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“Pearls of Wisdom”: A Sit-Down Conversation with Gary F. Grates

Published on June 26, 2023, at 11:18 a.m.
by Alaina McDuffie.

From an internal communications intern for a New York wire and cable company to president of Edelman’s Change and Employee Management practice to head of communications for North America at General Motors Corporation and an architect for one of the fast growing communications counseling firms, Gary F. Grates’ career in public relations is nothing short of inspiring.

Gary Grates

With over 25 years of experience in corporate communications, Grates has established himself as a thought leader, speaker and author on topics related to change management, corporate relevance and organizational communication. His extensive expertise has also enabled him to serve as an adjunct professor for Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Now, after working in leadership positions throughout his career, Grates has made the leap to consulting again, serving as president of the Grates Consulting Group.

Grates sat down with me to discuss GCG, the future of public relations and his advice to emerging PR professionals.

Origins of the Grates Consulting Group

After working for nearly 11 years at Real Chemistry, the world’s largest healthcare communications firm, Grates desired to “do something on his own” and work with clients who “brought [his] passion out again.”

So what did Grates do? He founded his own consulting firm, of course.

In June 2022, the Grates Consulting Group officially opened, marketed as the firm to call “when you are serious about communications.”

With an intimate team of 10 professionals, GCG specializes in “business transformation/change, corporate relevance, crisis communication, environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG), strategy execution, mergers and acquisitions (M&A), and CEO positioning,” according to its website.

While the consulting firm is smaller than the companies Grates has previously worked for, he acknowledged that the opportunity to hire and work with a close-knit team feels exciting and fulfilling.

“We’re not going to be the biggest [firm],” Grates said. “But I’m looking to build a cadre of talent and partner with companies that really understand the power of communications, so every day when we get up we’re excited about the work we do. It’s a tight group of folks and a great group of clients [that I work with].”

That said, Grates recognized that operating a smaller firm comes with its own set of challenges. He noted that there is a risk of smaller firms spreading themselves too thin, which can lead to deteriorating work quality and detract from the value that a firm would otherwise bring to its clients. However, he argued that a firm can prevent this outcome by honing and standing firm in its identity.

“[A company] must ask itself who it is and what it wants to be. Secondly, it should make sure that what it is providing to its client partners is, in fact, valued,” Grates said. “You want to be able to provide the right level of counsel, advice and support in everything you do, and it’s got to be of the highest quality.”

Maria P. Russell, emerita professor of public relations at Syracuse University and former colleague who recruited Grates to teach electives for seniors and master’s students, spoke to Grates’ ability to bring value to not only his clients, but also his students at the Newhouse School.

“Many adjuncts come in, teach well, share insights into the profession, connect with students, mentor them — Gary does all of that, but goes beyond. He attends department meetings, runs workshops for students and faculty, and holds sessions for the PRSSA chapter and the student-run firm,” Russell said. “Long after they graduate, many students continue to seek his career guidance, and he obliges.”

Artificial intelligence and the future of public relations

As a globally renowned, recognized and respected specialist who has counseled organizations like Coca-Cola and Pfizer, Grates willingly shed light on the question that many PR professionals have found themselves asking recently: Am I going to lose my job to a robot?

While artificial intelligence (AI) programs like ChatGPT appear to threaten the job security of PR practitioners, Grates urges individuals to avoid using the limited information available on the topic to catastrophize.

“There are a lot of pundits out there talking about AI, and that’s certainly the right prerogative. But my feeling is that we don’t know anything about AI right now,” Grates said. “I think we have to experience it ourselves … as opposed to overcompensating one way or the other.”

Instead of expecting the worse, Grates’ recommendation to PR professionals is to roll with the AI punches as they come.

Advice to future PR professionals

With a career in public relations that spans nearly three decades, Grates’ industry experience has allowed him to glean wisdom that he can share with emerging PR professionals. In fact, The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations recently named him its 2023 Koten Distinguished Lecturer, inviting him to The University of Alabama to present bits of his knowledge to budding PR students.

While Grates’ entire lecture was insightful, there were three pieces of advice he gave that resonated the most.

Focus on learning.

While some might consider AI the greatest threat to public relations, Grates would argue that the threats of comfort and stagnation loom much larger. He urged students to make learning a priority throughout their careers.

“That’s the only thing to think about in your career: Am I learning?” Grates said. “If you’re in an organization and believe you’ve stopped learning, get out. Don’t waste your time.”

This idea of being a perpetual learner is one that Russell believes Grates lives up to.

“Gary is a life-long learner,” Russell said. “He reads everything, from the trade publications, to biographies, to business, management, and leadership books. And every year, he shares a great list of recommended readings with colleagues, friends and clients.”

Develop your point of view.

If ever given the choice between honing your point of view or your skill set, Grates would choose point of view every time. Grates argued that practitioners will find much more success in the workforce by honing their distinct point of view. He stated that the way an individual reasons, solves problems and addresses situations will hold more value to an employer than their skill set.

That said, Grates does not encourage the neglect of one’s writing skills if you wish to be an effective PR professional.

Be curious.

Grates cited curiosity as one of the only skills that he is unable to teach his students. However, he highlights it as a necessary pillar of success in the public relations field.

“You’ve got to be curious in this business,” he said. “You want to know why PepsiCo can’t seem to get its drivers to deliver its product to bodegas and grocery stores? Get on a truck and ride with them and find out what their day is like … you can’t do that from headquarters.”

In short, after a lengthy career counseling some of the world’s largest corporations, Grates has opted to spend time in the PR consultation space, sharing his insight with his clients and students alike. While the future of public relations may be unclear, it is certain that Grates will continue learning, reading and motivating the next generation of public relations professionals.

As Russell stated, “Gary is a role model for all of us — practitioners and educators.”

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