Oral Histories

Ron Culp

Interview Segments on Topic: PR Education/Training

Ron Culp Biography

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: So now that you’re in that environment, what qualities and characteristics are you looking for when you hire someone?

Culp: First thing I’m looking for is somebody who really is interested in doing the work. We get some resumes of people who really look good on paper. They’ve taken all the right classes, gone to all the right schools and everything else. One of our most recent hires is from Northern Ohio University. Probably wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar. But because this young person was able to come in and, and through his total passion for this profession and through his incredible research coming in. The other thing, we just have to go read an old issue of Fortune magazine when we were going to, about the company that we were going to talk to. Today they are able to research so much better and have, you know, prepare themselves far more effectively than we were able to, so I think asking the right questions coming into a situation. Not reciting that I know everything about your company or your agency when you come in for the interview but just knowing about it. Knowing what their specialty is. We had people when I was at Sarah Lee Corporation that would come in and talk about how they just love you know the cheesecakes, And that’s fine. But then, now are you aware of the other products we have? And they weren’t aware at that point that we had a Haines and Leggs and Playtex and all these other consumer products because, you know, they grew up eating Sarah Lee cheesecakes so they thought they were coming to a cheesecake factory. And that wasn’t the case. Today you know they’ll come in and they are aware of the various products and they are able to have a conversation, a business oriented conversation, with you about it. So I think you know passion and understanding of the business and wanting to do that rather than you know it’s either between PR and advertising. No it’s not between PR and advertising. You know you are going to come in and then you are going to know what you want to do and you are going to have to put a case together why you are going to be the best person for this PR opportunity. And ask good questions.

Interviewer: You mentioned the research and how important that is. Do you think the web has something to do with that? What kind of an influence do you think all the unique technologies have on new professions in the field?

Culp: Yeah it’s such an advantage and it’s also a disadvantage if you don’t use it, because I have no patience now for somebody who doesn’t understand what you are all about. Somebody who hasn’t done the basics checking the website, really reading the website. And you come in and then all of a sudden you ask a question that clearly is uneducated. You could get away with that, because in the olden days, because you know you just didn’t have the access to the information. Today almost all the answers are out there. And so it really helps you prepare to come in. The young people I’m seeing today that are just totally aware, they walk through that door knowing everything they should about the agency or the company that I was working with at the time and that’s just unbelievable. It’s all based on the technology changes.

Interviewer: Do you believe it’s important for a corporation to have a mission statement or a credo and should ethics training be provided for the staff of agencies as well as corporate PR?

Culp: Wow two questions. The, the credo I think is important for a company, especially an iconic company that, that has, has a mission beyond maybe selling a product, you know that there’s some reason to exist. Overall mission statements I’m not a big fan of. I’ve spent, I started to say hours but I spent days, weeks, and months developing mission statements that you could easily try to have a guessing game as to what company, it wasn’t identified by the company it represents, because they are all the same essentially. So I think you need, you need something internally for people to rally around, but a mission statement is usually too long and boring and self-serving to the point that no one, It doesn’t have credibility. So at Sears we had we threw out the mission statement and said that we created something under Arthur Martin our new CEO called three Cs. And we rallied a new organization around three basic things that we wanted them to do. We decided that if you make this a compelling place to work that that’s going to turn into a compelling place to shop for our customers and therefore that turns into a compelling place to invest for shareholders. So we called it the 3 Cs. And sometimes the three ‘Compellings.’ And we, that caught on like lightening, we had mission statement after mission statement after mission statement before that for 117 years. And within three months of the 3 Cs you could go into any store in the United States and ask any level employee what that 3 Cs stood for and they could tell you. And what happens? Sales increase and the stock goes up because you got a single focus for the organization and everyone agreed that it was so basic that I don’t have to have a lot of words to explain it. So I think if it’s kept simple it really works.

Now with reference to your question on ethics training, I think ethics training is critically important but it can’t be sophomoric, that it has to be almost fun and it to get engaged with because it makes you think more than, “Don’t do this. Do this. Don’t do this.” That’s not the case. But take examples of things where there may be a lot of gray area and then how would you respond, and see how people respond. Not as a test to say “You’re stupid. You don’t get it.” But to have them understand that a lot of ethical issues we’re facing are really gray areas. There were ethical issues in the Oraflex debate that we had around a table of people. Should you when you know that 11 people in the United Kingdom have died, should you proceed with launching the product? When you might have had some personal concerns about it. And was it sufficient that your medical advise, advisor said no absolutely not. Or should you say let’s just give a little bit more time, and so those kinds of issues. You could have played that. But, so, so getting people to really think, I think it kind of raised the level on where the ethical standards are and it doesn’t become like you know mom and dad saying no you can’t do that. But engage them in what are the proper ethical standards and I think it, it helps people understand that it’s not black and white.

Interviewer: That's right. The case method is an important pedagogy in education.

Culp: Oh good.

Interviewer: You’re right. Oh and here’s a real important question. So is it credo or credo? Because I’ve heard everybody pronounces it differently.

Culp: Well and you are not going to get into trouble for pronouncing it either way because I use both.

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…

Culp: Yes.

Interviewer: ..with some students.

Culp: Yup

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.

Interviewer: [inaudible]

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.