Oral Histories

Ron Culp

Interview Segments on Topic: Trust/Credibility

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: I was going to shift into the issue of trust. What do you feel is the key to building trust and credibility in an organization?

Culp: Wow.

Interviewer: yeah.

Culp: Spring that one on me. I think that you mean from the PR function or the organization itself?

Interviewer: Let’s look at the PR function.

Culp: Because it’s very important because a lot of PR functions don’t have trust within organizations. It’s far better than it used to be where it was my PR guy was how we were introduced. And where my goal always working with CEOs in the past would be how do I get them to stop referring to me as the flack or the PR guy who is going to come in and spin something into the person who he wants to call in because he has an idea to bounce off of the PR person. How is this perhaps going to be perceived by our various audiences? And so that really evolves over time. I didn’t start there and the first several jobs I was definitely the PR guy that they’d turn to, to say, you know clean it up. And you know it, we were always saying gosh if we were only there initially this wouldn’t have happened. You know because we knew how this would play. And so in some cases we were brought in after the fact because gosh maybe we should have told you about this, and so the trust factor. It really is driven from the top of the organization. Unfortunately, a lot of people come in, in PR functions and they have great idea and they could be very good counselors but senior management has not yet bought in. And so that’s why I think a lot of people are very much hung up on reporting structures because it makes all the difference in the world that the CEO hired you. If the CEO is committed to what the PR function is supposed to be, then all of a sudden you are able to have a whole different level of credibility within the organization. That allows you to work with people and gain their trust differently than when they just view you as the spokesperson or the mouthpiece of the organization. And you will never have the credibility because they are worried what are you also telling the media. What else you are saying and so the only way they believe you is if they know that you understand the business of the company and that you are able to defend and build on the reputation of that company that they all see you as a peer versus you know the person who just tell him what to tell the media. And so I think that trust is just gained over a lot of experience. None of us started unfortunately right out of the shoot with the high level of trust because there was a lot of misunderstanding what PR is about. So it’s just literally getting in and consistently building on top of one success or a problem but you had answers that helped to the next level. And it’s just a constant building process to gain trust. It can’t happen over night. Can’t be willed.

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.