PR Executive Harris Diamond: Negative Perceptions Can Trump Positive Messages

Harris Diamond built his public relations career by articulating other peoples’ visions. Articulating his own vision, however, required a few life lessons.

Today, as CEO of public relations firm Weber Shandwick Worldwide, Diamond leads a global team of 5,000 employees in more than 60 cities on six continents. He is also the chief executive of the Constituency Management Group, which oversees the public relations firms, including Weber Shandwick, owned by advertising and marketing giant Interpublic Group of New York. PRWeek named him one of the “100 most influential PR people in the 20th Century.”  

The firm offers crisis management and marketing communications advice to companies and organizations in a range of sectors, from health care to technology to consumer marketing. Weber Shandwick helped China win its bid for the 2008 Olympics, advised the milk industry on its “got milk?” campaign, and works with such clients as General Motors, Electrolux and Microsoft.

Diamond said that a stern scolding he received from a senior colleague at his first job — selling peanuts at Yankee Stadium — follows him still. “What are you doing, kid?” the vendor barked at Diamond, who had stopped selling peanuts and stood, enthralled, watching the game. “For 25 cents, you could be sitting in the bleachers!”

“The point that I drew from that was, if you’re here to work, work. If you want to play, play. Never confuse the two,” Diamond recalled. “It was probably one of the most important speeches I’d ever heard in my life, because it taught me what work was all about.”

It was the first of many lessons Diamond — who is based in New York — would learn in a twisting career that took him from an insurance company to a district attorney’s office to a range of political campaigns in the U.S. and overseas. At a recent Wharton Leadership Lecture, Diamond shared his experiences and the lessons they taught. Among them: Negative perceptions can trump positive messages, cultural differences should not be ignored, and change — even destructive change — can be good.

Diamond, 56, admits his career path has been anything but straight. “It was luck. Who’s kidding whom? You have to be lucky in today’s world. It was a willingness to go where the punches led me…. I do not suffer from a lack of ambition, but I’m not one who thinks you can plan out your life.”

Graduating from Drew University in 1975 during a recession, the political science major (he later earned MBA and law degrees) took a job with Prudential in the comptrollers department, despite knowing nothing about accounting and even less about insurance. Although he stayed five years, eventually becoming an assistant to the vice chairman, he knew it wasn’t where he wanted to spend his life. “If I did one thing wrong, I shouldn’t have stayed at Prudential for five years. I knew right away this wasn’t for me, but every year they made it more and more enticing. So I walked away. It was scary. I had no job. I had no income. But I had no spouse, and I had a credit card. It worked out for me.”

The Wrong Car

Next stop: politics, as a volunteer and later paid member of Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign. “The political system as a meritocracy attracted me and intrigued me. I decided it was where I wanted to be,” Diamond stated. “If you work in politics in the United States, you learn that there is an absolute judgment day — a date where you win or lose. It doesn’t matter how good your ideas were yesterday. It just matters how good your idea [is] today.”

It was during the next decade, while managing political campaigns for Democratic gubernatorial candidates across the U.S., that Diamond learned the importance of perception. Once, charged with driving a candidate to a campaign stop at a United Auto Workers (UAW) meeting, Diamond showed up in a Japanese-made Datsun. The candidate “almost broke the steering wheel, he was so angry,” Diamond said. He made Diamond park four blocks away. They walked to the event. “I remember listening to him for those four blocks. One could say it was a stirring experience for a young guy.”

The incident taught Diamond that even good ideas could be smothered by bad presentation. “Perception is more important than any of us think,” Diamond said, noting that the big three automakers learned this in November when they flew to Congress in private jets. A businessman might say those jets make economic sense, but ultimately, the perception did not match the message. “So their plans got no attention. Nobody wanted to listen. They were dismissed because of how they showed up.”

And yet, appearances aren’t everything. Ignoring underlying cultural differences can undermine success, Diamond has also learned, and smooth talking rarely overcomes profound cultural divides. The beginning of that lesson came in 1993, when his PR firm at the time, Sawyer Miller, merged with another firm, Robinson Lake Lerer Montgomery. “The Washington Post said it was a brilliant merger,” Diamond recalls. His company’s culture was Democratic, the other company’s was Republican. His company focused on manufacturing and IT, the other company on Wall Street. “In essence we were [on] opposite sides of the same business, and we were also competitors.”

The business took off, but the marriage was doomed. “Culturally, no eight people disagreed more than we did,” Diamond said. The firm split a few years later. “We were successful as a business, but our culture drove us apart.”

A Crowd Pleaser

His awareness of cultural differences increased during his work overseas. He recalls being momentarily stunned when a foreign businessman, weighing the possibility of job cuts at his company, said to him, “I can’t understand why you have to make a profit.” He learned not to blink when another candidate he was working for, this one in Latin America, took his shirt off and threw it into the crowd. “That cultural difference was a little bizarre to me, but it made great TV.”

Cultural differences “are real. They are fundamental,” Diamond said. “At the end of the day, people are different. You have to recognize those differences and build on [them]…. You have to get people to agree with you, but you have to accept that people with different cultural backgrounds have different views of success.”

Over time, Diamond became increasingly skillful at articulating messages. He developed a clear view of his mission in public relations: to be an advocate, paid to communicate a particular point of view, influence a debate or convince people to make a purchase. He learned much, he said, by watching Ronald Reagan, described by Harris as a master of the art of articulating vision and values. He discovered that even in the midst of turbulent change — such as the economic slump of 2001, when he had to lay off 20% of Weber Shandwick’s staff and close 24 offices — he could lead by convincing others to share his vision.

“I learned that if you can get people to buy into the fact that you had a vision for where you wanted the company to go, and … they could trust that vision, they would trust you and give you time,” Diamond said. “But if you couldn’t get them to believe in you, good people always find a better place to go, even in a recession.”

Keeping him going during those times was another of Diamond’s beliefs: that change is not something to fear or avoid. “Change was necessary,” he said. “We decided if we didn’t change what we were doing, we couldn’t get to where we needed to be…. Fundamentally, change is inevitable and change is good. There’s a price to change… [but] if handled the right way, it is a positive thing.”

The flip side of that belief is Diamond’s oft-uttered motto: “Shoot the frowners.”

“I spend time trying to convince people that the vision is right, to get people to agree with me, so we’re all [working] together,” he said, but “there comes a time at the end of the day that you find out some people just aren’t buying it. They don’t buy your values and they don’t buy your vision. They’re the frowners. And they bring everybody else down. Shoot the frowner. It makes you feel good…. They’re the ones who are actually the obstacles, and at a certain point you have to just say, ‘you’re out of here. Time for you to go.’”

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