The Public Relations Strategist

Setting the Gold Standard: E. Ronald Culp, Fellow PRSA, on Building Bridges and Paying It Forward

December 17, 2015

E. Ronald Culp, Fellow PRSA, director of the graduate program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University, received this year’s Gold Anvil Award — PRSA’s highest individual honor.

In his acceptance speech on Nov. 8 at the International Conference, Culp discussed his 40-year PR career and what winning this lifetime achievement award means to him. “I owe this award to loving what I do and being damn lucky. Find yourself a good editor, a trusted confidant and a best friend. I’ve worked with many great teams and mentors,” he said, thanking his wife as well as the late Betsy Plank, APR, Fellow PRSA.

“The best mentoring relationships happen naturally — they’re not forced. If you love what you’re doing, the right mentor relationship will come your way,” Culp said. “No matter how busy you are, find time to mentor or be mentored. There’s magic when it happens.

“Try to build bridges between the profession and education. Commit to the future of public relations and pay it forward when you can.”

The Strategist talked with Culp at this year’s Conference in Atlanta about how he got his start in the profession, some of his career highlights and lessons learned, his thoughts on the prestigious Gold Anvil award and his advice for future PR pros.

How did you get your first job in public relations?

While I was heading the member services operation of the New York State Assembly, I met a public affairs manager from Eli Lilly. In passing, he mentioned that I should think about his industry if I ever wanted to “go corporate.” A year later, I called him, and he arranged a meeting that eventually resulted in my joining the company’s media relations team in Indianapolis.

What were some of the early leadership lessons you faced?

Hire and empower smart people and let them help make you successful. That’s been the modus operandi at every stage of my professional career.

How did you develop your own management style? Were there any great leaders or mentors along the way?

I’ve been blessed with many phenomenal mentors at every stage of my career and life.

Incredibly, I also learned a lot by observing ineffective and bad leaders — always vowing to be the opposite sort of them. I’ll never forget a supervisor telling me that I was “too nice” to my staff, and that I should keep them on their toes by being more critical and demanding. “Make them feel their jobs are in jeopardy and they’ll work even harder,” he suggested. I couldn’t do it, so I quietly stayed the course. He left the company to “pursue other interests,” and I did just fine — and I slept a lot better at night.

What would the Ron Culp of today go back and tell the Ron Culp just starting his career?

Take more business courses in high school and college. Besides being effective writers, top PR professionals must have a solid grounding in business basics. I had to learn the business of business the hard way — by making silly and embarrassing mistakes. Back then, few PR pros were expected to fully understand the numbers.

That’s not the case today. Employers are far less forgiving, and careers are made or slowed down due to a lack of basic business intelligence. Fortunately, Bob Graper, the patient investor relations director at Eli Lilly, taught me the basics that I needed to survive writing earnings announcements and the annual report.

What advice would you offer to other PR professionals who are just starting out in their careers?

The career advice that I’d give anyone is: Love what you’re doing. I’ve had some of the most amazing jobs in four Fortune 500 companies, two agencies and, now, in academia. People say, “Well, which job do you like the best?” I’d have to say I liked them all, but I love the job I’m doing right now the best. That’s what you have to look for. If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, you have to find a job that’s going to bring you happiness. When you do, you’re going to perform at your best.

How do you think the profession is adapting to meet this overwhelmingly social world that we live in now?

Surprisingly, PR professionals are adapting to the social world slower than many would expect. Employers assume that PR pros are bringing more expertise than is the case. This opens PR career doors for those pursuing other fields of study and experience.

What are some trends you see in public relations for the coming year?

What’s dramatically changing in public relations today is the demand for more senior talent. That demand comes with the responsibility to know more about business, so a lot more effort has to be put into studying and understanding business. Both in college and even after college, find ways to really understand the business of business. That’s how you’re going to define success and end up squarely in the corner office in your career.

What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned about public relations during your 40-year career?

The most important thing I’ve learned over my long career has been to constantly be curious. As a matter of fact, several of my clients would say that was probably one of the biggest attributes. So then I said: “What do you mean by that?” And they would say, “Well, you just ask the right questions at the right times.” And then one client really hit it on the head when he said, “You listen. You let me talk through what I need to be realizing about the situation. And very often I come to the conclusion of what needs to be done, and it’s just through your natural curiosity that we got there.”

What does receiving the Gold Anvil, PRSA’s highest individual honor, mean to you?

I first learned about the Gold Anvil the year I joined PRSSA — a long time ago. As a matter of fact, Pat Jackson was the first person to win the award. I’d just started my corporate career at Eli Lilly in Indianapolis, and I thought to myself: “Wow, that would be so cool someday, but that’ll probably never happen.”

So it really kind of became a dream, but I never thought it was achievable. So when it happened, it was a pretty exciting event in my life.

What continues to keep you motivated in regard to public relations?

A PR career has allowed me to wake up every morning knowing that I’m going to learn something new and meet someone interesting. For somebody who is curious about everything, this is terrifically motivating.

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.

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