By Beatrice Thomas
Don Baer wrote speeches for Bill Clinton and still advises Barack Obama. These days, however, the chairman and CEO of PR giant Burson-Marsteller has his eyes firmly fixed on the corporate world
It was 23 April 1994, the day after former US President Richard Nixon had died.
The serving president at the time, Bill Clinton, had delivered a tribute to his political opposite the evening prior while standing in the White House Rose Garden.
As a Democrat, there was debate over whether he would then also speak at a memorial service in California for the former Republican president, but Clinton insisted and so a new tribute was needed for the occasion.
With much of Nixon’s life already covered in the Rose Garden address, a new “line” was required in what was a delicate situation given Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal, and chief speech writer Don Baer went to work.
The president’s entourage boarded Air Force One, which Baer describes as “a Madame Tussauds museum” in light of the number of famous figures onboard, but unfortunately for Baer, Clinton fell asleep for most of the cross-country flight.
Requesting a few changes to the eulogy when he finally awoke 45 minutes before arriving in Los Angeles, Baer rushed to his makeshift office at the back of the plane only to discover an annoyingly slow printer spitting out one page every two minutes and a military onboard with no idea how to fix it.
Compounding matters, the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, had boarded the plane when it landed in LA but declined to get changed on the aircraft, which would have bought time, following criticism a year earlier when President Clinton held up air traffic getting a haircut.
Eventually, Baer printed out the speech and took off for the service in a secondary motorcade. But, in a continuation of bad luck, he found himself in the middle of a traffic jam after cars flooded back into LA’s notoriously busy streets when the president’s motorcade passed.
Cue an exasperated Baer running along a highway, papers flapping in the wind, in a desperate bid to transfer into a smaller motorcade, followed by a race through the streets of the small town of Yorba Linda to the Nixon Library where the memorial was taking place.
With aides screaming over internal communications for the speech, Baer rushed to the president and the pair made a few changes in the men’s rooms before it was delivered on time.
The “line” - in the end - was: “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close”.
It was well received, but the real-life drama could easily have slotted into an episode of US TV show The West Wing, such was the frenetic pace of life working in the White House.
“I just saw my whole career flash before my eyes and I figured I’d be fired after a month,” Baer, who is said to have inspired the character Toby Ziegler (played by Richard Schiff) in the 1999-2006 TV politico drama, recalls.
He wasn’t. The communications guru went on to serve four years in the Clinton administration as chief speech writer/director of speechwriting and research and later as an assistant to the president and White House Director of Strategic Planning and Communications.
“They all seem so much nicer to one another on the TV show than I remember it being,” Baer laughs. “Life is never quite as neatly packaged up as you package up into a 60-minute episode. The actual West Wing itself is [also] a much smaller, contained place, it’s much quieter also — it’s like working in a museum.”
These days Baer is worldwide chairman and CEO of global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller as well as chairman of research firm Penn Schoen Berland (PSB), both part of British media monolith WPP Inc. The media lawyer turned political journalist turned political advisor joined Burson-Marsteller in 2008 after executive roles with Discovery Communications when he left the White House in 1998.
But it’s his time working for president Clinton that emerges in discussion about PSB, which last month opened its first Middle East office in Dubai, with the company used during Clinton’s time in office, including his re-election in 1996.
PSB, Baer says, has helped elect 35 heads of government around the world, including work on campaigns for former UK prime minister Tony Blair. Since 1976 it has shaped the political debate on five continents with more than two million face-to-face interviews carried out in 45 countries around the world, he says.
“In working with us in the Clinton administration [PSB helped] to really guide and shape the direction of our governing as much as our election campaign and that was true from 1994 on through to 2001, through the end of the presidency,” Baer, who stepped up from the vice-chairman’s role at Burson-Marsteller in 2012, says.
“That’s all about helping to understand and appreciate what the public’s interests are and what their objectives and expectations are and how best to speak to the public and also how best to really develop policies that are going to most effectively serve the needs of the public.”
Baer says this was just as important in the Middle East, despite most leaders in the region not needing to worry about votes at the ballot box.
While acknowledging that 90 percent of PSB’s revenue today came from corporate clients, he was quick to point out that it was no longer the case that governments — democratically elected or not — made a decision and people had to accept it.
“I don’t think that happens anymore,” he says. “The Middle East is changing pretty dramatically and the interests of the people are upmost in the minds of those people who have to govern them. I don’t think there’s ruling by edict as much as you might think and of course I think as things are changing and we’re seeing that there’s a rising tide of public interest that the rulers and the leaders of these countries really want to take into account, so they can rule effectively.”
On the corporate side, PSB’s core strategy of evidence-based communications still applies.
“It’s about taking the tools that were originally incubated in the political context and have long ago been translated into the corporate government context,” Baer says. “[Like] working with corporations to understand how best to protect and expand their reputational equity and to drive products and services into the marketplace and to really serve the needs and interests of consumers.”
How this precisely translates into turnover is not publicly known. While US publication PR Week estimates Burson-Marsteller’s global revenue was $400-450m in 2012, Baer won’t be drawn on numbers. The company, which operates in 110 countries, does not separately report its financials to that of parent company WPP Inc, which lists its numerous PR and public affairs subsidiaries as making up 9 percent of its 2012 profit before interest and taxes of £1.53bn ($2.49bn). He equally declines to be drawn on growth targets but says the public relations industry was growing “very strongly” in the Middle East.
ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, which was established in the Middle East in 2000 and has grown to 11 fully-owned offices and ten affiliates, was one of the “best and fastest-growing market places”, Baer says.
“ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller is the number-one agency in the region. We’re very proud of that. We also think that there is tremendous upside potential here,” he says.
Baer predicts 2014 will be a pivot year and expects the growth trajectory to “move into a whole, new sphere”. Highlighting Dubai, he says it was one of about six markets along with London, Washington, New York, China and India that had the greatest potential for both indigenous growth and “growth that could be exported worldwide”.
“The next five to ten years are going to be a very strong time of growth. You see a rising middle class in this region, you see a lot more demand that is being generated here,” he says. “This region is as involved with the technology and digital, social revolution as any part of the world — all of those kinds of things are sort of helping to propel the region toward terrific growth opportunity.”
When asked about the dissemination of news and information on social media, a factor he admits was not in play in his time at the White House, he says it was an increasingly important part of the public relations sphere. “We have to be way more creative about the content that we’re hoping to be created and then the different kinds of platforms that we work with, including major media organisations that are coming to us all the time,” he says.
However, it was not about controlling the digital space, he argues. “The point is not to control it. The point is to be aware of it, to be on top of it, to understand the trends and direction of it and perhaps to shape and influence direction. But, certainly this is not a control game, it never has been a control game, it’s always been a question of how you shape things.”
And when it comes to spinning events it doesn’t come any tougher than the moment when news of President Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky broke.
Despite having just left the White House, Baer still advised Clinton during that controversial period, which culminated in the president’s impeachment on perjury charges, of which he was later acquitted.
Baer says the decision for President Clinton not to talk about the issue in his 1998 State of the Union address — the first in four years in which Baer was not involved — soon after the scandal broke was pivotal.
“There was a big, big debate about this. Some were suggesting say a little but keep moving, while others said say nothing, stay focused on policy, on the country and what its needs are,” Baer recalls.
In the end Clinton did not directly address the issue. “People were shocked that he could get up there and do anything at that point, but he did,” Baer says. “It wasn’t just the fact or the tone or the style that he used at all — it was the substance and that what he was talking about was the future of the country and how he was going to, as president, help continue to serve the American people in very specific and very concrete ways. That’s what people judge public servants on and I think that was a great lesson. If he had not done that, he wouldn’t be president, he would not have lasted, I don’t think he would have survived the presidency.”
Baer describes Clinton, whom he first met when reporting on him as governor of Arkansas and later his 1991-92 presidential election campaign, as a dynamic president and brilliant communicator — “I learnt far more from him than I could ever have provided to him” — as well as a great person with a common touch.
While he never worked for his successor, Republican President George W Bush, Baer says he is called, along with others, “every so often to the White House” by President Barack Obama’s chief of staff’s office to offer advice. Baer says Obama’s popularity outside of the US while his approval rating has lingered in the 30s at home is down to two reasons.
Obama’s much-touted healthcare reforms have not gone smoothly, leaving the impression of “a kind of rudderless presidency”, and there is also a need to implement “a very aggressive agenda” with specific policies to generate jobs and economic growth.
“Honestly I think there’s a one-two punch I think that he has to go through in order to bring his presidency back, which I think can be done,” Baer says.
However, come 2016 Baer endorses Hillary Clinton for the White House. “I hope she runs,” he says. “She should — she’d be an excellent president.”