Building Bridges and Paying It Forward

Thanks to PRSA and publications editor Amy Jacques for running the following Q&A in the current issue of The Public Relations Strategist. I am deeply honored by the Gold Anvil Award recognition and the opportunity to share my pay-it-forward philosophy toward career and life.  -RC

Christmas 2015, Gold Anvil presentation

Setting the Gold Standard: Building Bridges and Paying It Forward

By Amy Jacques

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.

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