Don Etling

Senior Vice President, Senior Partner at Fleishman-Hillard

Don Etling, BJ '71

Degree(s): BJ '71

Whereabouts: United States, St. Louis, Missouri

What do you do?
I’m a senior vice president/senior partner at Fleishman Hillard, leading internal communications for AT&T as an embedded contract employee. I co-founded our agency’s internal communication practice in 1993. The practice helps companies align employees behind their goals and strategies by engaging them, creating a dialogue with them on issues that matter to the organization (goals, strategies, imperatives).

What did you want to do when you were young?
I wanted to be a newspaper publisher like my father and my grandfather on my mother’s side. In my thirties I had the opportunity to live that dream with the Suburban Newspapers of Greater St. Louis, where I published 19 community newspapers in Illinois. Then I switched gears to help launch the St. Louis Sun, the first U.S. daily newspaper startup in a major market in almost four decades. It was truly an exhilarating experience, but it lasted only six months because the parent company just didn’t have the resources to sustain it. I then did some newspaper consulting for about six months before finding Fleishman-Hillard. That union happened almost by chance. One of my networking contacts suggested that I might have the skills they needed, and 20 years later, I’m still here. But I’m still looking for ideas. Even today I don’t know what that “final” career dream looks like. I just marvel at where life continues to take me.

What’s the best perk in working in public relations?
I learn something new every day from my clients. And I truly love what I do … I’ve had the opportunity to work across so many industries with some of the world’s most successful companies. All of them have challenges in their efforts to truly engage their employees. I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to make an impact on organizations like these and on their employees. When I and my team do our job well, the bottom-line performance improves and employees are more motivated. It’s a great feeling, a true win-win. I get tremendous satisfaction from adding real bottom-line value to our clients.

What do you enjoy most about working at Fleishman-Hillard?
That’s simple. I really enjoy the people I work with on my team and throughout our agency. It’s a privilege to be associated with such talented, dedicated people from across the globe. I also get enormous satisfaction helping younger members of my team grow in their profession.

Who are your heroes?
My dad, who was an MU grad, and his dad, as well. They were both such high achievers … and both so giving. My grandfather started out as a bank-elevator operator and retired as the bank’s president. My dad has always been what the Jesuits refer to as “a man for others.” He’s a great giver – to his family, to MU and to the entire community. He always shows the same respect for every individual from the most celebrated businessman, celebrity and elected official, to the receptionist at the front desk.

What was the best lesson you took away from the J-School?
I learned a great deal about teamwork from the J-School. During my senior summer I helped produce the daily Missourian with a skeleton crew. Joann Dickerson was our professor (and a great human being). She made it fun for us to be there and encouraged us all to pull together every night to make each edition the best it could be. We all had great respect for one another. It was just a magical summer. I hope I continue to take from that experience the value of teamwork and of creating a collegial – and fun – work environment.

Some people don’t see the connection between journalism and public relations. Where do you see the link?
Both involve straightforward, honest communication. A lot of people outside our industry don’t seem to understand that effective public relations can never rise above the level of the truth. There’s a parallel there to the journalist’s role. We’re both about getting the facts right and telling a story. In both spheres you have to help people understand a situation. Actually, when I was a J-School student I swore I’d never go into public relations. Having had the opportunity now to work for such a great company and serve a number of Fortune 500 companies, I actually think a good business reporter would greatly benefit from working inside a major company for several years. From seeing how it truly works on the inside of a company, they would benefit from a much greater understanding of the business world, its challenges and the people who make it happen.

What advice would you give to a student interested in working in PR?
Learn about people and keep an open mind. Always be willing to accept different people and points of view. Constantly be on the lookout for new ideas. At its core, public relations, especially internal communications, is about creating an honest dialogue with people. So it’s a tremendous benefit to be open and to allow others to be open with you.

Updated: November 4, 2011