Bud Liebler | 2013 Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech

Thank you, Lisa, and Good Evening, ladies and gentlemen.

Thanks for being here and thank you PRSA for naming me to the Detroit PRSA Hall of Fame. It’s truly and honor and I’m grateful for the recognition. Sometimes you wonder if anybody ever even notices the efforts you make on the job every day. Well, at least for me, this recognition says they do.

I’m very proud to enter a fraternity with the likes of friends and former associates Jim Tolley, Steve Harris, John Bailey, Jerry Sloan and Ray Eisbrenner and, of course, with last year’s Hall of Fame inductees Jim Bianchi, Ron Hall and Larry Weiss.

I also want to add my congratulations to Jennifer Day for winning the Robert Hefty Distinguished Service Award. I was privileged to work with Bob Hefty a hundred years ago. He was a consummate professional, a gentleman, a task master and a person who cared a great deal about others and about the public relations profession. You can be very proud, Jennifer, to earn an honor bearing his name.

Working at Chrysler was a dream job for me. I had incredible opportunities working with a very eclectic but capable team of people in management and with an unbelievably hard working and talented PR team.

We were media savvy and media friendly and we tried very hard to help the media do their jobs while getting our stories told. They weren’t always great stories, or even good stories, but we encouraged management not to hide from the bad ones and we tried very hard not to mislead reporters when they called.

We were fortunate during my time at Chrysler to have a leader in Lee Iacocca — really two leaders in Lee Iacocca and Bob Lutz — who were willing to work closely with us as we worked with the media. We had earned management’s confidence over time and they made sure we always had a seat at the table.

They also allowed us to do some pretty crazy things at auto shows – things like driving a fresh off the assembly line Jeep Grand Cherokee up the steps of Cobo Hall and crashing it through a plate glass window in front of a few thousand very surprised journalists…or dressing Bob Lutz up in a Mr. Rogers sweater and having him read a bedtime story about a baby frog to Bob Eaton, who was then our brand new chairman but was dressed up like a little kid himself, to help explain how our new minivans “leapfrogged” the competition. Ex-Marine, tough guy Lutz had real some trouble getting his head wrapped around that one, and it was Eaton’s first foray into Chrysler-style Auto Show showbiz, but they both went along with the gag and it got a ton of coverage for our new minivans. We were everywhere and our stock price went up by about 3-bucks during that show.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Far from it, in fact. We faced a national outcry over the infamous Chrysler Loan Guarantees in Congress in 1980, followed by recall after recall, poor quality reports on our new K-cars and other products, ongoing and very public, front page verbal wars between Mr. Iacocca and the Japanese, the national debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, disappointing sales and profit reports, a hostile takeover attempt by Kirk Kirkorian AND Mr. Iacocca two years after he had retired from the company, and the infamous Daimler Chrysler “merger of equals”. Enough said about that!

We had almost a year’s worth of a public and very ugly battle with NHTSA – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – about what they said was a defect in the tailgate latches of Chrysler minivans. 58 people died in minivan crashes during that period, all of them thrown from their minivans. We argued that there was no defect, that our percentage of incidents resulting in death was actually lower than any competitive vehicle, but that we had so many more vehicles on the road, driving so many more miles with so many people per vehicle that the numbers looked worse than they really were.

All this was true but the perception was that too many people were dying in Chrysler minivans. And remember, in our business perception is all that really matters.

At one very tense Saturday morning meeting with the senior management team I asked the question, “What’s it going to take for us to take some action? How many deaths are too many?” I suggested the answer was one.

The following week we agreed with NHTSA to issue a “Service Action” – not a recall — to inspect all minivan tailgates. There was no admission of guilt because we sincerely believed there was no guilt, that our minivans were the safest on the road. During that six or so month period, I personally appeared on “Inside Edition” seven times defending minivans and the media was after us every time a minivan was involved in as much as a fender bender. In the end we did the right thing but in my opinion, we waited way too long to do it and our sales and reputation took a hit in the process.

Nevertheless, a year or so later, in 1996 Chrysler was named “International Company of the Year” by Forbes Magazine. Our new products were all hits, sales and profits were soaring and the minivan fiasco was behind us. Life at Chrysler in those years was a roller coaster, up and down all the time. There was never a dull moment and being in PR allowed me to be at the center of it all.

As you’ve seen and heard, I’ve been in this business quite awhile now, off and on for nearly 50 friggin’ years! So what have I learned about PR during all my years in the PR business? Well, for openers it became very apparent very quickly that the answer to the question we’re all asked when we’re starting our careers, “So why do you want to be in PR?” shouldn’t be, as it so often is with nervous job seekers, “Well, I like people and I’m really really good with them!” Liking people is definitely an asset, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Here’s a quick refresher.

Start with the need for impeccable writing skills, especially writing under pressure – and to you younger PR folks in the room, if you don’t have those skills, run out this door right this minute, past the black jack tables, and find a way to get them. It’s essential. And while you’re at it, throw in some grammar lessons, too.

I learned early on that you have to be comfortable and absolutely confident in your communications – in writing or face-to-face – at all levels, up, down, and across audiences.

You have to be a strategic thinker and consider every option before taking any action. How will your communications be received? Will they meet your goals? How might they backfire…and what will you do if they do? You always need to be at least a step ahead.

You have to be able to answer tough questions that you don’t want to answer without being dishonest, discourteous or misleading and without giving away the store or, God forbid, going the “no comment” route. And you have to be ready to see your words – and your name – in print, on the radio or TV, or on the web, associated with those words for everybody else to see. As if that concern isn’t enough, add to the challenge the fact that you’re speaking for someone else, generally someone who outranks you by several levels, outearns you by more than that, and holds the key to your professional future in the palm of his or her hand. It can be very dicey.

You’ve got to be able to defend your company or client when it’s under attack and your knees are shaking and the lump is about to break through your throat.

You’ve have to be able, as they say, to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…and, trust me, they will! You’ve got to be cool under fire.

Unlike advertising, whose job I believe is to create awareness and sell products or services, PR’s job is to create clarity and credibility often when there is no clarity, while problems are still in the process of being solved. Regardless of the circumstances, you have to use the right language and the right message at the right time, every time to succeed. As the philosopher Cicero said 2,000 years ago, “If you want to persuade me you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings and speak my words.” That hasn’t changed in 2000 years.

So PR is a whole lot more than just “liking people” and I think all of us can be justifiably proud of the profession we’ve chosen. The good news is that I think businesses and other organizations are appreciating the value of PR more every day and that bodes well for our profession.

And speaking of “our profession”, let me say one thing about our professional association. We’re all lucky to have PRSA in our corner. PRSA has the job of explaining and promoting the profession and defending it when it’s under attack. It polices the industry to keep ethics top of mind and it provides education and training to keep practitioners current with the latest state of the art. In retrospect, I wish I had been more active in PRSA because I believe so fully in its mission, but I spent most of my so-called free time trying to support and cheerlead for the City of Detroit, which is where I want to end my comments tonight.

As every one of us in this room is painfully aware, we are living in unprecedented times here in Detroit, and we’re all hoping for some sort of miraculous rebirth for our city. A phoenix rising from the ashes. Well, rather than just hoping for the best I think that we as PR people all have a role to play in making that hope a reality.

Amidst all the burnt out street lights, unfunded pensions, threatened artwork, and slow-to-be answered emergency calls, Detroit has a surprising and growing number of really positive stories to tell. As PR people who call Detroit, or the Detroit area, home, I think it’s our responsibility to help tell this story. We can make a real difference by taking the opportunity every chance we get (and we’re all talking to media around the country, or around the world, every day) to let them know that it’s not all bleak all the time around here, that there is positive momentum and growing hope almost verging on confidence that Detroit will once again be a great city, smaller for sure, but still a center of innovation, ideas, and enthusiasm for the future.

I personally believe that helping to tell that story is an appropriate and valuable way for all of us to use our talents and give back to the city and I hope each of you are already doing or will do your part. Our hometown has never needed us more.

Thank you again, PRSA. I’m truly honored to be in your Hall of Fame and I’ll do my best to continue to deserve and earn the honor.