Posted on December 1, 2015, at 6:00 p.m.
by Taylor Shelnutt.
Ever met someone who has truly done it all, managing a full career and a fuller life with apparent effortlessness? Ron Culp, professional director of the public relations and advertising graduate program at DePaul University, is one of those people. And yet, he still takes time to tell the story of how a small-town boy became the most recent winner of the Gold Anvil.
From the rural town of Remington, Indiana (population 1,162), Culp was a first-generation college student who was bent on getting involved and making the most of his time at Indiana State University. He became the editor of the student newspaper (among other positions) and found the clarity that so many undecided freshmen yearn for — he was going to be a reporter. With public relations still in its infancy and only occupying a distant speck on his career’s horizon, Culp went to work for The Columbus Republic shortly after college.
It was only after becoming involved with a political campaign as a press secretary that the seed of public relations fascination was planted. His takeaway from that campaign? “I understood it’s not fun to lose elections,” he said.
On the bright side, Culp met a consultant who worked for the New York Legislature. He eventually became the head of the public relations unit for the New York State Assembly, giving him a solid base of government affairs exposure to carry into future positions.
Culp confesses he got the seven-year itch and decided it was time to make a change, landing in Corporate America next. He spent almost seven years at Eli Lilly as a department head of media relations and then as manager of internal and external corporate communications. Culp then transferred to Pitney Bowes as the director of public relations for two years. Next, Sara Lee Corporation claimed him as its executive director of public relations for a little over six years, until he finally landed at Sears as the senior vice president of public relations and government affairs. Talk about a résumé.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Culp then had the urge to try something new and became an agency man. George Sard, chairman and CEO of the financial communications firm, Sard Verbinnen & Co., contacted Culp about setting up a Chicago office. After thinking “it would be fun to start from scratch,” Culp took the well-refined skills he had already picked up and did just that.
However, the creative side of agency life was beckoning, and Culp missed crafting campaigns and influencing buying decisions. Who was knocking at the door this time? None other than Ketchum, offering a position as managing director over the Midwest offices. Culp later added the role of director of Ketchum’s North American Corporate Practice.
“I learned how publicly owned firms operate,” Culp stated. “I often say that I wish I knew when I was in Corporate America as much as when I worked in agencies because I would’ve been a better client.”
His favorite part of agency life? The people, especially those at the beginning of their careers. Culp has always valued mentorship — a trait that led to his final step of becoming a full-time instructor at DePaul University.
“I started with government, then I went to corporate, agency, and then I said ‘What a great career topper to end in academia. I’ll cover all four major areas of public relations.’” In true Ron Culp fashion, he achieved the quadfecta of public relations professionalism.
When reflecting on his life path, Culp says the most critical thing he’s learned is the importance of listening and being curious. In public relations, you’re often tasked with getting to the nitty gritty of what a client wants and needs, even if that client is an investment bank or a parking facility, or some other not-so-glamorous entity.
“PR allows you to know a little bit about a lot,” Culp said. “And then seek the depth in the areas that you’re truly passionate about.”
With a 40-year career under his belt, there’s no question that students and professionals seek Culp’s wisdom like water in the desert. His biggest advice refers to work ethic, as he guides those in the industry to pursue every job experience possible, no matter how inconsequential it may seem.
While Culp’s professional achievements clearly demonstrate his skill in the industry, his involvement in The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations shows a passion deeper than most. After stating that “it all starts with Betsy,” Culp said he tried to avoid getting involved but couldn’t resist after succumbing to Plank’s persuasion and all-knowing smile.
“She had such a passion for what she wanted to achieve with building this bridge between professionals and academics — the whole focus on mentoring the future talent of our profession, as well as upgrading the research and doing additional research in the area of public relations leadership, which I’m all about. These are the things I care about.”
Culp was one of the initial board members that Plank called together to pitch her idea. Although he didn’t intend to be involved long-term, he eventually became the third chairman of The Plank Center board of advisers.
Dr. Karla Gower, director of The Plank Center, has known Culp for almost 10 years and vouches for his significance to the industry. Gower said he has specifically benefited the Center with the expertise he brings to the table, as well as his connections to the industry.
“He’s a hard worker and always follows through on things,” Gower stated. “Because of his easy-going style, it makes it really easy to work with him. He genuinely cares about people. It’s why he’s an inspirational leader.”
Similar to Plank’s passion for students, Culp shares a love of giving back to the future leaders of public relations. At the recent PRSSA National Conference in Atlanta, Culp said he spent more time in the student sessions than those geared toward professionals.
“I felt that energy and future innovation was coalescing in that room,” Culp said. “I became quite the optimist about the future of the field.”
Hitting the PR jackpot
As if his accomplishments didn’t show his public relations ingenuity and competence already, Culp was recently awarded the highly esteemed Gold Anvil, joining the ranks of other legends including Al Golin, Daniel Edelman, Harold Burson and Betsy Plank. This lifetime achievement award from the Public Relations Society of America is given to a professional who has significantly contributed to the industry. We can all agree that Culp meets the criteria.
And it doesn’t stop there. Even after winning a lifetime achievement award, Culp is still striving to do more. “I don’t exactly know what it is, but it’s something both important and fun,” he confidently said. His current priorities: improving writing and business savvy of young professionals and several diversity and inclusion initiatives.
So how has the prestigious Gold Anvil impacted Culp’s perspective on life and careers? Culp said he never thought of his career in its entirety, but rather focused on the “here and now” of each individual experience. He also said he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s in the mindset of “that’s all, folks” with the achievement of this milestone.
“It’s given me the chance to reflect on how much I love what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years. That has created a sense of ‘Not bad, Culp.’” Not bad at all.