Matt Gonring

 

The light bulb went on for me when I was a sophomore in college at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. I was fortunate enough to have a Professor (we still connect today) who was deeply interested in the development of his students and was passionate about communications. He saw potential in me and thought I’d be good in public relations. He, along with the University Chancellor (a Communications doctorate who later became Wisconsin State governor) gave me confidence and insight and I decided to pursue an advanced degree. My goal early on was to be running the function at a large corporation as quickly as I possibly could. 

At that time, there were a handful of graduate institutions offering advanced degrees in PR and I chose American University as I thought what better environment than the Nation’s Capital to learn about public relations. I quickly realized I was a traditional student in a non-traditional program and the youngest in a group of experienced professionals. Nonetheless, it was a challenge and a wonderful learning environment and I also gained substantial residency experiences at both the US-EPA and Carl Byior  Associates (a leading PR firm) while in Washington.

At the time I was entering the professional field it became clear that working for the news media was almost a prerequisite to break into PR. I guess it gave employers the confidence we could write but it was also a narrow view. I broke through that ceiling by working first in local government and quickly decided I’d much prefer the corporate surroundings. My first gig with The Metropolitan Waste Control Commission in St. Paul gave me wonderful experience quickly as I was running the department and dealing with hazardous waste and substantial environmental issues requiring grass roots community campaigns.

Northwest Airlines recruited me to the then 2 person PR shop and I quickly had to navigate the broad spectrum of PR from pasting up the employee newsletter “Passages” to speaking with Wall Street analysts, testifying before state senate taxation committees and of course, the news media. It was here where I cut my teeth in handling tough issues and learning the ropes in terms of relationships and messages and risk. As one can imagine, there are few businesses with as much robust interest in the press as the airline industry. I spent nearly 6 years growing up at NWA. While we never had a substantial accident, we had everything from labor stoppages to hijackings, etc. I remember coming into work through the IAM picket line and a brick landed on my lap through the side window! I gained other relevant experience during that strike as I filled in fixing ground equipment (I was a good welder and had mechanical instincts) and during the flight attendant strike I worked flights from NYC to MSP.

My positive working relationships with the press resulted in me being recruited to United Airlines as Northwest was beating up on United in its hometown media, The Chicago Tribune. I was recruited by Kurt Stocker, a progressive SVP with an eye toward seeing communications implications broadly and a wonderful rapport with CEO’s. During the brief two year stint at United we acquired Hertz, Westin, and Hilton International and tried to acquire Frontier. I was the head of external communications and the spokesperson and I ran hard and enjoyed it. It was a great baptism by fire, but then the Wall Street leverage mania came into play and first it was the pilots, then Coniston Partners and three CEO’s later I was recruited to USG who needed someone with my skills and was also fighting a hostile takeover. The chance to run the function at a Fortune 500 corporation at the then ripe age of 33 was too good to pass up.

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