An Everything PR News Feature: Margery Kraus of APCO Worldwide.
Continuing our series of interviews with leaders in the PR industry, we have already heard from several of the world’s most influential executives. Today, Everything PR News has the distinct pleasure of talking with Margery Kraus, Founder and CEO of APCO Worldwide. In this candid interview, one of the world’s most esteemed communicators offers the kind of guidance we so often only hear about, rather than experience firsthand.
The world stage, communication in the digital age, success, direction, the path we are all on, every day we all have at our disposal billions of bits of information – with the touch of an iPhone keypad – the world (information wise) is at our fingertips, literally. However, more information is not necessarily “better” information. More importantly now, than ever before perhaps, “good” communication, the “right” source is crucial. Where public communication is concerned, Margery Kraus is as viable an expert as exists. Before this interview piece is over, you will better understand why.
Communication 401 – Margery Kraus: Answering In A Complete Sentence
Let me be plain spoken here, I was personally uplifted at the thought and time Margery Kraus put into this discourse. She has to be one of the busiest executives in the world, and still…
Question: Margery, as an opening question, it seems appropriate to ask you a retrospective. When you founded APCO back in the 80s, did you, could you, really envision the company growing as it has?
Margery Kraus: To tell you the truth, I never really thought about it. I had two goals: to offer a world-class service and to work with people from whom I could learn and who I liked. I was never overly concerned with how big an enterprise it would be. As I got more into the business, size and reach became a matter of critical mass and depth to offer good service.
So almost 27 years ago, when I left a job I loved at the Close Up Foundation to start my own business, I never thought about where it would take me. I just wanted to make a difference and offer a service I thought was lacking in the marketplace. Some people thought I was bold; others may have thought I was crazy. There certainly were times, when I took stock of my borrowed office space and borrowed part-time secretary, when I wondered about my sanity as well.
We have done some very bold things over the years. We opened an office in Moscow in 1988. We hired an internet guru in 1995. We have been in China long before it was trendy. And then we did a management buyout when everyone was selling their firms to major holding companies! But I have no regrets about taking the inherent risks over the years.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted that APCO would grow from one Washington, D.C., office to 30 offices in 20 countries around the world and do it by building one office at a time, especially as an independent firm.
But we were also fortunate. The two strategies behind our business – to be global (or “glocal,” as I like to say) and to offer an integrated service linking all external stakeholders – have become more and more important to clients, particularly corporate clients who have had to learn to work in a changing world. As the global business landscape continues to evolve in ways we couldn’t have imagined 20, 10 or even two years ago, the need for these services have continued to be a force for growth.
So today, we’ve been able to remain a force in this challenging “new normal” environment by continuing to understand the complex and converging worlds of business, media and public policy. Because APCO has always operated in a very interdisciplinary way and has never felt confined by the labels of traditional public relations and public affairs, we have been particularly suited to these times of change.
Success at APCO has always been a group success. We’ve been able to be a pioneer the industry because of a great team, a solid vision and a fearless determination to do something new. Starting – and maintaining – a business is never simple, but having a strong team with passion, courage and an entrepreneurial spirit is a great source of inspiration for all of us.
Question: About APCO, your firm is set apart from many others in a lot of ways, but particularly in that the focus (at least early on) has been dealing with sensitive political issues, probably more than many other firms combined. Was it by your design that the focus was on the political? If so, do you feel PR’s role has changed in Washington in the last couple of decades?
Margery Kraus: The firm was founded in 1984 as a consulting subsidiary within one of Washington, D.C.’s premier law firms, Arnold and Porter. We never practiced law; instead, our work focused on all the other factors that affect companies in dealing with the regulatory and environmental complexities of doing business. It was only natural that we dealt with sensitive issues. It is our heritage. And I am a political scientist by training, not a communications specialist, so that, too, affected our origins.
As we grew, the concept of “business diplomacy” – using the tools of diplomacy to assist multinational businesses in their foreign operations – added to the distinctiveness of our firm, and these factors have certainly played a role in our unique history and unusual path to growth.
As the firm grew and our client relationships strengthened, we were increasingly asked by our clients to serve their broader corporate needs. They trusted us to handle their most sensitive issues, so it was only logical that they would look to us for a wide range of corporate needs. This grew exponentially as these clients expanded around the globe and looked to us to help them enter new markets because we know the factors for success across business, government and the media both at home and abroad.
As the business expanded, we continued to engage in key issues for our clients but we also continued to invest in expanding our talent pool, both taking on talented generalists and also bringing on seasoned veterans with experience in government service or the private sector. As a result, we employ former senior diplomats from the U.S. State Department and international diplomatic corps. Our staff in Brussels includes those who have been part of the European Commission, representing many European countries. In Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, we have teams that understand many of the subtleties in the Chinese mix of government and business. And in other locations, our staff is a microcosm of the cultures and skills unique to those countries.
But we don’t focus only on government. APCO attracts a unique mix of experienced professionals because of the interesting diversity of work and the ability to contribute counsel and solutions to help businesses, nonprofits and governments capitalize on major opportunities and successful solve complex challenges. Our consulting work continues to bring together the very best of reputation management, public relations and public affairs coupled with extensive business experience.
Question: In the last couple of years, APCO has been in the news over some controversy. I am sure all companies get bad press at times. Since we were on the political track, is that arena more or less likely to “rub off” some controversy onto a firm?
Margery Kraus: When you work on some of the most sensitive and important issues of our time, you will inevitably end up in the story, although we are careful to avoid it. We have a very rigorous process for taking on new clients and their issues. That does not leave you immune from being targeted, sometimes out of success and sometimes because you cannot talk about a client’s private matters, even when the situation is misunderstood by the press. The important thing is to have a strong code of ethics and to live by them. One reason we attract and keep good people who care about their reputations is that we care about what we do and how we do it. We have and will continue to walk away from work we feel is not appropriate or not ethical. That does not mean that we walk away from controversial issues or help clients when they have a legitimate need.
Question: Switching to current events, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was all the rage in news yesterday when the media got hold of the bone he would announce his candidacy in Charleston. In all honesty, I don’t think I have ever seen a more frenzied media this early on. My question to you: is this peaked enthusiasm in part due to America’s anticipation of the election, a change?
Margery Kraus: In some ways, every past election is really a prelude to the coming one. In 2008, there was great interest in the candidacy of then-Senator Barack Obama for a variety of reasons. He was new on the scene, he was articulate and he was different. The interest in him was communicated quite heavily by the media through both online and traditional channels. I think 2012 will be the same if not greater, and the focus on Governor Perry’s announcement is just an example of continuing media interest. He is new and articulate in his own way.
And the media itself continues to be new and different. With competition among the broad range of news outlets, traditional and non-traditional, there is a lot more noise, which only fuels the situation.
Question: I have asked many industry leaders about the so-called digital revolution, and how it has changed their companies. I know your company has made many adjustments, Margery; for one, your social media department picked up on my “tweet” within minutes. Besides the allocation of resources, how does “citizen journalism” and the social sphere affect your International public relations effort? Do you have some advice for companies becoming “engaged,” as experts phrase it?
Margery Kraus: You know, we started our digital revolution in 1995 when almost no one was focused on the Internet and how it would affect our world. Today, the demands of a global society and 24-hour news cycle challenge all of us. Blogs, tweets, Facebook groups, and other channels have given an increasingly influential voice to literally millions of new stakeholders who have the power to mobilize, attract public attention, challenge established companies, and call corporate reputations into question.
In the long run, I think this is a positive. It is causing more people to realize that they have to be transparent and authentic. Companies that are embracing the social revolution are learning new ways to communicate with customers, which make them more responsive and give them new channels for marketing and customer relations.
The biggest challenge for us has been one of educating our clients, especially those not living in democratic societies. The idea of being transparent is one that takes some adjustment. Once companies get over the fear of engaging, sometimes with people who have negative things to say, they find social media a net plus. Many clients are now catching up and welcoming the opportunities that social media bring…and they have learned to have a little more thick skin in engaging with those who have less than positive things to say.
Question: I have also asked other industry leaders about “lines in the sand,” or their position as far as ethics and where the buck stops at accepting a controversial client. 5WPR’s Ronn Torossian clearly drew the line at Gaddafi; Scott Allison, of Allison & Partners, was a bit “slippery” and side-stepped the question somewhat. Where is APCO’s line, Margery?
Margery Kraus: The responsible practice of communication and public affairs is grounded in respect and compliance with the law and both global and local expectations for business conduct, as well as adherence to industry codes and rigorous self-regulation. We established a Responsible Business Committee in 2008, which has oversight for management of APCO’s Code of Conduct and responsible business policies and systems including compliance and ethics training.
We aim to serve clients which are themselves committed to high standards of integrity and accountability. Our new business acceptance policy includes a formal mechanism for reviewing all opportunities on their merits, taking into account our existing client base, contractual obligations, the potential client and their objectives and openness to advice, potential conflict with APCO’s mission and values, as well as the fit with our service offering.
APCO has also signed the World Economic Forum’s Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI), which demonstrates our commitment to having a zero-tolerance policy toward bribery and to developing and implementing or maintaining a broad-based, anti-corruption program to guide the behavior of our employees. These principles also apply to key business relationships with controlled subsidiaries, joint ventures, agents and other intermediaries, as well as contractors and suppliers.
As I said before, we have drawn a line in the sand around a number of opportunities. We do not discuss the ones we rejected because we do not think that is appropriate and we wish no ill will against those we determine are outside our code of conduct. We feel comfortable that these situations are well-handled.
Question: Over the past few years I have seen many interviews with you, Margery, in one, you describe how you got into this business, out of helping your Dad with his football team back when. The story was fascinating; a nice gal loves the dynamic of communicating basically, and ends up being one of the world’s most influential people. My question is; given most great leaders don’t really “plan” becoming great, can you identify a common denominator? What took Margery Kraus into the halls of power, so to speak?
Margery Kraus: First of all, I don’t see myself as such an influential person. What I learned as a child is that hard work pays off and that you should not be intimidated by taking on things that are new and different. My mother, who was an immigrant to the United States and was always self-conscious about her English, always told me, “where there is a will, there is a way.”
I learned early on that you don’t get anywhere without taking risks. There’s always a lot of talk about the importance of having a 5-year plan. I never obsessed about “where I was going” or what I had to do to get ahead. Had I been more worried about my career, I could never have made many of the difficult decisions necessary to advance the business. Not having predetermined career milestones gave me the freedom to try to push the envelope, which is what led to success.
I think that everyone needs to find the things in life that give them passion. Passion is a key ingredient in success no matter what you do. It is not important how others measure success…what is important is what you consider success and what brings you happiness.
I was lucky that I found my passion in creating a firm filled with people that I respect and admire and who bring me great pride in the good work they do. I am always surprised when anyone makes a big deal out of that. I was given an opportunity; I took advantage of it and had the benefit of attracting a group of people who shared a vision and a responsibility.
So if you are looking for a common denominator for success, I would say it is passion for what you do and the will to make it happen.
Question: Everyone asks leaders; “Who was your hero, or role model?” The reason is obvious; we all want to see inside success, people we admire. So, at the risk of being cliché, who was your hero, role model, guiding light?
Margery Kraus: I don’t have just ONE. But several come to mind…
I suppose in the political world it was Hubert Humphrey. I had the wonderful experience of knowing him well during the early part of my career. He always had time for people, and he had limitless energy. He stood for his principles – for example, giving a convention speech in 1948 standing for racial integration. He never let life’s knocks get him down. He once told me that he had no tolerance for the belly-achers…they had intellectual dyspepsia! But what sums up Humphrey to me is his statement that “political popularity is but a deposit in the bank to be used for noble purposes.” I have known many since Humphrey who subscribed to this – both Democrats and Republicans – but somewhere along the line it got lost and has led us to our current dysfunction.
In business, my greatest training came from working in my dad’s store. We had a small department store in an even smaller town. The store was open six days a week, 12 hours a day. No one worked harder than my dad, but we all worked. My brother and I often tended to the business as teenagers. We learned a lot about personal responsibility and even more about customer service and customer satisfaction. Retail sales is a great training ground.
Another early lesson in business was taught to me by Harry Janger, an Oklahoma businessman and father of my boss at a previous job. He taught me to always work in the present. No one who works with you today cares about yesterday’s success. Focus on what is in front of you and make that moment special.
I also gained valuable insight from Frank Angelo, former executive editor of the Detroit Free Press who lived through many labor disputes. He taught me the importance of being honest with your employees, even if it meant delivering bad news.
But, perhaps my most important hero was a life hero, not a business hero – my Uncle Sammy, who lived with my family and was a big brother to me. In his short life, he taught me to live life to its fullest and make each day count. He also taught me how to look adversity in the face with dignity and courage and never be afraid to do the right thing. I watched him die of cancer at 21.
Question: What’s the best piece of advice you can give the budding communicator?
Margery Kraus: The keys to being successful in any profession, I think, are to know yourself very well and play to your strengths. Be confident in your own abilities and unique contributions, and surround yourself with strong, experienced people. Don’t be timid. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Work should be a continual learning experience. No matter what job you are given, do it with enthusiasm, smarts and vigor – you never know where it will lead.
Question: Is there a customer out there APCO would love to represent? I ask this of everyone. It seems to me any business has an ideal client or customer, can you think of one off hand?
Margery Kraus: Again, I can’t think of only one. I can think of some, such as the Clinton Global Initiative, that have common characteristics: 1) You are doing something that helps change the world and make a difference to a lot of people; 2) You have skills that are valued and utilized to advance the business/mission; 3) You can create a positive experience for your clients and cause them to do something they might not have discovered on their own; and 4) It is important to the people who work on it.
We happen to work (proudly) for CGI, but there are other organizations and businesses in the world that fit this mold, and those are the most fun.
Daily Chances At Greatness
I guess we all travel around with a sort of personal dogma, our own branded idealism, call it “character” for lack of an empirical term. My own, while not so easily carried out, revolves around the idea, the belief that; “Every day we are given the opportunity to be a big person, or a small one.” The reason I mention this is something Margery said, speaking of former Vice President Humbert H. Humphrey.
Not many will recall now, but Humphrey was quite the intellectual, and extraordinary in many ways. I won’t go into an historical biography here, but suffice it to say Humbert Humphrey, might have led America as President on more than one occasion, save the twist of opposition fates – John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Much more importantly for this discussion, Humphrey was fiercely loyal, at a time when loyalty was a very high priced commodity. Margery Kraus, much like one of her political heroes, reflects a quality we should all admire, and I quote:
“If there is dissatisfaction with the status quo, good. If there is ferment, so much the better. If there is restlessness, I am pleased. Then let there be ideas, and hard thought, and hard work. If man feels small, let man make himself bigger. Hubert H. Humphrey“
Without regurgitating all that Margery Kraus said here, let me suggest that many answers to some key business questions are within this dialogue. For one thing, my perceptions (our perceptions) about people should rely more on personal experience, or that of “trusted” associates, rather than popular perceptions. Thank you Margery for re-teaching me a lesson here. It’s uplifting to see leaders living by their own ideals, and not resting on them. Just like you said of Humphrey; ” He always had time for people.”