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Penn State Live
|Oral History with Helen Ostrowski|
September 13, 2009
Ostrowski: My birthday.
Interviewer: Your birthday, that’s correct. Thank you so much for taking time away; well you’re here for a conference on your birthday as well, but thank you for spending some time with us. So let’s get started. If you could just talk about your career path following graduation from New York University, through your time at Porter-Novelli, and what you’re doing now.
Ostrowski: A quick synopsis of that is I started working right after high school. I was a secretary and I was brought into the public affairs division at American Cyanamid, which was a Fortune 200 company, no longer around, but well known for being in the chemical industry and pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, etc. I spent ten years there. I worked my way up. I went to college at night at NYU while I worked during the day and eventually was promoted into an internal communications spot. And then I was cycled through a number of positions. I was very lucky because in those days—this was back in the early 70’s—that department had some very, very senior people from the industry generally, who had the time to spend with a younger person. That made a huge impression on me because it really taught me the importance of giving back, which is something I’ve carried through all my life.
After I left Cyanamid, I went to Schering-Plough for five years. I worked in the corporate department for a while, corporate communications. I was very fortunate. We had a new CEO; he needed an internal speechwriter, so there I was. I was 28 years old; I got to work with a very charismatic CEO who taught me a lot about how CEO’s think, and what’s important to them. I often thought about that after I became a CEO myself. And then I moved into the international pharmaceutical division at [American] Cyanamid where they were really practicing marketing communications at a global level, but as part of our profession, I would say it was really at its infancy. Then after that I decided I needed to break out of the corporate world and probably get some real hands-on work. So that’s when I moved over to the agency side and I worked for a couple of smaller health care public relation s agencies so I got a chance to work on marketing programs for products, which was great. And then Porter-Novelli hired me [in 1993]. They brought me in to head up the healthcare practice in New York. We had a lot of very good pharmaceutical companies that we worked for and my job was to grow and expand that. When the position for the general manager at the New York office became open, I moved into that and ultimately I became the CEO in 2002. I saw the agency through a huge amount of change over that period of time and I would say about two or three years ago we started talking about the fact that I would really like to retire early. I have an older husband. I have a lot of things in my life that I still want to be able to do. So I felt it was important to also turn over the reins to new leadership, additional leadership that I’ve been cultivating over the years. So we put in place a succession plan and in 2008 I moved to half time. I proposed to my parent firm that I should become chairman for a year, which would provide the kind of transition they were looking for and the agency was looking for. I did that and then I retired at the end of last year.
2. Interviewer: How did that early exposure at Schering and Cyanamid prepare you for the success you’ve experienced in your career, and particularly working with those various constituencies—the employees, management, shareholders—what happened in those early years to really help you master that?
Ostrowski: Well, I would say, when I worked at Cyanamid, we had a very senior group of people in the department. The department was headed up by a former Associated Press guy. Those were the days when a lot of people typically who went into public relations, came from the media side. I would say that we just had a very focal leadership and we had a lot of challenges as a chemical company. We had issues of compliance with government regulations. This was even before the Clean Air and Water Acts in the United States, so there were huge pollution issues and environment issues. We had issues of health and safety on the job for our workers.
One of the things I remember very vividly [is that] one of our units was Dr. Scholl’s—they made shoes and they produced them in Falmouth, Kentucky. This made a huge impression on me. I will never, ever forget this from a number of vantage points. We were working one day and my boss came in and said they’ve decided to shut down the plant in Falmouth Kentucky, so this was essentially in a very poor region of Kentucky. There were no other employers in town. The plant had about 800 people and it was the only plant they had in the United States. The reason they were shutting it down was the shoe imports were killing them from Japan and they really couldn’t afford to be in the business anyway. I was assigned to go down and handle the communication with the local government officials, the union people, and of course, the employees. I will never forget the day that I walked out on the plant floor with the plant manager and all 800 people who had probably worked there their entire lives, and they were told that the plant was going to be shutting down. There were grizzled men on the assembly line who started to cry. One of the things that taught me, was first of all, they had no clue. They had no idea that the business was on the verge and they were so shocked and said can we buy the company back? That reminds you of the need more than ever in changing environments, but today you’ve got to really be able to bring your employees along with how is the business doing; what is your role in the business; how can you help it improve; here’s our strategy; if you have a strategy make sure it’s clear; involve your employee audience. Because when you don’t, that’s the kind of situation you’re facing and it’s just distressing for everybody.
The other thing that taught me, this was not the only instance, but at both Cyanamid and Schering-Plough, if you have a coordinated program to reach out to different constituents, that really is important. I think what that’s taught me is you need to have that dialog beginning much further back, and that has really helped me through a long period of time. Much of that I was able to put into practice when I got on the pharmaceutical side and you needed to work with third party organizations, patient groups, physician groups. Maybe you were going to have a new drug launching in a couple of years and you really wanted to help bring them along as well as the other constituents.
3. Interviewer: Speaking of pharmaceutical companies, you spent many years working with these companies and there seems to be a lack of trust in the United States by our citizens in those large corporations. How did it all come about and has that relationship between the industry and the citizens improved at all?
Ostrowski: Well, my personal view on this is that when pharmaceutical companies first began, they were really propelled by the age of medicine in the 40’s and 50’s and all the scientific or medical discoveries were coming out. The antibiotics, for example, were one of the first new waves of medicine. Many of the people who worked in the industry were very focused on the doctors and the pharmacists for the most part. There were some regulatory bodies at that time that were important and they grew in importance, obviously, over the succeeding years. But what the industry did not do a very good job of was that it didn’t really reach out to other constituents. As the industry grew, they had more scientific discoveries; they became more profitable; they got bigger; their profits became very strong. Wall Street sat up and took notice. Regulators started paying more attention. Once you get larger, you’re sort of a bigger deal. But when Americans in particular, not just Americans but certainly Americans in particular had to start paying more of the costs that were involved and people started looking at the cost of pharmaceuticals. If they had to pay some more of it, or perhaps they couldn’t get it so easily any longer or whatever the issue might be. So there was much more focus being paid.
I think the long and short of it is, as the industry began to change it did not really focus on building strong relationships and having a dialogue and a relationship with some of these newer groups that it never felt it needed to cultivate. It always said, “The patient is not really the person that we deal with. We deal with the doctors and the pharmacists.” Well, they’re the end user[s] and you better have some sort of understanding of where they’re coming from and a relationship. So I think over a long period of time that relationship, to the extent that it ever existed at all, has been very thin, very fragmented. It’s been very difficult because many pharmaceutical companies have become very firmly entrenched. Also Wall Street has gotten used to, or at least had gotten used to very healthy profits. Only recently have pharmaceutical companies had to actually start laying people off because the business has suffered. So you have kind of the perfect storm for them, under pressure from Wall Street to deliver on profitability, screaming public and regulators about practices, about pricing, about all sorts of issues.
So I have long felt that the industry has needed to take a completely fresh look and stop hiding behind arguments like, “it costs so much money to develop a new drug.” Yes, it does, but there are reasons why that occurs and there are fundamental issues that the industry probably will need to address over the next twenty years or less, I think, we’re going to see some improvement there. It’s not to say that they haven’t made some improvements already. I think they have, but the basic issue of trust is still an issue.
Interviewer: Right—in the U.S. public—but does this exist in other countries? The circumstances are different in other countries, but it does exist elsewhere?
Ostrowski: You’ve begun to see trust issues emerging in the U.K. over the past ten years and in other parts of Europe. You have socialized medicine in a lot of countries and that has been a place where people can hide. But there are issues in marketing practices. They’re more heavily regulated in marketing practices, or have been in Europe, for example. You couldn’t do consumer advertising for the longest time on RX drugs. So again, that’s another factor in the United States. We’ve had that for quite some time so that’s another visibility thing and people look at the cost of the drug; they look at the cost of an ad campaign and they [say], “Well if you could cut out some of your marketing expenses, maybe the drug wouldn’t cost so much.”
So I think that as regulations have started to shift in other countries for better, for worse, you’ve seen some of those changes. I will point out [that] Japan has had a very interesting model. There had been a fair amount of trust in the pharmaceutical industry in that country because they have a very different way of managing industries in Japan. The government sort of gets involved to help—not regulate so much—but all the pharmaceutical companies in Japan don’t chase after the same drug for a blockbuster so you spread out the cost of drug development among fewer entities. So you can argue whether they’re innovative or not; that’s kind of a whole separate issue, but they have had a different model. They also have brought in the public a lot more.
I remember hearing a presentation when I was on a panel with a few people, including the head of the pharmaceutical industry in Japan. He related the fact that in Japan, they frequently would bring in patient groups to come view how the drugs get made, meet some of the people who are behind them, and creating a relationship that we never really had in a lot of countries, and particularly the United States. So I think you see variations across the world. The fact of the matter is [that] pharmaceutical[s] [are] a huge business; it’s global. You’ve got issues of pricing across borders. You’ve got importation of medicines. There is really a chance for the industry to look at itself globally in a fresh way, I think.
4. Interviewer: Let’s move into a discussion about social marketing. Porter Novelli was founded in 1972 and credits itself as being the founder of social marketing. Could you tell us about that and share some specific campaigns that you were involved in, that really focus in on the social good?
Ostrowski: OK. Bill Novelli, who was one of the three founders of Porter-Novelli really is credited, and I think in a large part with being the father or the pioneer of social marketing; he was actually an advertising guy and also had worked in the Peace Corps, along with Jack Porter and Bob Druckenmiller. But they took the principles that they had learned from the advertising business and they applied them into how [we] can use that to create social good. How can you use marketing to change peoples’ behaviors and create a social good?
One of their first clients actually was the National High Blood Pressure Education Program. At that time, Americans really didn’t even know what the term hypertension was and there were no treatments for it really, but they were starting to emerge from the clinic and it was a terrible problem. People were dying due to heart attack and stroke. So they hired Porter-Novelli to put in place a social marketing program—not just to educate people about what hypertension was—but to change Americans’ behaviors about getting tested, because now [if] you could get tested and understand what it is you’re looking for. So there was a number associated with that, your blood pressure reading. You could track it; there was a treatment for you that you could take that would help lower your high blood pressure. Also involved in that was better eating habits, more exercise, so a lot of different people or groups could get involved in that effort, not just pharmaceutical companies or physician groups, but also groups that were interested in physical education, schools, or whomever it might be. Over the length of that program, I can’t remember now the actual statistics, but a few years ago the government published a statistic on morbidity and mortality from heart attack at least and it was unbelievable in terms of how much it had fallen over that intervening period thanks to a long-term social marketing program, essentially. So that’s a good example of how that’s gotten used.
Back then when they had the campaign, you had to use things like mailing videos to people; you had to actually have a physical town hall meeting. If you were going to have an event, you had to get flyers out. Today, if you could use the social media that we have at our disposal, you can only imagine how much more you could have compressed the timing of that campaign and probably had either the same results in a shorter time or even better results. So it’s a very good example of both I think the application of social marketing, but also how that can carry through and what happens when you start to use social networking among peers, and then you overlay that with the technology [we have] today. If you have that campaign you can just put that technology on top of it and use that.
5. Interviewer: Has the Internet, the new media—Twitter, Blogging, and so forth—I think it’s kind of an obvious question, but has it made public relations more or less ethical and why?
Ostrowski: I think that it should in the end make—that sort of begs to question as to whether or not public relations was unethical to begin with, which I would say from a practice standpoint, I don’t believe that to be the case. I have always believed—even before the advent of the Internet in such a big way—that if you were doing some research for a company or a client, you were the PR person or the agency and you were doing some competitive research, it would be patently wrong to call up a competitor and pretend: I am a student at X University and I’m doing some research on your company. Could you tell me about blah, blah, blah? I mean, a lot of people did that and that’s just wrong. That is not what our profession is about.
What is one of the Page Principles, the first one? Tell the truth. So if you’re predisposed to lie or to misrepresent yourself or your company, it doesn’t matter, pre or post-Internet, you’re going to do that anyway. The same thing with Sarbanes-Oxley; if you were going to, like Enron, misrepresent and falsify and lie, cheat, and steal essentially, Sarbanes-Oxley is not going to necessarily prevent that. That behavior will continue. So I think it’s sort of a behavioral issue. What I do think has changed is that due to all the social media tools now, the transparency now is so much greater and it’s immediate. You really have no margins for error. There’s no place to hide. So actually that should be very liberating and it should be very good for public relations. There are no more rocks that people can hide under, or if they can, not for very long. So I think what that has highlighted for our profession, however, is that we have to really be incredibly vigilant about transparency issues, not just the way we practice our craft, but for our organizations, whether they’re our own companies, organizations that we work in or whether we’re agencies and work for them. I think that is what has really changed I think forever, the environment in which we operate.
6. Interviewer: OK, let’s talk a minute about women in public relations. When you became the chairwoman of Porter-Novelli, you were really the first female CEO of a top ten public relations firm. Is that correct?
Interviewer: So did the career path that you followed to that point include any obstacles to your progression just because you’re a woman?
I think for me, I never really set out a career path to say I want to be a CEO. What did occur to me at some point after I got to Porter-Novelli, and I was pretty senior as I got up through the ranks, we were going to have a change. One of the original founders would be retiring and we’re going to have a new CEO. It was very clear who that person’s going to be and they needed to set up—sort of the president of the United States for the North American region or whatever it was. It came down to that there was another candidate and me and the guy that was going to become the CEO wanted to satisfy both of us. So he said we’ll split up that job and you’ll do this portion and he’ll do this portion. I went home and thought about it and, now probably about ten years earlier I would have said Oh yes, that’s fine. But I came back and I said that just isn’t going to work for me. I said I recognize that you’re going to need a clear-cut person in that job and if it’s not me then, you know what, let’s talk about it. I’m not going to leave tomorrow, but let’s talk about what the future looks like. Probably it would be better for me to move on. I had never done that in my life and it really felt very empowering in a way and he said to me, “well thank you very much. I really appreciate your candor; I appreciate your honesty.” I don’t know what would have happened had the other person stayed. As it turned out they left and I ended up with the North American job. So who knows? Would that have helped me or not, I don’t really know, but the rest is history. The CEO that took over stayed four months and then I was just in line. They all left and I was the only person left standing. Maybe not so easy, but that’s kind of how it happened. I had not expected to become a CEO; at least not any time soon and I was older than the person who had the job before me, not by much, but by a couple of years. Life is funny; you never know.
7. Interviewer: What was the biggest challenge that you faced during your career?
Ostrowski: I’ve had a few that are memorable, some of which I probably would not want to recount for the record. I would say the biggest challenge for me was when I took over Porter-Novelli. It was right after 9-11 [and] the industry was having a really tough time. It was really a time of great change for the agency. We had some issues that we really had to deal with and one of my challenges was really to find something that would help motivate the entire global operation. It was an interesting situation because the agency was a global agency, but everything outside of the Americas did not report to me. It was split up at a higher level inside our parent firm. So I had a global brand, but I didn’t have any say over how it was expressed outside North America or outside the Americas. So one of the things that was important, as I say, was to find a way to bring our workforce together, to motivate people and also to create a strategy for the agency’s future so that we would be able to have a future that was going to be meaningful and successful. So we embarked on a program that involved about forty of our senior leaders in Europe and in the United States and—actually globally, I would say. That was really designed to find what was the agency’s proposition? We knew we were formed in the social marketing mode, but that wasn’t the only work that we did. It tended to be what we were known for, but the fact of the matter was that it was maybe only ten to fifteen percent of the agency’s revenue, so we had a lot of other work we were doing.
Without going into detail, the process really was extremely empowering for our senior leadership. It really bonded that group together. Not so much that they bonded to me, but they bonded together as a leadership team, and that was hugely important to help us rebuild the agency and have a positive path forward and really engage our employees. So it was very time consuming. There was a lot of travel involved, but it was definitely the right thing to do. Again, I took some lessons from my early days with that whole idea of you have to be honest with your workforce, about the current state of your affairs; whatever they are—positive or negative; what the future looks like; how are we all going to get there together; what’s expected of you; what we promise to be able to deliver, whatever that might be. That was not perhaps the scariest challenge I had, but it was certainly one of the most major challenges. The others would be more individual, I would say, more personal.
8. Interviewer: What are the abilities and characteristics that senior staff looks for when they’re interviewing potential employees? Hopefully ten or fifteen years down the road, scholars, but also students are going to be looking at this and what are the kinds of things that they should know and need to understand?
Ostrowski: I think certainly there is the technical part of our craft that changes. Twenty or twenty-five years ago media pitching, for example, was an important skill. It isn’t to say that skill isn’t as important in its current configuration today and it will probably look different again in twenty to twenty-five more years. Writing has always been—I can’t imagine it won’t continue to be important to us in a profession; how you present yourself; how you present your ideas; those are important skill sets for our profession. I think there are others that are emerging, perhaps they should have been as important twenty-five years ago, but I think that the skills for success in our profession are the ability to see around the corners. We’ve been more, as you know the writers of the press materials, the statements, and the messaging people. What we need to understand now in a much more integrated world, much more complex world, all the drivers that we have; the three main drivers that The Page Society has identified, between globalization, stakeholder empowerment, and the new media — I like to think of it as social networking on steroids with the new media. Those trends have really created a much more complicated environment for us and the potential of public relations in that I think is huge.
9. Interviewer: Let’s look at the international realm. When you were with Porter-Novelli, it had many offices, across the globe—in the ninety’s or something—and thousands of clients. You became an expert at counseling the international client. Can you share any experiences that highlight again, challenges, but in the realm of the international—a challenge or a certain situation that you handled when you were counseling in this international realm?
Ostrowski: I think that companies have certainly gotten much better at their global communications. Public relations is—even though we have global programs and deal with global entities—it’s still a local profession in the sense that you’re dealing with people who live in the community; customers; you have different cultures; you have different languages; you have different practices; all that stuff. So you overlay global on top of that and it’s very tempting to say one message is going to be the message. There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t get me wrong. You have to have a sure sense of who you are as an organization, but I have always found that very often the ‘not-invented-here syndrome’ reigns supreme in many organizations. So I’ll relate a story—this was actually a couple of years ago, but I think it was a good eye-opener for everybody—we were working on a program for a new drug launch. It was going to be a global entity and the client was a big pharmaceutical company and they had a group of people that would come together twice a year and we would share marketing and the public relations stories and what we were working on. The company was a U.S. company, but the people running the program were from the U.K. To make a long story short, I remember this distinctly, we were going around the table and everyone was presenting what they were doing in their market and the Italians got up and everybody started looking at their watch, and it was really rude. So the guy from Italy got up and he describes the program they’re doing. The guy from Spain sitting across the table said, “we liked that program so much that we adopted it too, and it was a great idea.” The thing that was so remarkable to me was that you could see the Brits and the Americans going, “Wow! They came up with a great idea like that.” It was not because they happened to be Italian or Spanish. It was just because it wasn’t U.K. or U.S. I think that one of the things that I’ve always tried to counsel global companies in, including at Porter-Novelli, is that great ideas can come from any place and you have to have mechanisms and a way for people to share those [so] that they can filter up through an organization so they can get a chance to appraise them and see if they fit in a greater context.
Certainly one of the basic fundamentals of any relationship, including that of your own employees is making sure that people feel that they are getting credit for having come up with something, even if it never ends up getting implemented, but at least people feel that someone has been listening to them and understand that here’s what they’ve been able to say. I think that’s extremely powerful on a global scale and it’s something that you can easily overlook. I’m not sure how I would formulate that right now today in advice I’d give a client, but I do think that it is one of the things from a global prospective that you really have to pay attention to.
10. Interviewer: OK, great. So we’re almost done. I’ll let you decide. Do you want to talk about which of your accomplishments you’re most proud of or do you want to talk about important issues and enduring truths that you’ve learned in your career?
Ostrowski: Oh my. I’m going to try to sort of wrap that up together in a way. There are all sorts of enduring truths that I think we can all have, but I’ll go back to what I said at the beginning in my career. When I first started working and I had the benefit of working with people who were willing to give of their time to teach me. They didn’t have to do that. It wasn’t part of their job description, but they really wanted to help [me]. I think that I have always felt that responsibility throughout my life and I have always tried to pass that along—pass that favor along. At any point, I don’t care if you’ve been in the business ten years or twenty-five years or thirty years, you’re learning something that you can pass on to someone else. In the beginning, many women were accused of not helping other women by sharing what they knew. So I think women in some ways have a bigger responsibility even than might otherwise be the case. So I’ve always tried to pass that along whenever I give a speech to a group of young people, students, my own employees, whomever it might be, that they have a responsibility to give back, not tomorrow, not next year, but today. So you work with somebody to help someone.
I didn’t actually realize how well that was working until I actually retired and I sent out my notice; I sent out letters and so forth and I still have saved every one of the emails I got back. I got back hundreds of emails. They were mostly congratulations, but what sort of came through to me which was very rewarding was how much you helped me; how much I learned from you; I’m taking those lessons now and passing them along; whatever it might be; but with that idea of giving back. For me if I had to look back and see what was the proudest thing that I ever did, my best achievement, I feel that was it, which is why the teaching for me is really going to be a lot of fun. I also think that you get back what you put in. When you put that kind of effort into giving back, you’re going to get back just as much. You’re going to learn new things. You’re going to get back the real sense of satisfaction, but I also think it keeps your mind active and you just constantly have that process of learning and developing, which you have to keep until the end.
11. Interviewer: So is there anything else that you might want to share with us; anything that we haven’t touched on?
Ostrowski: Other than, this is 2009, and had I actually stayed at Porter-Novelli this year, I would have been literally working in the business for forty years. So 1969 was a seminal year, from a societal standpoint, so it’s always amazing to see the changes but in another forty years, the world is going to look very different, obviously than it does today. But I like to think it’s always been an exciting field, public relations, and it may be more complex now. It might be more difficult in some ways, but you certainly can never say that it isn’t a lot of fun and that it isn’t challenging. It is one of the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying fields, I think, to be working in. So I would just say that I hope that in forty years that is even more the case.
Interviewer: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate the time that you have given us.
Ostrowski: Thank you.
Topics of Discussion
- Arthur Page/Principles/Society/Center
- Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals
- Code of Ethics/Mission Statement/Credo
- Corporate Character
- Counselor/Counseling Advisor
- Crisis Management
- Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior
- Ethical Leadership/Corporate CEO Responsibility
- International/Global PR
- PR Accreditation
- PR Agency or Corporate PR/Outsourcing
- PR Education/Training
- PR and Technology/Change
- Selecting a PR Career
- Transition to Corporate World
- Women and Diversity in PR