Robert Mathias, CEO for Ogilvy Public Relations in North America and President of Ogilvy Washington, was one of three people inducted into PRSA-NCC’s National Capital Public Relations Hall of Fame on Sept. 16 during a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (The other two inductees were Don McLearn and Debra Silimeo – and you can check out a profile of Silimeo in Profiles on the Capitol Communicator website.)
For more than 25 years, Mathias has been a leader in the public relations industry, specializing in issues advocacy, reputation management and crisis communications. As noted, he is currently CEO for Ogilvy Public Relations in North America and President of Ogilvy Washington. Previously, he served under the U.S. Energy Secretary and subsequently as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy. Mathias earned an MBA from the Yale School of Management and a BA from the University of Vermont.
Mathias also serves on the Board of Trustees of The Yellowstone Park Foundation, a private philanthropy dedicated to the protection and preservation of Yellowstone National Park. He is also a member of the Board of Directors for the LaGrant Foundation, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to increase the number of ethnic minorities in the fields of advertising, marketing and public relations. He also served as Chairman of the Board for the Lab School in Washington, D.C., for five years.
In advance of his induction into PRSA-NCC’s National Capital Public Relations Hall of Fame, Capitol Communicator interviewed him and our Q&A follows:
How has public relations changed in recent years?
If you look back over the last five years or so, the thing that has changed most is the advent of social and content. But really, it’s more fundamental than that. Speed and transparency now drive our business. The time with which we prepare and respond is now instantaneous. And, related to this concept is transparency. Not that we would ever advise this, but in the “olden days” it was possible to segment audiences and message to each audience individually. So, what you would say to Wall Street could be slightly different from how you could approach Pennsylvania Avenue which might again differ from how you approach Main Street. Messaging is now much more complex, faster and intricate. This means that the messaging has to be right and it must work consistently and effectively across all audiences simultaneously.
What skills will it take to be a success in PR in the coming years?
Everybody needs to be an effective storyteller but, more than that, it’s the ability to be a good juggler – one of the joys and the skills of being in public relations. As information travels so seamlessly and so fast, we have to keep all of the balls up in the air at once.
Another thing that is important is the ability to see the whole narrative arc. Being able to develop and implement a story from start to finish, and to craft a compelling argument that works across multiple audiences.
Regardless of the area business one is working in – crisis, issues management, brand marketing, etc. – creativity continues to be at the core of what we do. Our ability to capture the attention of our audiences is more crucial now than ever before. The audiences we are trying to reach – customer, investor, stakeholder, policymaker, etc. – have so many choices in front of them today in terms of where they go for information, what information they’ll process and which actions they’ll choose to take. If we don’t have a creative approach to capturing their minds, then we won’t be effective. Creativity is a core attribute for success in PR.
What lessons have you learned that you want to share with others?
Fundamentally and most importantly we are the tellers of the truth. I cannot stand the term “spin doctor.” I have worked for more than 20 years to excise it from our vocabulary at Ogilvy. It implies shenanigans, slight of hand, and that we’re creating something that’s not. Our job – regardless which part of the business we’re working in – is to tell the truth. Our job is to develop an argument with our clients that is based in fact and that helps our clients tell a story that is understood. If we stray from that message, we are doing our clients and ourselves a tremendous disservice
Who are your role models?
I have so many role models. They are the people I’ve worked for. First, Admiral James D. Watkins, Chairman of the HIV/AIDS Commission under President Ronald Reagan, and subsequently U.S. Secretary of Energy under President George H.W. Bush. I worked for him during both roles. He was a giant. Everything about him radiated integrity. He also taught me more about public relations than almost anyone in my career, and the truth was that he hated the media. He had such a clear view of the world, and he believed so fervently in the importance of being open and transparent long before being those things was ever trendy or in vogue. That was his hallmark and I took a lot from that.
And then, of course, there is the great Marcia Silverman. She was my boss for more than 20 years. She taught me about life. Marcia taught me about clear writing, and not to bury the lead. The most important lessons Marcia taught me is how to not only effectively manage people, but to lead people. She had a philosophy to let 1000 flowers bloom, and bloom we did. I’ve tried to take some of that with me as I’ve advanced in my own career.
If you didn’t go into communications, what field would you have gone into?
What I love about communications is that we are problem solvers. We solve business challenges on behalf of our clients. Whether it’s communications or some other kind of consulting, I’ve always been drawn to this world of “consultative” problem-solving.
And I want to be a chef… but neither my wife nor my children think that is a viable option.
What are the things you like to do when not at work?
I am lover of the outdoors. I’ll do anything to get outside: Hike, bike, sail, etc. I’m also a novice photographer. And, with the deep help and partnership of my wife, we have raised two wonderful college-aged daughters. And yes, I like to cook.
Anything else we should know about you?
I love my job. The reason I love my job is because of the people I’ve been able to work with over the course of my career – both on the agency side and the client side. Seldom has there been a dull day, and that’s the way I like it. I’m tremendously grateful for the opportunities that have come my way
And, I have a great family
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