Oral Histories

Ron Culp

Interview Segments on Topic: PR Agency or Corporate PR/Outsourcing

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: You had mentioned your concern about clashes between the two organizations and the employees. Did you find that there was any kind of a clash conflict between you as the communicator who wants to get information out internally but also out to the media about what’s going on, and the corporate lawyers who maybe the totally opposite on that and want to kind of hush, hush. We don’t need to tell the media anything right now.

Culp: Well it’s good put because I’ve been in those situations. In this case, it really wasn’t. It didn’t operate that way. And I do contend, and what I always encourage investment bankers to do is bring the communications people in early. I said, you’ll avoid the conflict because the communicator is going to understand why they can’t. Sometimes, sometimes there is a legitimate reason why you can’t communicate something. Or the timing issues are all resolved. And importantly, the communicator being there. I’m able to say okay here’s what we need to do timing wise. They aren’t thinking of timing of communications. They just want to get the deal closed. So as a result of being there, it made a total difference. Because contrast that to other deals I’ve been in where the phone rings. “Oh by the way, we’re going to be acquiring a new company and you’ve got to put out a press release.” And then I’m full of 50 questions. And then my staff has 50 more and I don’t have the answers. And that is just not the way it should be done. So I think the opportunity to actually be on the front lines and even though it was excruciatingly painful to give up holiday weekends and the like, it was the smart thing to do in the end. It just, you knew what was happening. You knew the rational behind it and you were better able to articulate it to your own staff what they had to do. And then the staff loved it because they knew you had a seat at the table and that you were involved in all this discussion. You knew the characters that they were making these decisions. And if you need an answer, I got a call back a lot faster that they said somebody in PR is calling. Thanks.

Interviewer: Lessons learned. Good. Okay, let’s talk a little bit about agencies and corporate PR. I don’t know if you think that. Tell me if you agree with this or not. I’m stating here that recent years PR agencies have grown in size and number while corporate PR staff seemed to be dwindling. Then perhaps that is because of all the [inaudible] and the positions that have been [inaudible]. Now it’s about one year since you became senior vice president at Ketchum Midwest.

Culp: Yes.

Interviewer: Have you experienced any challenges now that you’re in that agency environment that really weren’t’ evident when you were in the corporate PR environment. And has that been difficult? That frenzied?

Culp: I'm actually surprised that the similarities between the two are as great as they are. Everyone always talks about the differences. I think people in agencies think they work harder than people in corporate, and corporate think that, you know, the agency people have the best deal. And in now that I’ve been in corporate PR for about 30 years and only 4 years total in the agency side, the similarities are very strong and I actually told somebody over dinner the other night that I think I’m working harder now than I did when I was at Sears in PR. And my wife quickly corrected me and said “no.” Take it from me, you are not. And because she remembers that late, late nights and the like, that I was consumed. So must be age that I think I’m working harder today, but it’s the similarities are, are greater. Back to your point about whether or not the dynamics are changing between corporate, the pendulum is shifting. By all means, when I went to Sears the PR function was well over 100. And that we had somebody whose responsibility essentially was to know everyone in the building and he was kind of a goodwill ambassador at large. Former store manager, nice guy, didn’t really have a job for him but he’d been working here a long time so let’s put him into PR. And so my job was to restructure the function that put people in various roles, where that made sense. So we reduced the staff significantly, and as and I still probably had a bigger PR function than I needed to get the job done. So we continued over the next ten years to tweak and make sure that you know business really requires bottom line results and we had to produce you know work that would add to the bottom line success, and the reputation success of that company and how many people does that take? And it certainly didn’t take 118 people so and I think that’s happening at all other, and has happened at all other companies. So with the downsizing of the corporate function then all of a sudden when a new product introduction or an acquisition comes along, you are looking around saying we’re all strapped because we’ve now been right sized so let’s call an agency in to help support us for this single mission perhaps. So that’s what really changed and why agencies are thriving today. And why I think there are. There have always been smart people in agencies, the benches are getting stronger and stronger in agencies.