Remembering Ward White and Ed Block Through Their Words of Advice for Young PR Pros

Memorial Services were held over the weekend for two of the great thought leaders of public relations, Ed Block and Ward White. Throughout their accomplishment-rich careers, Ed and Ward helped advance the credibility and authority of public relations. They also were dedicated mentors, who shared their wisdom with colleagues and aspiring PR pros. In this blog post, you’ll enjoy reading some of their thoughtful career advice.

Ward White’s advice from his 2011 Career Capsule was cited by his brother, Richard White, during an eloquent eulogy at Milwaukee’s Pfister hotel on Saturday. Ed Block’s wise words first appeared in “Legacies from Legends in Public Relations,” published in 2007 by the Plank Center for Leadership In Public Relations to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA).

Ward White, 1940-2016
Ward White, 1940-2016

In his own words, here’s Ward White’s encouraging advice based on the job search that launched his career.

The employer says, “You have no experience, how can I hire you?”  You say, “How can I get experience if no one will hire me?”  This chicken-and-egg dilemma makes landing your first job one of life’s toughest challenges.

Here’s my story of landing that first job.

I’m a career changer.  Seriously over-educated after advanced degrees in two fields, I started out teaching college in Houston.  Before long, it became obvious to me that I needed a lot more action and adrenaline than the classroom could provide.

The how-to-get-a-job classic “What Color Is Your Parachute?” pointed me to public relations as the best field for me.  Boy, was I lucky!  Almost 40 years later, I can tell you that it’s been absolutely the right career for me — challenging, endlessly fascinating and richly rewarding in every way.

But I didn’t know that in 1973.  I was living alone in Houston, unemployed and searching for that first PR job.  Faithful to Parachute’s counsel, I was networking like crazy.  Late one afternoon, working out of the Main Reading Room of the Houston Public Library, I returned a phone call to a networking contact.

“Standco wants to interview you at 9 tomorrow morning.  They want a corporate communications person.  Can you be there? “

Be there?  You betcha!

I at once jumped into doing what I knew best – fast, down-and-dirty research, a side-benefit of all those burn-the midnight-oil term papers.  My best credential for landing this job was labeled “Being a Versatile Writer,” but I had no work samples to show, beyond academic stuff.

Trying to turn that weakness into a strength, I set out to cobble together a profile article on Standco Industries, some proof that would show I could write.  There were hurdles.   I knew next to nothing about the industry, oilfield manufacturing.  I had never heard of the company.  It was privately owned, which meant that information on the company would be scarce.  No Google in those days, remember.  And no personal computers yet.  The only computers in that era were a few monster-size mainframes at big companies.

I dug and dug, all manually — Houston Post, Chronicle and Business Journal, Hoover’s Directory, Thomas Register, trade journals, following every lead and taking notes feverishly until closing time at 9 p.m.

Next, a drive on dark streets to Standco’s main plant produced only an uncooperative nightwatchman.  I had wasted a precious hour.  It was after 10 when I reached my $125-a-month single-room apartment and started putting words onto paper on my clunky Smith-Corona typewriter.  By 3 a.m., I had a 750-words article and called it a night.

Promptly at 9:00 the next morning, in my best plaid polyester suit, I was ushered in to see the Senior VP of HR.   He read my article first thing, then stood up and abruptly left the room.  My heart was pounding.  Finally returning, he asked me to join him in the CEO’s office.  That proved to be the first of back-to-back-to-back interviews with a string of Standco executives, that whole day.  Before I left at nightfall, I had a job offer.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work for five top agencies (RuderFinn, Bozell, GolinHarris, Vollmer and now Edelman) and one truly great corporation (Northwestern Mutual).  I especially loved being part of the crew that built Bozell PR into what is today the backbone of WeberShandwick. Over those 15 years, I served in Bozell offices in six cities, moving eventually to New York and becoming CEO of Bozell PR Worldwide.  It was a great run with wonderful, talented colleagues who remain friends to this day.

Even more I treasured 15 years (1990-2005) as chief communications officer for one of America’s most respected companies, Northwestern Mutual.   It was a privilege to be part of that extraordinary institution.

And the saga continues. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to give something back to the profession through the Institute for Public Relations, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications and a couple other industry-leadership groups.

And just weeks ago, I started a grand new adventure as Chief Strategy Officer for Edelman’s Southwest region.  What a ride it continues to be!

A career is always changing, and you never know what is around the corner.  I could retire, but when it’s this much fun, why stop now?

What to make of all this?

1.  The first job can be really tough to land.  How can you make your uniqueness stand out?

2.  Simply showing up for the interview is not enough.  Merely talking about your strengths may not be enough.  It may take research, listening, digging, doing — not just talking.  The challenge is to figure a way to demonstrate – concretely — your unique assets.  A good portfolio helps, but it has the drawback of being about you.  You want something about them.

3.  As my article did, focus attention on the potential employer.  Relate your strengths to their challenges.  Your edge may be in the questions you ask, intelligent questions that show your research on the company.  Sometimes an internship is the way to demonstrate what you bring to the table. Sometimes it’s a freelance project or assignment.   Sometimes it’s pro bono or political work. Think “what can I do for them?” and not just “what can I say to them?”

Ward White most recently was strategy officer at Edelman’s Houston office. From 1990 to 2005, he served as Vice President of Communications and Corporate Relations at Northwestern Mutual, the largest U.S. life insurer. Upon retirement from Northwestern Mutual, he remained actively involved in the Milwaukee community as managing director of Milwaukee’s Marcus Corporation Foundation Previously, Ward became President and CEO of Bozell Public Relatons Worldwide (now Weber Shandwick) after serving in a variety of management positions in several major U.S. cities. Earlier in his career, he was president of Golin Harris East. 

Ed Block, 1927-2016
Ed Block, 1927-2016

Ed Block’s advice to young professionals is as relevant today as when he wrote the following essay 10 years ago for “Legacies from Legends in Public Relations.

There are two basic building blocks for a successful career in public relations.  You don’t discover them in a classroom. You discover them through experience over time, hopefully with help from mentors or role models. That was my good fortune.

The two building blocks are brains and guts.

If this strikes you as too glib to be a useful nugget of knowledge, just think about it. Brains are your software, the stuff you’ll need to intimately understand

the business of your employer or client, the ability to think clearly, often under pressure, often without useful guidance from your boss and, most important from day one, your source of creativity and passion to demonstrate superb craftsmanship as a writer.

Guts are your hardware, a willingness to tactfully stick to your guns when you’ve thought through an issue or problem, understand what’s at stake and  exhibit confidence  that you know what  needs to be  done or said when  others do not or won’t  stick  their  necks  out.  You won’t prevail every time, but you’ll build a reputation for always being fully invested in your responsibilities.

Over a long career I’ve heard these simple rules expressed in different words by other successful executives:

  • Bosses don’t want to know how smart you are, they want timely, responsive solutions to the issues they confront.
  • Bosses want solutions, not problems. They’ve got enough of the latter.
  • Timid sycophants are useless.
  • If you screw up, be the first one to tell the boss what happened and what you intend to do about it.

What this advice adds up to is that leadership and success begin with brains and guts. These characteristics and how to employ them emerge over time as opportunities come your way to demonstrate them. Not likely on your first day on a new job, but certainly beginning, at least in small ways, with your first job.

A wise friend once told me that the very best business schools cannot teach a CEO how to be an effective CEO. They must learn on the job. The  same  holds  true  for  men  and  women  who  pursue  careers  in  public relations. A good school can help you master the tools and techniques of effective public relations, but it’s on the job that you master the art of public relations management.

So, be patient, seek out and pay attention to role models, learn the business of your business and, as your career advances, learn how to become the “go to” person when business problems threaten management goals.

In the business world, communications is overhead. Problem solving is value added. PR possesses unique assets to help management recognize, understand and solve problems.

Ed was Senior Vice President, Public Relations, Advertising and Employee Information at AT&T for 12 years until his retirement in 1986. He established the AT&T Foundation, which, under his initiative, provided the funding to establish the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour on PBS.  Arthur W. Page Society President Roger Bolton’s Page Turner blog post describes Ed’s role in the founding of the organization. Upon retirement from AT&T, Ed moved full time to Key West, Florida from which he consulted and worked on a variety of community projects. The Key West Citizen newspaper sums him up perfectly: “Ed Block made things better. He did it for his family, for a living and for the island community he loved.”

4 thoughts on “Remembering Ward White and Ed Block Through Their Words of Advice for Young PR Pros

  1. I knew both Ward and Ed and know that the world has lost two great professionals and fine gentlemen. Ward was high-energy and enthusiastic, which his personal essay makes clear. I can tell you that the self-generated momentum that he describes in getting his first job continued throughout his life. Ed was smart, a big thinker and not afraid to throw out a big idea. The Arthur Page Society, arguably the most important public relations organization today, exists because Ed was one of a handful of people who turned an idea into a reality.

  2. Thank you for this spectacular Memoriam about my late father. I just re-read it and it brought back many memories.

    1. Your dad is thought of often by his many friends in public relations. We miss him at the Page, IPR and Notre Dame conferences that he so enjoyed attending. And his thoughtful comments and observations are missed.

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