was going to be working in government affairs in Washington and in New York. And it turns out that when I showed up the real need was in media relations so I went into Lilly as department head of media relations.
Interviewer: Right I used I think I used both today even. Yes. All right who had the most significant influence on your career? And how did that relationship affect your professionalism? How did you develop as a mentor.
Culp: Well I have many. I am lucky to have many and I am a mentor to many and I think that comes from the fact that I, I would be hard pressed to pick one, but I can.
Interviewer: What does it mean to you?
Culp: Well I go back to people in my childhood who always encouraged me to do things but and things that you know they probably were amused about but they saw that there was some creativity link or something there, so they were encouraging me to do crazy things. So the local newspaper editor, who when I was 11-12 years old said why don’t you write a guest column for the newspaper? And I wrote these crazy, you know, thoughts. And then, and she said you ought to just continue that, so that’s why I decided I wanted to be a newspaper reporter when I went to college. And then in college I had a couple of professors, Claude Billings was one of my professors, and Claude just kept saying you know, just kept pushing me where the opportunities might go with in journalism for me. And then after I went to work at the first newspaper, John Rutherford was my news editor, I disliked that man with a passion. He was the meanest person on the news desk. But boy did I not misspell words. This was before Spell Check you know. And you are coming in and you are basically saying I had to look that word up in a dictionary. Change the word. And so if you misspelled or anything, or if you had a fact that wasn’t right, but I look back at John as being a huge influence. But on the PR side it probably was a gentleman by the name of Jack Raymond. Jack was a former New York Times reporter that then went off to set up his own small boutique in New York and John was an advisor to the CEO at Lilly, and Jack was an advisor for the CEO at Lilly. So Jack always talked to me when he came to town and we’d go to dinner or lunch and at one point he comes in and says “I really have an idea for you. You’re in Indianapolis, Indiana a fairly small market, and you have essentially the top PR job that you are going to get at Lilly. So you need to get into a broader network of PR to be discovered in this profession. So let’s keep our ears open for opportunities in New York.” And so that then led to my getting a job at Pitney Bowes as director of public relations and Jack and I stayed in touch for years and years. And as a matter of fact, I talked to him I called him about two years ago and I decided to go on this little tour of thanking all of my mentors that were still alive. And either in writing or I would call them or I would go have lunch. So I was going to New York and I had lunch with him and I thanked him. AT the time he was in his late 80s. And then last year I mentioned him at the Page meeting in a speech that I gave about mentoring. And I sent him a copy of it. He called me and we had a great conversation and I’m glad we did that because I just heard from his wife about two months ago that he died and I feel better having said thank you when I did than wishing I had.
Interviewer: Well, we’re going to just move here into the final section. You’ve been involved with educating or working in classrooms…
Interviewer: ..with some students.
Interviewer: Just tell me a little bit about that. I mean, where, what students have you been working with. What universities, and the things that you do there?
Culp: Well I like going back to my alma mater, Indiana State, and talking with students there because just like most of them today, I was first generation college and so I think that’s very important to, wherever you can help encourage young people to excel, and the fact that this world is a pretty exciting place to go into and don’t settle for something smaller than what you deserve or want to see. So I like going back and talking with those students and am quite involved. I’ve, along with my wife, given a grant to the school to create something called the Real World 101 where young people are able to find out what it’s like to really be entering the work world, everything from social etiquette issues that they need to be aware of, to interview situations, to resume writing, etc. And because a lot of schools had budget cuts and had to stop doing those kinds of things. When I was in school there was a course that my wife and I loved that Mary Alice Banks taught, one of our favorite teachers. A one hour course called Social Orientation. So we knew which way to use the soup spoon, which everyone should know. And you know how to set a table to how to act when you go to a funeral, a wedding, whatever what a receiving line is like. So all those sorts of things I think are just kind of a distant past at a lot of schools. So, we’re trying to bring that back into our alma mater. I’ve recently gone to Illinois State University, talked to a conference on ethics at Illinois State. Did the same thing at Northern Illinois, DePaul University, Northwestern, and it is a, it’s exciting for me because you see young people who are trying to figure out exactly what they want to do career wise. I was there as a junior and senior. I didn’t know there was anything about public relations, never even heard of it. I thought, you know, I was going to be a journalist and so I think exposing young people to all kinds of ideas, you know and just encouraging them to do something that they are going to have passion about is fun. And then to see how they are going to react and the kind of questions that they have and they are very engaged. And then there are some who aren’t. But it’s society, so it works beautifully. But I get very energized and I love being back in the classroom. I don’t think I could do it full time, It’s a tough job. But I love going. I just was at Marquette University recently and spoke to a couple of classes up there and my son went to Marquette and I just felt that. you know it was a kind of a way to give back a little bit and for the great education that he got, and to revisit the campus that we used to see when we’d go see him.
Interviewer: Did he go into the business too?
Culp: Well, kind of unrelated. He’s in, he’s done the first part of my career. He’s gone into politics, so he’s working in Washington, DC for a Congressman.
Culp: And my other son is going into the other part of my career and he is on the editorial side working for a magazine here in California.