Some people in this world have life experiences that scream to have a book written about them. I never thought I’d ever say this, but one of those people is a PR guy.
That guy is Fred Cook, CEO of Chicago-based global PR firm GolinHarris, whose tech industry credentials range from working for Steve Jobs, to providing cover for Infosys throughout the U.S. government’s two-year visa fraud investigation that ended last October, when Infosys paid a $34 million settlement to the government. The book he’s written, “Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO,” chronicles a life of extraordinary experiences that serve as a lesson plan for a career training program unlike any other.
I recently spoke with Cook, and I noted that his book is all about how important it is not to be conventional or ordinary, and yet one of the pieces of advice he offered in his book was, “don’t get weird.” I figure there’s probably a pretty fine line between unconventional and weird, so I asked Cook what the secret is to approaching that line without crossing it. He responded by noting that his experience has shown a contradiction in the workplace:
Companies are looking for broad perspectives, new ideas, and innovative thinkers, but their cultures are often the opposite of that. Hiring studies show that people tend to hire people like they date—they look for people who look like them, have the same interests, and act like them. So you have to bring a unique perspective, and your unique experiences, but in the beginning you have to package them in a way that will be acceptable to the industry you’re working in. That’s in terms of how you look, how you dress, and the kinds of things you’re interested in. Once you’re inside a company for a while, I think you can let your inner weirdness come out a little bit more.
Cook recounted a story in his book about living in Florence, Italy, where he hawked fake Italian leather goods to unsuspecting American tourists. He also volunteers that information in his bio, so I asked him if people have done something along the way that wasn’t above board, is there a case to be made for volunteering that information to a prospective employer for any reason? He said that would fall into the “don’t be too weird” category:
In my own case, I’ve been with this company for 28 years, and I had some reservations about writing this book, and admitting some of the things that I have done in my life. I thought it could be damaging to my credibility, or my respectability, among my employees and my clients. So even at this stage of the game, I’m thinking about that. And when you’re just starting out, you have to be even more careful about that. I didn’t share many of these stories with people when I was looking for work. And I think everybody’s entitled to a few secrets.
I asked Cook about his experience with Steve Jobs, and if he could share anything that most of us may have never heard about Jobs that he learned about him through that experience. He cited Jobs’ incredible media savvy:
I worked with him at Pixar. What I thought was interesting was his approach to media relations. I have never worked with a CEO who was a better PR guy than Steve Jobs. When we would meet with him, he would have this long list of the media outlets that we were going to pitch on behalf of Pixar. He would sit in the meeting and go down the list of every reporter at every publication, and talk about the angles that we were going to approach them with. Here’s a guy that was running two companies, and made time to do that. And the more amazing thing was, as we went through that process, as we got to certain publications, he’d say, “I’ll take that one,” which meant he was going to make the call to the reporter instead of us. That never, ever happens in our world—he was the only CEO who has ever done that. They always have their PR people or us make those calls, and set up the interviews for them.
Steve had relationships with the Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine, Time magazine. He would call them up, off the cuff, and pitch them a story. When he pitched them, he would also demand that he be on the cover. So he was a great self-promoter, and was willing to make all these calls to the media. It’s so smart, because if you’re in the media, who would you rather talk to—some PR guy or Steve Jobs? He was on the cover of Time eight times—that was his favorite publication. If he wanted a story in one place, he wanted it to be Time magazine. This is the guy who invented the devices that are facilitating social media, but he was mainly interested in magazines.
Another former client that Cook wrote about in his book was Sheldon Adelson, the political mega-donor who was in the news recently when a group of republican presidential hopefuls made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas to see him. Adelson was the creator of Comdex, the giant Las Vegas computer expo that was an annual ritual for the IT world throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As Cook noted in his book, Adelson sold the rights to Comdex in 1995, and used the proceeds to build the Venetian hotel. Of course, Comdex died just eight years later, so I asked Cook if he had any sense of whether Adelson would or could have kept Comdex alive if he hadn’t sold it. He pointed out that timing is everything in business:
I don’t know the details of the demise of Comdex. But Sheldon Adelson is a very determined man, and I can’t imagine anything that he would do that wouldn’t likely be successful. He’s one of those guys who, when he sets his mind to something, he makes it happen. Timing is everything in business, and maybe he foresaw that the future of Comdex wasn’t going to be that bright. But his work on Comdex definitely influenced his approach to the hotel, because the Venetian hotel was designed for business people. Every room had a fax machine, which was important at the time, and a printer—it was really geared toward the convention-goers, because that’s what he was so intent upon.
I asked Cook whether he had found any particular challenges that tend to arise when he’s doing PR for an IT company. He said IT is probably one of the most PR-driven industries in the world:
We work for Nintendo; we just introduced the new HTC phone. It’s almost like the entertainment industry—the reviews of an IT product are almost as important as movie reviews. We also do a lot of B2B work for Texas Instruments; in London we work for EMC and Oracle; we work for Infosys. So I think the IT industry is incredibly important, and PR is incredibly important to the IT industry. And I think the idea is to have PR programs that are as innovative as the products that we’re promoting—you have so many cool products out there today, and from a PR perspective it requires you to think of new ways to talk about these products, and new ways to promote them that are commensurate with the technology that you’re promoting.
Going into the interview, I wondered whether Cook would mention that GolinHarris works for Infosys, so I was impressed when he did. I asked him what the whole visa fraud ordeal was like from where he was sitting. His response:
I think Infosys is a very good company, and a very well-intentioned company. I don’t think they had any intent to do anything that was illegal. In the technology industry, as in many other industries, there are very interesting issues swirling around immigration, as to whether things should be changed in order to have more technology expertise coming in from other countries. I think that’s something that a lot of companies, not just Infosys, are dealing with, because there’s a shortage of really talented IT people these days.
Cook elaborated on the PR challenges inherent in that type of situation:
First of all, for all of our clients, the better we understand the business and the issues, the more effectively we can communicate. Secondly, we always encourage our clients to be forthcoming with us, to share all of the facts so that we are knowledgeable and can do the best job of telling their story. There are cases, and I’m not referencing Infosys at all, but there are cases where the legal teams inside a company are less willing to share all the details. And that can make our job a little bit harder.