Q&A with advisory board member Gary Sheffer

November 7, 2017

Gary Sheffer

By Sarah Vlazny, Page Center intern

Gary Sheffer is a senior corporate strategist at Weber Shandwick, where he advises on “high-level” corporate, executive reputation and engagement, government and cultural issues. Sheffer joined the Page Center advisory board last fall.

Prior to his role at Weber Shandwick, Sheffer was the head of global communications and public affairs at GE. As GE’s VP of corporate communications and public affairs, he gained expertise in driving company culture and fostering positive corporate reputation.

In addition to corporate communications, Sheffer brings perspective and experience in both public affairs and journalism. Before Sheffer joined GE in 1999, he served as press aide to former New York Governors Mario Cuomo and George Pataki. He also worked as a reporter for the Albany Times Union.

In a question and answer interview with the Page Center, Sheffer discussed the importance of integrity in today’s climate, and some of the ways the Center and practicing professionals can work to build and maintain trust in public communication.

What made you accept the position on the Page Center advisory board?

I would say two things. First, the quality of the people at Penn State who run the Page Center, including (Center director) Denise Bortree, and the quality of the people on the board, such as Bill Nielsen and Roger Bolton. And secondly, integrity in public communication is a significant issue everywhere today. The country is facing a crisis in confidence in the communication it gets from many sources -- from government, corporations and the media. That is why it is especially important now to restore trust in public communication. Equally as important is ensuring that the people who practice public communications see it as an honor to communicate with the public, and therefore do it with the highest integrity.

What are your favorite initiatives the Page Center conducts and what are some directions you'd like to help the Center go in?

I really like the public recognition of communicators who operate with integrity. Last year we started the awards program, and I think holding up examples of people who conduct themselves appropriately and with the highest integrity is important. They are great examples to young people in our profession. I also like that the Page Center understands that both PR practitioners and journalists use the same currency, which is facts and the truth. I hope the Center will continue to stay focused on this issue of integrity in public communication and seek to bring together communicators and journalists in that endeavor. I do think, by the way, that the fight to restore trust among the public for people both in the media and in public relations is going to be a long one.

It seems like there have been a lot of corporate scandals recently-- Volkswagen, Uber, Equifax to name a few. What role do you think integrity plays in the challenges corporate reputation and communication face today?

Companies who face difficulties do better when they are forthright and transparent about what happened, why it happened and what they’re going to do about it. Some companies have done that well, and unfortunately many companies recently have not done that well—they have, in fact, done it poorly. In the environment we’re in any lack of authentic response to a crisis—whether it’s trying to hide facts or mislead people about the facts—ultimately is going to be discovered. The days of trying to get through a crisis by hoping it goes away or seeking to mislead people are over. Companies that do well in these situations are companies that tell the truth.

What do you think the major changes corporate communications professionals will have to make going forward to adapt to this climate?

I think corporate communications professionals really have to be the conscience of the organization. They have to ensure that public communications are fully aligned with enterprise values and broadly held social values. I see corporate communications professionals as integrators within the leadership team in the C-suite. Their role is to help executives understand the external environment, social expectations, employee sentiment and how the organization fits into the issues and challenges the world is facing. In other words, you have to be the person who stands up and says “we can’t operate this way because it’s counter to our values.” Or, as we’ve seen lately with some of the social and political issues in the United States, “this is an issue that is really important to our people—our employees. It is a core value in our company and we need to stand up for this issue or point of view because it’s at the core of who we are.” That’s the new role of the corporate communicator.

What were moments where you had to voice these issues or where integrity played a role in your decision-making at GE?

I was lucky. I didn’t feel like I was ever asked to do something or say something that wasn’t true or was counter to my values. But I do think there were times at GE where I stood up for what I thought was the right thing to do, particularly when it came to our employees. In other words, I said if we’re making this decision, how are our employees going to feel about it? Or if we’re going to say something, how are our employees going to react? For example, if you value diversity and inclusiveness in your organization, you should be sure that your actions reflect your organization’s collective goals and aspirations in that area.

Did you ever have to be the unpopular opinion in the room?

Yes, that’s a big part of the job. As a communicator, you advocate based on your experience and your expertise. Sometimes your point of view wins in those situations, and sometimes it does not. But if you’re basing it on what the company stands for and why it exists, you usually get a good reception to your arguments in these discussions.

What would your advice be to public relations or corporate communications professionals that may find themselves having to make an unpopular decision or voice an unpopular opinion to C-suite executives?

Always return to the expressed values of the company and always base your position on facts and what you believe to be in the best interests of your company. Your colleagues may not always agree with you, but they will listen to you. Make your arguments grounded in your expertise and in the values the company expresses. Don’t ever make it personal, or be argumentative. The communicator has the broadest view, other than the CEO maybe, of the organization and its stakeholders. You should reflect that broad view in your advice to senior leaders.

This seems like one of the biggest challenges a communicator and public relations professional can face in his/her career. What do you think the Page Center can do to support people in this position, remind them that it’s important to keep integrity in mind and tell them to not be afraid to voice their opinion in that situation?

I think there’s a couple things we can do. Case studies are always helpful to look at who has succeeded or failed at this topic in the past. But ultimately, I think this is all about understanding what it means to be a leader in these organizations. In my experience, communicators don’t fail because they’re not good communicators, they fail because they’re not good leaders. Being a leader means running a team and knowing how to conduct yourself among other senior leaders. I think the Page Center could help by focusing on what it means to be a leader in a big company or a big organization. Being a good leader and communicator makes you more effective as an advocate for integrity and doing the right thing within that organization. 

Final thoughts about integrity…

There’s not a more important topic for communicators out there today. If you look at public opinion polls about who’s most trusted and least trusted, corporate spokespeople come in near the bottom of the barrel. Therefore, restoring our own credibility by clarifying what we do and the principles we believe in, is extremely important.