Joyce Hergenhan began her career as a journalist for Gannet newspapers, was Vice President and Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Consolidated Edison Company, and eventually, in 1982, landed at General Electric as Vice President of Public Relations. Hergenhan also served as president of the GE Foundation. As GE’s senior communications executive, she worked closely with then-CEO Jack Welch during the company’s transition from manufacturing to diversified technology and services. She remained at GE for 22 years, retiring in 2004.
Hergenhan’s professional recognitions include the lifetime achievement award in public relations from Women in Communications (1999) and a lifetime achievement award from Inside PR (2000).
Interviewer: Cinda Kostyak
Videographer: Karen Mozley-Bryan
Interviewer: Well welcome, Joyce.
Hergenhan: Thank you.
Interviewer: It is wonderful to have you here. It is April 9, 2008 and we are at Porter Novelli and Joyce came down from Connecticut, away from the golf course in the middle of the day to spend a little time with us to talk about her career and her thoughts on public relations. So, why don’t we start out looking at your early career. You received a bachelor of arts and then eventually an MBA from Columbia 15 years after that. Worked as a journalist for Gannet and as press secretary and speechwriter for Ogden Reid. Describe your experience working in various fields and how they prepared you for a career at Con Ed (Consolidated Edison Company).
Hergenhan: When I was in high school and college, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a print journalist. I loved writing. I loved the world around me, so at Syracuse I had a dual major in political science and the newspaper and I was editor of the college daily newspaper there and I figured I’d start a career at the Associated Press, which was a good place to start a career as a journalist. So they were interviewing on campus, and I went to the interview and the first thing the man said to me was. “I don’t know why I am wasting my time talking with you, I’ve never hired a woman and I never will. And in 1963 it was perfectly legal for him to say that. And of course I spent the next ten minutes trying to convince him he was wrong, but to no avail. So I went back to work that summer at the paper that I had worked for in northern West Chester the previous summer. And I was there for about a year. I was a big deal. I was 21 years old and I was covering town government and politics and it was kind of fun. Then I went to work for a Congressman, for Ogden Reid and I did that for four years and then he recruited me. I covered him a few times. He recruited me. Then Gannett Papers in West Chester County were always trying to convince me to come back and after four years of working for the Congressman, I was getting married and I didn’t’ want to be commuting back and forth, so I joined Gannet and I was at Gannet for four years and I covered, once again, I covered politics, government, a lot of business. There were no real business people back then so I feel that I covered a lot of business and I wound up covering Con Ed because there were rather tumultuous times at Con Ed. And they recruited me for a job, so I went to work there, as a manager of public information and in a few years I was vice president then senior vice president of public affairs. And here in Manhattan and it was crazy wild time, and my favorite Con Ed story if I may digress is that in July 1977 was the great black out. And I was the assistant vice president for public affairs at the time. My boss, the vice president, was in Israel. So I was acting vice president. I was also going through a divorce. I was going to school full time at Columbia and it was just so much going on in my life. And I had just moved from my house into a one room sublet apartment on the 29th floor at Columbus Avenue and 66th Street and at 9:30 at night I just walked into the door (I’d been in a study group with my pals Joan Crylich and Emily Marks, my two friends from Columbia Business School), just walked in the apartment. Took off my clothes and the lights went out. Well up until the previous Saturday, four days earlier, I lived all of my life in the suburbs. The lights always went out; car hits pole, lights go out; branch hits wires, lights go out. This is in the middle of Manhattan and the lights go out. I looked out the window and sure enough, I mean all of Manhattan was dark. So I called the Con Edison energy control center, which ironically was two blocks away, was the West End and 66th, and a guy answered the phone and I said “Hi John. I said this is Joyce. I am here in Manhattan with no electricity. What happened?” And he said, “We lost the system.” And I said “Oh, how did that happen?” And he said, “Well, we lost some lines to lightning, dah-dah-dah.” I said, “Fine, I said I’ll be right over to the control center, just make sure security keeps all the media out on the sidewalk, and I‘ll be right there.” So I quickly got dressed and ran down 29 flights of stairs. Actually, which put me in the basement, which I forgot. No building has a 13th floor, so I ran up a flight of stairs. I got out onto the street. Of course it was dark. Chaos. Horns were honking. It was just unbelievable and all of a sudden I realized that in my haste to get dressed, I’d put on a pair of jeans and a magenta tie-dyed T-shirt with a frog with a butterfly on its nose. Okay, off goes the Con Ed spokeswoman, dressed like some lost hippie. So I get to the emergency control center and I go upstairs and I get a quick briefing as to what happened. And so I go down to the sidewalk where there were throngs of media, as you can imagine. I mean, and of course here we were in Manhattan, which is totally blacked out, and those new Trump buildings on the other side of west end had not been built yet so you get a clear view of New Jersey. And of course New Jersey is all lit up; and here we are in Manhattan and it’s all dark. Terrible place to be standing, I have to tell you. So anyhow, I explained what had happened; that there was this and, oh, for 100 degrees for ten days in a row at that time. The city was so hot. And we were importing a lot of power from upstate New York and from Canada on these big transmission lines. And there was a horrible lightning, thunder and lightning storm up in Duchess County and it took out two of these big transmission lines, and that put the system into total over-balance, because there was more draw on it than it had energy coming into it. And so in order that it didn’t blow up, it shut itself down. Okay short version, anyhow, so I go through all this and I explain all this to these reporters and this guy is giving me a bad time. Lightning, you mean to tell me that Con Ed can’t design against lightning. I said Con Ed uses the most up to date, you know, advanced things there are, but lightning? You know, lightning is an act of God. You can’t always prepare for an act of God, okay? Two days later Village Voice comes out: Con Ed blames God for blackout. I should have brought it with me, it’s a great headline. Con Ed blames God for blackout. So that was my enduring contribution to Con Ed and Charles Luse, who was the CEO then of Con Ed, long time CEO, died about a month ago from this day, actually two months ago this January, and in his obituary his family asked me to write the obituary which I did, but of course the Times did their own thing of it. And so, in the obituary they had poor Chuck saying, “Act of God” and he never said it, it was I, so, but thanks for going back and that’s how the coverage was so frantic during those 24 hours and the city was without power. Anyhow that’s my Con Ed story; I wanted to say that for posterity some place. Anyhow, so I was there and really enjoying Con Ed. And I was senior vice president and so I loved living in Manhattan. By that time, I moved out of the one room sublet and had a nice condo, nice co-op on 79th Street. And thought I’d spend the rest of my life there, and one cold winter’s day I got a phone call from a search firm guy named John Johnson, from a firm called [inaudible] and Associates and he had a position that I might be a candidate for. We had dinner to talk about it. He wouldn’t tell me the name of the company. When he told me enough I figured out, that’s probably GE, and so we had dinner and didn’t hear anything for a month or so, so I figured he's not going to call so I don’t care. He also confirmed that it was GE. So then a month or so later, I hear from him again, apologized for taking so long, but they wanted me to go up to Fairfield, Connecticut, to meet with a guy named Frank Doyle, who was the then senior vice president for corporate relations of GE. I said fine. So I get, so I tell Con Ed that I am taking the day off and kind of had dental surgery. I was having so much dental surgery at the time, it was very plausible that I was having dental surgery. And so I took the day off. And the night before going up there, I broke my toe and I don’t know whether you’ve ever had a broken toe, but they hurt. You can’t wear shoes. There’s nothing to treat a broken toe; it will eventually heal itself. And you just try to wear shoes that you can get on your feet, and in my case I had to use something I already owned. I had to leave for Connecticut very early the next morning; I did not have the luxury of going shopping to buy things. So I had this old ratty pair of beat up sneakers and it was the only thing I could get on my poor foot with the broken toe. So I show up in Frank Doyle’s office and I think I said, “Hi, I am Joyce Hergenhan, nice to meet you. I don’t always wear sneakers, but I broke my toe and these are the only shoes I can get on my foot.” I said like all in one word. I was so mortified that I was walking into his office wearing sneakers. I’m sure he wouldn’t have noticed. Moral of the story, you know, don’t obsess about things, like the fact that you are wearing the wrong shoes. Look at me. I am wearing flip-flops. They are comfortable, you know. That’s what I do. So anyhow, so since I met Frank, and then another month went by and didn’t hear and then I had to go back because I had to go and meet the vice chair John [Burlingham?] so again I went up to Connecticut. Okay, again I said I had a dental situation and so then a month passed again and I hear that everybody is a candidate for this job, and, but I have to meet Jack Welch. Okay, well, Jack Welch is famous; Jack Welch had just become CEO and Jack Welch was just a punk kid who had replaced great Gregg Jones. Obviously I did a lot of research on this subject, pre-Internet I might add. I had to use the old Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, anyhow. He wasn’t Jack Welch. He was a kid who replaced Gregg. So anyhow, so I said to the headhunter, I said I really can’t take another day off to go to Connecticut. So Jack will come and sit and have lunch with you and I walked into the restaurant, which was Le Park and Jack were already there, and I shook hands with Jack. Hi, Hi, okay. He pulls out an envelope and he pulls out the papers from this envelop. And it says here that you are a sports trivia expert. Are you? And I said Jack that search guy talked to everybody that I’ve known since I was four years old. I have no idea what’s in there. But are you a sports trivia expert or not? So what do you do? I said okay. Try me. So he said, “Who played second base for the 1946 Boston Red Sox?” And I said Bobby Doerr and he said but who held the ball? And I said you mean who held the ball when Enos Slaughter scored first base on a single to win the 1946 World Series for the Cardinals against the Red Sox? He said what else would I mean? I said Johnny Pesky. And he said that was too easy. Let’s talk about something else. That was the beginning of my job interview with Jack Welch. That’s how it started. And the reason why he did that was that he never had a woman officer and he never hired an officer from the outside. All their people had grown up within the company, had gone through their training programs and you know, moved from Fort Wayne to Cincinnati, Schenectady to Lind usually GE way, but they never brought in an officer from the outside, especially a woman. And it was very much of a locker room macho kind of place. And he figured that a woman who knew something about sports, would be less different. And so we had an interview and I got offered the job, but I couldn’t decide whether to take it because I loved living in Manhattan. And I was working for a CEO who didn’t much care about the public affairs aspect of the job at that point; a new CEO, his name was Arthur Harlsburg and he was an engineer and he didn’t care about going to parties at Gracie Mansion or doing all the stuff that kind of went with the territory. And I was enjoying that and I figured going up to suburbia where everyone comes by two by two by two as a divorced woman. This might not be fun. So I agonized over it for like a week and finally I was told, okay make up your mind. We have to know on Monday morning. So that Sunday afternoon, I was with a friend of mine; we were watching the, I was agonizing with him all afternoon. We went bicycle riding and we had gone back to my apartment, no I think we were in a bar, and I was still agonizing over what to do. And the US Open Golf Tournament was on the TV at the bar, and it was when Jack Nicholas was in the clubhouse with the one stroke lead and Tom Watson was on the 18th hole, 17 green, approaching 17th green. When he hit the ball into a bunker and all the announcer said he had to play the safe and just chip it up a little bit and play it safe, otherwise he runs a horrible risk of hitting it way over the green. So what does he do? He goes for it. And it went into the cup. And it was one of the most famous shots in the history of golf. And that happened as I was sitting there agonizing. I said okay, that’s my omen. I am going to go for it. And that’s how I decided to get here. It was because Tom Watson hit a ball into the cup. Anyhow so that’s how I wound up at GE. My life has been fun. In case you are not getting the point. Yeah!
Interviewer: Well let’s talk about GE. Talk a little bit about your time. It was 22 years, right.
Interviewer: Okay, okay when you started there, Jack was new. You were new. And GE was transitioning from, am I correct to say, a manufacturing company to a service company?
Interviewer: Now, you are in this new position and you have to be aware of this new expanding role of General Electric, what was that like.
Hergenhan: Yeah, there were challenges because to begin with one of the things that was new at GE was Jack. You have to understand Jack. He’s very strong-willed, strong-minded. High energy. Decisive. And he figures things out. He’s very strategic and very tactful, he’s just very, very smart. And he saw before anybody, how global the world was getting and how competitive things were. And so we were going to get out of businesses that weren’t big money-making businesses for us and we were going to close down that phase that was inefficient and we were going to manufacture things, maybe in Mexico rather than in California. And so in 1982, GE closed down a steam iron plant in Ontario, California, that and the work was going to be sent out of the country. And that wound up on 60 Minutes because no one had ever done that before. It was the first time a healthy company had shut down a factory just to move the work out of the country. So I said it was such news that it made 60 Minutes. And so the world quickly learned what was happening at GE, but not in the nicest possible way. They were seeing the factories being shut down. Some old-line GE businesses such as house wares, some still think GE makes toaster ovens and irons. They haven’t in 25 years. GE sold the business. God, GE was selling the birthright by selling that business and moving all these jobs, shutting down all these factories, and so it was pretty bad right then. And as a matter of fact, shortly after I joined the company, a cover story in Fortune Magazine was "Toughest Boss in America" and it was Jack, because he was doing this kind of stuff, so that’s kind of where I started. I started with this and so it then became a question of trying to educate not just the media. Our own employees had a very important audience which is your own employees, which you never should forget. So it was our own employees. It was the media. It was Wall Street. It was government agencies, I mean there were a lot of constituents involved here and the most important thing in this is, tell everybody the same thing. I think a lot of times people tell their employees one thing. Tell Wall Street something else. And they want to find out. Not true, especially today. We’ll talk about that later I suspect, and that’s what it’s like today in a 24/7 world. So that was quite a challenge and I just think we did it by a consistent message and also we began to get results. And other companies began to copy GE, which I think gave it credibility. You know it’s tragic for some of these little towns where the only game in town was a GM factory or a GE factory or an IBM factory or something. I mean tragic for these little towns. But for the greater enterprise to survive, and for America to stay competitive, otherwise you’d have a country here with, buying nothing that was made and sold by a US company. It will all be companies from southeast Asia or Latin America so that was quite an interesting time. You know educate I would say communicating and educating all these audiences about what we were doing and why we were doing it.
Interviewer: Let me ask you something. This was a time of crisis for you. Did GE have a code of ethics or mission statement you could follow?
Hergenhan: Yeah I don’t know whether there was one before I joined the company. I was not aware of one when I came. But early on, Jack said that we need to do this. What we believe in; who we are; what we believe in. And rather than having some person like me sit down and write something, it was kind of thrown open to all kinds of groups at all levels to come up with ideas. And then there was something developed by a huge you know consensus. Then it was circulated to a whole lot of other people. So it was a thing that had a lot of parents and it was organic. It wasn’t something that was hoisted from above. And so yeah and I think it had a lot more value being done that way.
Interviewer: This was something that, did it get pulled out in times of crisis?
Hergenhan: Absolutely. People are this is hard for them. And you know it'd be nice if everyone carried one in their wallets. And a lot of people did. A lot of people did. We were in staff meetings and one of my guys would pull it out and say well you know while we are doing this we should think of this, you know which I thought was always very interesting.
Interviewer: Let’s talk a minute about the GE Corporate Executive Counsel. You served on it?
Hergenhan: Yes I did.
Interviewer: And what were your primary responsibilities? What kind of counsel? Did it help you and in what ways, as a PR Practitioner?
Hergenhan: It was mainly, for me, for most people there, it was really information exchange. Sharing experience. Met quarterly for two days at Crotonville, which is GE’s executive trading center. And it would be the heads of all the major businesses plus senior and corporate staff offices. So there would be oh, between 25 and 30 people there at a time. And each of the businesses would give a report and it wasn’t supposed to be a dog and pony show kind of report. What issues are we facing? And how we were proposing to deal with them, that kind of thing. People would chime in and you know somebody might be facing a certain issue. Somebody else might be facing two years ago and it was a big information kind of freewheeling. The only set part of the agenda was the order in which people were going to make their little presentations. Otherwise it wasn’t like you know ten minutes here or fifteen minutes here. It was very organic as far as, you know, as needed for the conversation. And a lot of ideas were put forward there and we kicked around concepts. It was just for me. I didn’t have to do anything except listen and occasionally someone would say well Joyce what do you think? PR in tact with me or what do you think the reaction. I would make that kind of contribution but I didn’t have a lot of. I didn’t do a lot of talking. I listened. It was incredibly educational for me. Really that’s why Jack had the meetings because he used them to find out a lot of things were going on and get interactions and have ideas exchanged.
Interviewer: So everyone knew what the other was up to?
Interviewer: You mentioned Crotonville.
Interviewer: Tell me about that. How that worked and how you were involved.
Hergenhan: Okay executive education, management education, very, very important at GE. It has an absolute core value at GE that you should always be learning, always be learning, and so a lot of the people we hire directly out of college in fact most of them are hired in the programs financial management program. Business management program, marketing program, engineering a couple different engineering programs and the idea of these programs are that you are learning how to. In addition to having jobs but you also have an educational component to it. That you know your first couple of years there, you are constantly learning. You're on a program for two years in most cases and then as you get more jobs and move up in the organization, there are all kinds of courses at Crotonville for all levels of employees, there's a new management for example. There are courses on communications, effective communications sort of way. There is management and there are three courses that are kind of taking people who are considered the high potential people in the company and take them through these new courses and the first one is the manager development course, MDC. Then the second one is business development, BDC The third one is executive, EDC, and the first one, the management development one, there might be like 6 of those a year, a 6 separate sessions of them. The second one, the business development one, there might be three separate sessions. By the time you get to the executive development course, which is one session a year. So you can see it is really a pyramid thing. And the final one is an easy one. Are people who are probably on the verge of having officers or actually some new officers coming in. So it’s, but there’s always something going on and also some businesses use it to bring customers there. And it’s just, it’s huge. They keep adding dormitory space. I was there for a retirement dinner a few months ago and stayed over night instead of driving home at midnight in the back woods, and I was amazed that it had been three years since I’d been there that they had these new dormitory rooms. That was really huge. But it’s like a college campus and classroom buildings. It had a dormitory, a very nice dormitory building. Recreation building. All kinds of public spaces and it’s I think it’s used probably 360 days a year.
Interviewer: And entirely GE?
Hergenhan: Entirely GE.
Hergenhan: Except for other companies that will bring customers in there. Otherwise it’s GE.
Interviewer: Well, you mentioned your position as a woman and the comment that was made to you in I think 1963, lets talk a little about women in the corporate world and look at this in general, and then specifically at GE. Now in ’79, Glamour named you, I think the title was one of the “Working Women of the Year” and then also in Business Week you were one of the “Fifty Women to Watch.” Talk a little bit about your experiences as a woman working for corporate America back in the late 70s and early 80s. What was that like?
Hergenhan: Practically everything I’ve done in my life I’ve always been the first woman, the only woman, first-and-only woman, so after a while I got accustomed to it. It was interesting. Public reaction. A lot of men, especially older men, really felt women had no business being in management or executive positions, absolutely. A lot of them, when I was at Gannett, I was a star reporter, I was good. You know I was good. And there was an executive editor there who was my boss’s boss who absolutely hated me. And he made my life, but it was almost, it was sexual harassment without the sexual harassment. I know that sounds weird. But that’s what it was. And so when Con Edison offered me the job, that’s why I went there. One of the reasons I went there was I just couldn’t stand working for this man anymore. There was nothing I could do about it. I mean he’s my boss’s boss. What could I do about it? But after I got to Con Ed, I was the first woman manager at Con Ed. I had like 20,000+ employees. It wasn’t a small enterprise. And I called some officer, I needed some information about something, so I called some officer to see whether I could come over to his office. Get briefed on whatever it was. And he said you have to get back to me and then he called another guy another officer who was new and he said some woman named Joyce called me saying she was a manager of media relations. Is she really? Do I have to talk to her? Okay that was one time and that just human nature. That wasn’t Con Ed. My other Con Ed thing, and this was terrible. There was a certain officer, at the time former career service guy. I was riding up on an elevator with him one day. And I was wearing a dress that had an animal print on it and he leaned over and he grabbed me here and he said “My that’s a pretty little tiger.” And I was like, I hit him! I was so amazed. And I hit him. I went back and I told my boss, who was okay, my boss at the time. And I said this was horrible. And I said I want to report him to somebody. I said this can’t be allowed. And my boss said to me. That was just Frank being Frank. Boys will be boys. And stuff like that happens all the time, you know, and so as more and more women came into the I mean I had no where to turn. My boss said boys will be boys! My boss was a wimp but anyhow it was like okay. So there were things like that. My first general management meeting at GE, there were, they used to put out these books, kind of face books, almost pictures with 100 word biographies before these general manager meetings so that everybody would know who everybody was. And so my first year that I went there, in that book, there were 510 men. I still have it, obviously because I mean what a cool thing. 510 men and me. And it was that way for three or four years. I was the only woman officer there for until I think, about 1989 so, so I mean after a couple of years there were other women at the general management meeting. One year there were two. The next year, there were three, but the officers meeting which was 120 or so I was the only one for many years and I was a girl.
Interviewer: And they were Jack's boys.
Hergenhan: But I knew sports, so that made it, I mean less different. If I were like, if I didn’t’ know sports, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I knew that there would not have been anything to talk to them about. It was a locker room type of place. It really was. You read Bill Lane’s book. You get the feeling that it was you know very much macho and it was locker room. Jack on the other hand was terrific. I mean Jack was very willing, you know, to give women opportunities and give them a chance and really encourage others really encouraged his people that you know there are all these great women out there find them. Promote them. Develop them. Train them. Young women today have no clue what it was like. Young women today so many of them want everything. You know they want the high six figure job but they also want three children and a house in the country and they think that they should have it all. In my generation, I made choices. All of my best friends during that period were women who were also in careers and were still. There are five of us who are still very friendly today from the Con Edison days and none of us have children because back then in the 1960s and 70s it was really either or. And now women today so many of them. I know so many of them think they should have it all. And they get angry when they feel their employer isn’t giving them enough time off or something. I tell them its a balancing act and I tell them nowhere is it written that everyone deserves something just because they want it. But it seems like they have more choices anymore.
Interviewer: Were you ever in an experience where Jack Welch refused your counsel and you felt so strongly about it, that conflicts would arise..
Hergenhan: Well, Jack as I said, has a very strong personality, however he didn’t want yes people around him, he most certainly did not want assurance people around who were just going to agree with everything. He liked push back. There's no question about it, and so we had some pretty good back and forth, and when I felt that I was right, I mean I'd be tenacious! Showing him why, and marshalling facts and not just emotion, but facts, and in those cases, he eventually would see my point because I was just so, I knew I was right. I knew I was right because I just had a different perspective than he did and some of them were silly and then some of them were quite serious. But he valued good advice.
Interviewer: Were there ever comments, problems where the argument, the advice, was coming from a woman, and the way every one else would interpret what was happening? Would it be different if the arguments were between you and Jack Welch than when it would be between another male counterpart?
Hergenhan: Oh he abused all of us. He was an equal opportunity abuser. In a nice sort of way I mean, he was fun.
Interviewer: In June 2005, you received the Arents Award from Syracuse University for excellence in corporate communications. In today's society, how important is corporate communications in fostering trust and credibility with the public, and also, do you see a problem with that change in terminology? In other words, instead of being quoted "the PR person," suddenly the more general terminology of communications, in charge of communications is being used. Do you see a problem with that? Is that making the value of PR less important?
Hergenhan: Well, I've always considered it more communications, because as I said a little bit ago, there's so many audiences out there, including your employees, and I don’t think employees should think that they're getting something that’s meant for an external world. I think communications is the better term. I think in some corners, public relations has become a majoritive, and I think communications is a more neutral word.
Interviewer: So how important is this communication?
Hergenhan: Totally, it’s totally important. Why is it important, how can you leverage? Things are transparent now. If you start talking about the New
Media, that it’s instantaneous... It’s unbelievable. I mean, the combination of Sarbanes-Oxley and the New Media has totally changed communications. It’s just amazing, because Sarbanes-Oxley, and I'm on a corporate board of directors, and it’s amazing what Sarbanes-Oxley makes a corporation do. Of course the New Media is just absolutely amazing. 15 years ago, who'd have thought of telephone cameras, or YouTube, or video streaming or any of this stuff? I was just thinking the other day about the whole Hilary Clinton thing where she said that she was dodging bullets in Bosnia. She was telling the world she was dodging bullets in Bosnia, and some TV network pulled out a clip of that very arrival in Bosnia, which was all sunshine and flowers and cheerfulness and within hours, probably less time, it was on YouTube and it was being e-mailed around the world, I think everybody must have gotten multiple copies of that, and just think how long ago none of that would have been possible? So that just shows why telling the truth is so important, because there’s very few places to hide anymore.
Interviewer: Let's talk a minute about education, PR education, communications education. Do you believe that this next generation of PR practitioners will be equipped with the core values that are necessary to allow them to ethically resolve these complex problems and issues that corporate CEOs are facing nowadays?
Hergenhan: Well, there are good people in every generation. I don't think values belong to any particular generation. I think that today, I think that people make the mistake of taking too many courses about the practice of PR and not enough courses of substance to learn about economics, or history, or finance or whatever. I know the reason why I, well I got my MBA while I was working full-time at Con Edison, and the reason why I did it was that suddenly I was being responsible for an annual report and I literally didn't know the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet. And so I went off and got an MBA and it was invaluable for me, absolutely invaluable because you learn how to talk the language of business.
I think that people, students, young practitioners, they have to just keep learning, and they have to have just a very broad knowledge of things, or at least a broad knowledge of how to find out things to give them continuing credibility and being on top of the world. I think a child-like sense of curiosity is wonderful. I think it helps. I'm still a child.
Interviewer: Here's a hard one: what are the most important issues, those enduring truths that you've learned in your career?
Hergenhan: Always tell the truth. Number one: always tell the truth. Number two: I think that is the thing that I have pounded into people, that I was lucky, its sort of innate to me, and I just pounded it into so many people...always tell the truth. Because number one: you'll never forget what you said and number two: you'll never have to, ya know, go backtracking, like the Hilary Clinton example! That is the absolute number one principle.
Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about, I don’t know when this was, or if you still are...are you still president of the Philanthropic arm of the General Electric Foundation?
Hergenhan: No, no, no. I retired from GE in January 2004.
Interviewer: What was that like, that whole experience, of being president of that organization?
Hergenhan: Oh I enjoyed it. It was wonderful. Jack was about to retire as CEO and Jack was CEO of the company and there was a vacancy for the presidency on the foundation, and I just thought; I’d work for Jack for like 19 years at that point; and I just wanted to do something else. I didn’t want to continue the 24/7 thing with a new CEO, and so I just moved over to them and I asked Jack, and Jack was, "Great idea!" And it was fun. You do good things and you see tangible results of doing good things. You know we did a lot of industry education and so it was very tangible.
Interviewer: What was your best accomplishment. What are you most proud of that you have done in your lifetime? In your professional lifetime, well, it doesn’t have to be your professional lifetime.
Hergenhan: Probably, this may sound wierd, I just think the fact that I made my parents really proud of me. I came from pretty simple circumstances. Neither of my parents went to high school. My mom was a stay at home wife and mother and my dad was a policeman in a small town. And so I just, I worked hard. Obviously, I was lucky that I am reasonably intelligent, but I worked hard at everything I did, whether I was a check out girl at the supermarket when I was in high school or a kid reporter working 80 hours a week. I worked hard. But I think the fact that my father died early, he didn’t see all of my success, but my mother did and I was her little girl and she was just so proud of me.
Interviewer: Well let’s get back to counselors here. The aim of The Arthur Page Center, that's located at Penn State University, is to help individuals become counselors to leadership. How do you prepare yourself for something like that, to be a good counselor?
Hergenhan: Well I think first of all you better have a pretty good knowledge of the subject matter that’s involved in this, whatever industry or whatever it is. I think that knowledge is so important that you have to make decisions from a point where you know something. So I think, clearly, just become absolute experts on whatever is at hand here and I think you have to show that you are a team player. I think that you have to obviously always tell the truth and that’s like he said, always tell the truth in every situation. But I think you have to be candid. You have to know when to fight back. But you have to be armed with facts. It’s really I think, that knowledge and the ability to communicate clearly. First to the leadership that you are trying to counsel, and then subsequently communicate to whatever the larger audience is whether it’s the media or government or Wall Street or employees. And so I think communication skills. The ability to think and communicate clearly is absolutely, absolutely essential. I am appalled today that so many people really can’t seem to write. I think that I go around saying everybody should take news writing 101. It teaches you how to write clearly and precisely. I used to get all these job applications from people claiming they have great communication skills and great research skills. Well, half the time they spelled my name wrong. Great research skills you have there, kid. And the letters would be so ungrammatical. It was just like, you know, people can’t write today. And I take pride in it. I like it when others do too.
Interviewer: If you were hiring let’s say a student would come to you and they want a position, what characteristics, besides the writing skills, what other characteristics are you looking for?
Hergenhan: High energy. Communication skills, obviously, both written and spoken. High energy. A pattern of accomplishment that they’ve done something and stuck to it. Maybe some actual writing, as in deadlines. I always liked kids who were editors of the college newspapers. I just think that it shows number one, a dedication to the craft, and number two, you know they are not going to edit particularly, so you read and see they can write and can write up to deadline but high energy, and also likeable. You know I always said, I always had my theory that there are probably a hundred people out there or 100,000 people out there who could do this job. Yes, you are going to have lots of people who technically can do this job. But you are going to spend ten hours a day with that person. So make sure it is somebody you want to spend ten hours a day with. True though.
Interviewer: That is. Well, we’re sort of in wrap up phase here and what haven’t we talked about? Is there anything that you would like to talk about or like to tell the next generation or perhaps 20 years down the road a researcher might be...
Hergenhan: Twenty years down the road, I can’t predict or imagine what communications is going to be like. I mean it is moving forward exponentially. It’s like, you know, camera phones to iPhones to these little computers that cost $300 and they are just as good as a big computer, all the functionality, all the speed. It’s just text messaging, right? I am sorry that little chirping is my Blackberry saying I am having messages. I can’t predict what it’s going to be like 20 years from now because 20 years from now. Twenty years ago I never would have predicted. Twenty years ago we were just getting faxes. You know at the office and I was yelling at people, I had some consultants who didn’t have a fax. I made them get a fax because it was so annoying that they didn’t have a fax. So that’s how fast. I mean I grew up on a manual typewriter. And hot type. You know those old typesetting machines. You know with the pressers roaring. I mean it was just, and that wasn’t that long ago. It was the era of hot type. No computers.
Interviewer: Sure. Absolutely. Talk again a little bit more about your accomplishments and things you've done in your lifetime that you're proud of.
Hergenhan: Well as far as I said. I feel proudest about is I made my parents so proud but as far as professionally I was trying to think what thing professionally because I’ve been involved with so many and the thing that I think I'm proudest of is that in December following 9/11, I convinced GE to fund the Tower of Light thing down here at the tip of Manhattan, and the idea was conceived by a guy named Kent Barwick, who was then chairman of the Municipal Art Society president of the art society. Kent was a very close friend of mine in Syracuse, and we actually worked together on the daily newspaper at Syracuse, and he was down here as president of municipal art society and I was at that point head of the GE Foundation. And he came up with the idea of the Twin Towers of Light, but they needed a lot of money to do it and quickness and everything else and so I convinced GE to do it. And that, of course, is just enduring picture and I fought. I fight with GE because there were a lot of people who didn’t, thought it was less than the world’s best idea.
Interviewer: Well, thank you.