May 18, 2021
Learn how communicators can be a trusted advisor to their company’s executive team with our guest John Herbkersman.
Our episode guest is John Herbkersman. John is a semi-retired senior communications executive who has served as a senior counselor for numerous Fortune 500 executives/companies.
Five things you’ll learn from this episode:
- How Jack Welch changed business operations and transparency
- Why communications has evolved to be so prominent in the workplace
- Why transparency with employees creates a better work environment for everyone
- How to properly use a communicators’ toolbox
- Being a trusted advisor to leadership as a communicator
Also available on
- “Communications has been prominent at most companies because communicating information to employees allows them to become active in the communities they serve.” — @JohnHerbkersman
- “Communicators have a toolbox of things, but before we take action we need to understand what's the goal, what's the objective? What do we want to accomplish?” — @JohnHerbkersman
- “Always be prepared. Understand what the short term business goals are for your company and the financials.” — @JohnHerbkersman
- “Prepare yourself and write down the 10 to 15, most likely crisis scenarios that can occur at your business. Have talking points ready.” — @JohnHerbkersman
- “If you have an opportunity to meet with your CEO, make sure it's a good meeting.” — @JohnHerbkersman
If you enjoyed this episode, would you please share it with others and leave us a review?
About John Herbkersman:
John is a strategic communications and marketing leader with demonstrated, results-driven experience in all facets of corporate communications and strategic planning - including public relations, media relations, reputation management, crisis communications, social media, investor relations, marketing communications, event planning, public affairs, government affairs, community affairs, and more.
Guest’s contact info and resources:
- Fortune The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time: How Apple, Ford, IBM, Zappos, and others made radical choices that changed the course of business
- Jack: Straight from the Gut
- On Top of PR is produced by Axia Public Relations, named by Forbes as one of America’s Best PR Agencies for 2021. Axia is an expert PR firm for national brands.
- On Top of PR is sponsored by ReviewMaxer, the platform for monitoring, improving, and promoting online customer reviews.
- Burrelles has a special offer for On Top of PR fans. Check it out at burrelles.com/ontopofpr.
About your host Jason Mudd
On Top of PR host, Jason Mudd, is a trusted adviser and dynamic strategist for some of America’s most admired brands and fastest-growing companies. Since 1994, he’s worked with American Airlines, Budweiser, Dave & Buster’s, H&R Block, Hilton, HP, Miller Lite, New York Life, Pizza Hut, Southern Comfort, and Verizon. He founded Axia Public Relations in July 2002. Forbes named Axia as one of America’s Best PR Agencies for 2021.
Find more On Top of PR episodes on:
- Hello, and welcome to on top of PR I'm your host, Jason Mudd. And today we're joined by John Herbkersman. John is a friend of mine and a senior communications executive who has served at numerous large corporations, including global corporations and fortune 500 helping executives with their corporate communications and doing, uh, public relations for organizations such as General Electric, Marriott, Chubb, Blue Cross, and web.com. We're so excited to have John on the show. This has been something we've been working on for a while. You're really going to enjoy this episode and learn from him as he's looking back on his career and sharing some of his advice. So thanks for tuning in. I'm glad you're here and you're going to be glad you're here to welcome to on top of PR with taste in mind, presented by reviewMaxer hello and welcome to on top of PR I'm your host, Jason mud with Axia Public Relations. We've got another great episode for you today. Today, we are talking to John Herbkersman. John is a semi-retired senior communications executive who has served as senior counselor for multiple fortune 500 executives and companies, including Marriott, Chubb, Blue Cross, and web.com. John. Hello and welcome to the show.
- Thank you, Jason. I appreciate it. Glad to be here and, uh, glad to have an opportunity to, for you and I to sit down and, and talk about our favorite subject.
- There we go. I love it. I love it. You know, this interview has been a while in the making, so thank you for making it happen. You and I have known each other for over a decade, believe it or not time flies, and I always enjoy it when we get together. Um, and, uh, you know, I don't know if it's you or me or the combination, but the conversation's always insightful and, uh, I'm always learning from you. And I hope I'm adding a little bit of value to the conversation when we get together.
- Uh, I, you know, what you do, I, I'm very appreciative when we have these conversations and, uh, I truly believe you'd never stop learning. You know, there are, there are many new things that we can do, especially as technology changes and, uh, uh, and the environment changes.
- Yeah, absolutely. Uh, John, is there any other background you want to share with our guests about your, uh, um, significant experience that you've had?
- Well, I've, I've been lucky to over the years have the opportunity to work with senior executives, with numerous companies, companies that I've worked for, uh, as an employee and companies that I've worked for as a consultant, including, uh, I spent 10 years with General Electric and, and worked with numerous executives there, including Jack Welch when he ran, uh, gender optic when he was chairman and CEO. So, uh, uh, I've been very lucky, very fortunate from even from my very first job where the CFO took me under his wing and taught me everything I had learned about investor relations and finance. And I'm one of the few back then few PR people who actually know how to read a balance sheet. Um, so I take pride in everything that I've learned and everything I've shared the years with, uh, my, my, uh, coworkers, my employees, and, and, uh, uh, the organizations I had the opportunity to help.
- Yeah, that's great. I'm looking forward to learning more about, uh, your experience working at general electric and, and with Jack Welch as well. Uh, such a legend. Um, and you know, it's funny when you mentioned balance sheet, uh, you're reminding me, you know, I didn't know how to read a balance sheet either until, uh, the great recession hit and suddenly I really cared about that balance sheet and making it make sense every month so that we could keep our doors open and continue to provide value to the clients we serve. And, and honestly, you know, that was kind of a wake-up call for me. Uh, you know, just how to be a better, uh, you know, leader and executive and, and steer and navigate the financial ship of our business. So I can certainly appreciate that in our clients, appreciate it when we bring that financial intelligence to the table also. So, um, John, tell us, um, a little bit about, uh, working with Jack Welch, what that was like.
- Yeah. You know, Jack was a fascinating individual. Um, he was one of those people that when he walked into a room with 500 people immediately, you knew he was there and he hasn't said a word, he just exude this, uh, vibrancy that made people want to sit down and talk to him and listen to him and learn from him. He was a very forthright individual. When you worked with jacket was you knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it. Um, and it gave me an opportunity to learn from that because not everybody comes in, you know, the first time I met Jack, I, you know, I knew who he was and I was at the company and everyone revered Jack or most everyone did. And, but it really was an eye-opening experience to see him interact and to listen to him and to listen to what he had to say and how he did things to always focus on helping the company be better every day, uh, day over day.
- And the focus on being number one and number two in every market reflected in how he operated the company. Uh, I remember listening to him one time, we were at Crotonville, which was GEs, large educational facility, and he was talking to the group and we're all communicators there. Uh, and he talked about people and how important he felt a leader had to spend more time on people than, than actually on the business, because it was the people who, who drove the business. He spent, he estimated 65 to 70% of his time on people understanding who they were, what were their strengths, what were the areas that they wanted to grow and what was their next move to help the company, uh, continually improve?
- I completely agree with that. And early on, when I first started this, it was just me, right. And I realized quickly, 40% of my time is just administrating the business that doesn't have any employees. And then as we started adding employees, I thought my time would be freed up to do more work. And the truth is I had to learn, uh, that the most important thing I can do is be a mentor and a guide and developing the talent that I had. And so, you know, I've learned a lot from Jack and his books over the years, uh, for sure. And, uh, you're reminding me of one of my favorite books. Uh, I believe it's called, uh, the, the greatest business decisions ever made. And that learning center is actually featured in the book about how Jack kind of turned that around to where it was kind of, you know, maybe arguably where some of the lower performing employees were sent away just to get rid of them for a while. Right. And Jack turned that around into being a destination that everybody wanted to be part of, and it was more exclusive. And, uh, according to, um, the author of the book, the idea there is that was one of the smartest business decisions GE made because then professional development was then valued even more. And it was more of an exclusive invitation to get there.
- The quote role is amazing place. I had friends who were instructors there and moved through the businesses, and that's where a lot of the instructors came from and within the businesses. Uh, and it was, uh, it was a great opportunity to learn, um, and learn hands on, uh, people, there were the instructors there and the, the attendees really had a great opportunity to share, uh, and to learn. And, um, you know, you mentioned Jack's book Jack, uh, coauthored, a number of books. And one of the things that he felt was important was to share what he learned in those books. Um, uh, a story of that is Jack wrote a book called from, from the gut and John Byrne was one of Jack's numerous, uh co-authors and John and I, uh, had an opportunity to, uh, uh, actually co co-work on one of the chapters.
- And that was a chapter on globalization where Jack shared his vision on how to, how a company and how GE specifically, uh, treated its global organization. Um, you know, and Jack had wanted to finish a book for a while and he had been in Europe and GE was trying to buy Honeywell at the time. And, uh, the European union nixed that idea. They didn't want GE buying it. So Jack came back and then let's finish this book and called John Byrne. And John called me and said, let's, let's get that chapter and globalization done. So I spent a week shut in my office, just typing away, furiously trying to get that information out, gave it to, uh, John, John did his magic and Jeff took it and it sends a book. It's a whole book is fascinating. One of my favorite books from Jack. Um, but it was the way that, you know, we work together and Jack encouraged people to work together.
- Jack encourage people to also take off on, on their own. And there's a story in there about that. Um, we had a young man in Indonesia who was, uh, very young and he was running the business there. And he came up with an idea. We had annual business planning meetings and he came up with the idea that he wanted to start lending money to lease motorbikes, which was what our bikes are a very large part of the business in Indonesia. And he told in the meeting that he had a plan to, uh, to lend money and they had never done it before. And Jack Jack was not finance nerd with that idea, but he gave the young man an opportunity to said, I'm not going to stop it. You go ahead and do that. And in a year's time, we'll see where you are. And if you didn't hit your numbers, you're probably not going to be around very long, but this guy did, he worked, he got it done. He had a great idea. And a few years later, still it, as a young age, he was running all of Southeast Asia for the GE capital business.
- I was going to say, it sounds like that's GE capital in the making. Right.
- And it's fascinating the opportunity to work with I had to work with Jack.
- Yeah, that's great. Um, what are some, uh, so the book I was mentioning earlier, um, is by Verne Harnish, who is well-known for writing Rockefeller habits. And so we'll put a link to that in the show notes and a link to the book you're talking about in the show notes, uh, what are, you know, maybe what are your other top two books, uh, by Jack that you would recommend to someone who maybe hasn't explored his writings?
- Yeah, I'm going to be real honest. It's hard to pick two. I recommend it. If you have, if you really want to learn about business, find a topic. And I tear it just, if you, if I hate to say this, Google it, and one of Jack's books is going to appear because the things that he covers over his various books cover a variety of topics. I'll tell you one of the things that Jack stressed time and time again was, was open book management, the idea of sharing the numbers with every employee. It was amazing in our heyday, if you, you could talk to a senior executive, or you could talk to the person who was cleaning floors in a plant, the janitor, and everybody knew where that business was headed, where the numbers were. I think it's being transparent. And I think Jack was one of the pioneers of being transparent to employees.
- Um, making sure everybody under known because everybody had a part of the business. Everybody had a role to make that business successful. Uh, and it didn't matter who you are communications as a discipline was. It was and continues to be very, uh, prominent at GE as they should be at most companies because communicating information to employees, helping people, employees understand their role, understand where the business is going, understand how the company makes money and what is necessary for the company to do within its environment, within its business culture, within the, uh, the culture of the city, state country it's in, uh, being able to become a very active and productive partner in all of those communities. Um, and Jack pioneered that he, he, he didn't want, you know, GE employees while I was there. And they continues are very prominent members in their communities. They share, uh, whether it's working with organizations like habitat and humidity, humanity, or whether it's working on boards of small nonprofits or large nonprofits, uh, the company has had, and Jack was a very large proponent of this to participate in and build your society and make it better, uh, and leave the organization better, uh, every day.
- Yeah, love that. When I think of Jack, I think of, uh, transparency and accountability, which you alluded to both, and just how, you know, he was a big believer in, you know, you invest in your best people and you expect them to do well. Uh, John, one thing I've learned from you, uh, over the years, and you mentioned it earlier, so it was a good trigger. Is your expression. Uh, when you say, um, are, when you say, make sure you understand how the business makes money and where that money comes from. And I remember, uh, when we first met, that was one thing you told me about, uh, you know, when you were at, uh, uh, blue cross, you know, that there was something to come in and bullies. And one of the first things you did was ask them, uh, how the company made money to see how well in tune to the business side of the equation were.
-And, you know, I think we see where people, they have a territory or a lane, you know, that they're so focused on and it might be the company newsletter. And I produce this company newsletter and it's a first-class product, but then you have to ask yourself, well, how does this company newsletter help the company make money? Why does this exist? And, you know, in many ways kind of to question everything and, and that's, you know, and as you know, a great strategist ask why often, but, uh, maybe you could share a little bit about that and kind of your philosophy there with our audience,
- You know, communications. And I'm going to look back in my, over my career, back in the days, uh, you know, communications, bent stuff, someone would come to you and say, I need a press release. And this was, you know, years ago. And it still happens in organizations and you go to the person and they produce a press release and they give it to you. And, you know, you're gonna, you're gonna promote the business to a lot of, through a lot of steps, a lot of things, and communications really, you know, over the years, I learned very early on that. It's not stuff. Those are tactics, those are tools, right? So the communicator, we have a toolbox of things, but the whole idea is to understand at the end of the day, what's the goal, what's the objective? What do we want to accomplish? And then like anyone like a doctor who meets with the patient and understands the, you know, understand the symptoms of the patient and then goes and utilizes his or her toolbox to help that patient get better, right.
- We're practitioners in the same way and strategists. So we look at it as a whole. We look at, we understand the business. We say, okay, how is what w what is our goal to make the business, meet its goals and objectives. And then we look at all the tools that we have, and we say, okay, which one of these is going to be the best to help that, or which combination of the best. And we look at the new technologies and we look at who our audience is. We look at every aspect of this, and then we apply our trades to get that done while looking at the big picture and understanding, you know, if PR is doing, wants to do X, what is marketing doing? What is sales doing? Uh, you know, what is the employee organization doing and how do we meld that? So it's all together and we're not working in opposite directions, or we're not working in opposite terms, but we're all working together. And how's that gonna, you know, smoothly layer on top of each other to get the job done. We're not doing this in isolation. We're not doing this with the tunnel vision. We're doing this with the goal of what's the overall objective of the organization,
- John. That's great. And with that, let's take a quick break and we'll come back on the other side with more from John Herbkersman talking about executive communications and leadership in public relations.
- You're listening to On Top of PR with your host, Jason mud, Jason is a trusted advisor to some of America's most admired and fastest growing brands. He is the managing partner at Axia Public Relations, a PR agency that guides news, social and web strategies for national companies. And now back to the show,
- Hello, welcome back to on top of PR, this episode is with John Herbkersman. John is a friend of mine in the business, and somebody I consider to be a trusted advisor and mentor, and he's just sharing a lot of good information. And the second half, we're going to spend a little bit more time focused on, uh, senior or executive communication and being a trusted advisor to leadership and some practical tips, and maybe even some stories of how that's been done with John. And so, John, welcome back to the show again, we're really glad you're here. And, um, uh, so yeah, give our audience some advice here as a senior communications executive, you're probably to a variety of audience. Some of these folks are your peers who are working at large companies, and some of them are more entry level. Folks are maybe getting started, uh, at the agency level or at a mid-market size company or something like that. But, you know, kind of share with us, some of the lessons learned in your career, John.
- Okay. Uh, one is always be prepared. First thing, no, everything. And that we've talked touched about this a little bit earlier, but know everything about your business, know who Frizzell know who the executives are. Uh, uh, it's, it's embarrassing. If someone calls you and say, you want to talk to who, and you really don't know who that person is, uh, but be prepared, understand your business, understand what your, uh, short-term long-term business goals are for the company, uh, understand the financials for your company. Uh, number one. So always be prepared with that information. Also, one of the things that I've spent a lot of time working on is crisis communications, be prepared, today's environment. Things can turn on a drop of a hat or a tweet or almost anything, uh, over the years I've learned. And I took, and we prepared a crisis communications book, whether it's online, or I always had an online copy and a hard copy.
- So no matter how it was always had it, but prepare yourself for what are the 10, 15, most likely scenarios that are gonna occur at your business. So be prepared, have talking points ready, even if they're generic, you can always fill in the who, what, where when, but you got to know, um, and, and make sure that you're, you review that on an annual basis because things change and technology changes. The environment changes. Um, what was not on the radar a year ago is front and center today. So make sure that you're constantly reviewing, you're always prepared, uh, cause you never want to get caught off guard. Um, so that's, that's two, three, know your executives get to know them. What do they like? What don't they like? Um, if you have an opportunity to, to meet with your CEO, make sure it's a good meeting, make sure that you're prepared make or other senior executives.
- So you're not asking them two questions that seem sophomore or show that you may not understand the business as, as well as you should. In one way to help you prepare is to find a mentor. Um, my very first job right out of college, I thought I knew everything because I had, you know, what a great PR background I understood journalism. And I thought, man, I'm great. And the CFO came up to me one day and said, Hey, John, I need some help preparing a presentation for our investors. So I thought, all right, I'm going to do it. She just said, let's meet tomorrow afternoon. I went up to his office the next day, sat down. He started talking about everything on the balance sheet and all the areas. And he could tell my eyes are glazing over because I have no idea what he was talking about.
- And he stopped. And he said, you have no idea, dude. And I said, I'm honest. Nope. He said, okay, that's going to stop here. What we're going to do is we're going to meet every week and we're going to go a little bit. We're gonna go over a little bit of everything when it comes to financials. So the company understand why, how we make money and every aspect of that. And I was so grateful. And of course, a few years I could read that balance sheet as well as anybody. But the idea was that he was willing to help. I was lucky that I had someone who approached me, but I also was going to approach somebody afterwards, probably not as high as him. After that meeting, I was going to go to someone I knew at a lower level who might be willing to give me some help, help me understand the idea is to be prepared. So you don't run into what I ran to. And it was very embarrassing and I'll admit it. I was unprepared. And I thought I was, but I wasn't so understand your executives. Go ahead, Jason, you're going to ask the questions.
- I was going to say what a great opportunity, uh, you know, and I think that everybody should be as fortunate to have that opportunity to have somebody take you under their wing and, and meet with you on a weekly basis to help you do that. And probably that was great for your career as you began to advance, uh, you know, through the ranks at other companies. So that's fantastic. And I'd just encourage our audience to find a mentor, no matter how many years of experience they have and no matter what company they work at today, I mean, we all need mentors and, uh, people we can call on, uh, you know, when we're dealing with a difficult situation or somebody who can help us understand, uh, the, the context and the content of material we're not familiar with.
- And you know, it doesn't have to be someone who works in PR or, you know, works in marketing step outside of your comfort zone. You know, if you work for an insurance company, talk to someone in risk, talk to someone in actuary, you know, those are the people who see the business intimately every single day. You know, if you're in healthcare, talk to the doctors, talk to the nurses. If you're in biotech, I had a, uh, I worked for a small biotech company for awhile in, in Maryland. And, uh, you know, these guys really are rocket scientists. I mean, not really what they're all PhDs, right? And then to take the information that we had to share to a lay audience to the media is very difficult, but our director of research was an MD PhD, and he could take the most intimate, intricate, I should say terms in scientific terms and turn them into everyday language. Right. And it will joy to work with him because it was so easy to find it have him. And when we're in front of the media, have them understand some very complex detail. Uh, we were pioneers in developing DNA markers back in the nineties. Um, and most reporters didn't understand this. So having, you know, finding the right people in the organization who can not only help communicate your message, but help you understand.
- Right. Absolutely. So I'm very clearly hearing a theme of, uh, prepare, prepare and prepare, right. Uh, you know, what other tips might you give for, uh, dealing with executives, executive communication, and working on behalf of the company,
- Be willing, be willing to go out on a limb, take risks. Absolutely. You've got to take risks, but you can't take a risk that's that you're not prepared for. Risks are things that you understand, risks are things that you can positively help the organization, but people are afraid to take risks at higher levels at times. So you've got to show them not only show them, tell them about the risks, but tell them why it's it makes sense, help them understand and be prepared to have them say no. And Nope, they don't want to take the risks. They want to take the easier way out. They want to take the less risky way out and again, be prepared to still take that term and, and do you know, do it, maybe do it the less risky way, but knowing that you have your, and you're prepared, if the risk turns its head and it comes, becomes a little ugly and something else happens because you weren't as an organization willing to go out as far on a limb, as you, as you probably should have.
- Right? So, so take, be prepared to take risks, challenge your CEO's challenge, the conventional thinking, uh, again, but be prepared on showing them why your, your counsel is telling them to go this way and, and make sure help them understand and show them, uh, what you feel you strong, why you strongly feel that the outcomes will be better if they take these steps. Um, don't go in and be cowed by someone who's, you know, very charismatic in. And, you know, we know executives have a bit of an ego, you know, cause they don't get there for not unhappy without having that ego for the most part, but be willing to stand up for what you believe that's going to help the organization. It's always gotta be tied into why is it going to make it better for the organization, no matter what organization, whether you're it's a school system or it's a hospital or it's a not profit or not for profit, it doesn't really matter. Be prepared, understand the risks, be willing to go out there and, and push for what you think will be the best outcome.
- John, that is fantastic. And we are right about at our time together and time flies when you're having fun and an encouraging and challenging conversation. And I love how you ended there with, you know, challenge your leadership team, uh, be to be a trusted advisor to them. And I'm a big believer in always asking the question, why, why are we doing this? Why does it matter? Why does anybody care? Um, and I think by asking a series of why questions you get to, you know, what's really impactful and meaningful to the audience you're talking to. So, uh, John, with that, um, if our audience wants to connect with you, are you, uh, active on LinkedIn? Or how might they best reach you?
- You can reach me on LinkedIn, you can reach me on Twitter. Um, and those are probably the two best way I'm regularly on those. Those are the only ones I really use professionally. I am on Instagram too, but I really don't do a whole lot today.
- Yeah, same here. Same here. I understand. Well, John, this has been a great episode. Thank you so much for your contributions. And I want to thank our audience for their loyalty and creating a community here that stays on top of PR. And, uh, we want to thank you for watching. And if you found this conversation beneficial and I'm sure you did, would you take a moment and think of a colleague or a friend in the industry who would benefit from hearing John's words of wisdom, uh, and, uh, and in some way, if this has inspired you, uh, share others with it, uh, share that information with others that might be through leaving a review or a comment. And, uh, we just appreciate you and we appreciate the community that we're building here for on top of PR. Thanks again for tuning in.
- Thanks. This has been on top of PR with Jason Mudd presented by ReviewMaxer. Be sure to subscribe so you don't miss an episode and check out past shows ontopofpr.com.