April 30, 2019

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Path to APR: Q&A with Beverly Butler

Tell us about yourself and your professional life — Wells Fargo, Firemans Fund, etc. 

My career has been a bit unconventional.

I started out in television news in Michigan (writer, producer, reporter) straight out of college (with my theatre degree in hand!). Next I was executive producer at a video/film production company, and from there I went to corporate America. I headed up marketing communications for Brooks Shoes and Apparel (a Division of Wolverine Worldwide best known for Hush Puppies), and moved to Boston to be VP of Marketing Rockport Shoe Company prior to its sale to Reebok. I moved West and took a big detour to non-profit, becoming Chief Communications Officer for the American Red Cross in San Francisco shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, when the organization was taking a lot of heat for its fundraising practices.

After five years at Red Cross, I did a brief stint at the phone company, in media relations, before joining The Gap, Inc. as head of media relations and executive communications. I missed non-profit, and went back…this time to lead marketing and communications for the American Cancer Society’s California division. After ten years (and the need for college education tuition for my twins), I went back to corporate life; first to Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company (a division of Allianz) as head of Corporate Communications and then to Wells Fargo; first in its Internet Service Group doing media relations and PR, and then with Treasury Management where I am now, leading a nationwide team focused on client communications.

When and why did you decide to pursue an APR?

I was at the American Red Cross in the early ‘90s when a good friend, and former boss, decided he wanted to get his APR degree and wanted a study buddy. Because I had no formal education in public relations, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to learn the history of the profession as well the nuts and bolts of PR. I went through the Chapter-sponsored Saturday prep classes, read the books, got to know Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays, and put together a few case studies to share during the oral exam.

My friend who convinced me to try for my APR accreditation didn’t pass the exam, but I did! Afterwards, I was asked to serve on the local Chapter’s Board, which I did for many years.

How was your experience? Any particulars you can share?

Studying and preparing for the exam with other APR candidates was a fantastic experience! Before attending the Chapter-sponsored prep course and studying, I thought PR was mostly luck and common sense. Afterward, I realized it was those things plus research, planning, spokesperson preparation, crisis and contingency plans, measurement, and networking. I also realized that I could have been doing a lot more to reach my target audiences and that the discipline of planning is vital for a strong, successful public relations campaign. It was as if a new door had been opened for me. 

How was the preparation/study process? What was your prep strategy?

The reading, group discussion, course work were all fascinating because, as a working professional, I was able to put into practice everything I was learning immediately.

My prep strategy: keep up with the reading, attend the prep classes and discuss the key topics with the others in the group at lunch and via phone. There were also simulated tests so we could see how well we did and where we needed to improve. I also read the news with an eye towards “What could this company have done better to prevent this issue?” I prepared for the orals by thinking of situations in my work where PR played a strong role in successful outcomes; and also when I had failed to have a proper PR plan…and what that taught me.

What effect has it had on your career? Your confidence? Skillset?

Being at a non-profit at the time of my APR preparation and exam, I didn’t have budget to hire PR pros but, armed with my new knowledge, I was able to do some ground-breaking campaigns, win a bunch of awards, and recruit incredible senior-level PR volunteers. These volunteers worked in PR at corporations and agencies, and the goal was to help re-position the Red Cross, build back its good reputation, and create a communications ‘strike force’ for the next big disaster…which happened in October of 1991 when the East Bay Hills exploded into fire.

By the time I got through the barricades to the Command Post in Oakland, CA, five of my PR volunteers were already there creating fact sheets and handling media calls. I was happy I had provided them with Red Cross vests, hard hats, Official Car decals, and a notebook of boilerplates and background stats. For the next several weeks, 24/7, these wonderful PR people gave elected officials tours of shelters, prepared updates about homes and lives lost, and even assisted in putting out a daily newspaper for media, emergency personnel, and other disaster volunteers. If I hadn’t had the knowledge of Public Relations that the APR work gave me, these PR pros/volunteers would have never followed me into the fire, quite literally. The APR gave me my credential and I was viewed as part of their professional PR world. And together we did amazing things for people displaced by the fire and for the Red Cross.

I am a better, wiser, more inquisitive PR professional thanks to the work that went into getting my APR. I believe I was able to parachute into all the different industries and organizations— and be successful—because I knew how to tweak and strengthen the underpinnings of an effective PR plan. Having the knowledge of PR that I acquired during the APR process enabled me to see more opportunities and interact in a positive way with more stakeholders. It really was a career-changer.

What should other PR practitioners know about the accreditation, those seeking it and those just learning about it? 

The accreditation process is not as hard as it sounds if you take it one step at a time. And it’s actually fun to learn new tools and processes, and new ways of thinking. If you’re not sure you have the time, do it anyway. Grab a friend and do it together.

Anything else to share? 

After I was hired into my current role at Wells Fargo, my then boss shared one reason I was selected: “You had impressive letters after your name; that made me know you are serious about what you do and someone who likes to learn.” I love that she viewed my APR accreditation that way and agree with her!