As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Yaverbaum.
Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications, is a communications, media, and public relations expert with over 40 years in the industry, having co-founded Jericho Communications and served as President from 1985 until its successful sale in 2006. Eric has worked with a wide-range of top-of-their-industry clients, including Sony, IKEA, Progressive Insurance, Domino’s, Beachbody, H&M, and fitness guru Jack LaLanne. Eric is also a bestselling author who literally wrote the book on public relations — the industry-standard bestseller Public Relations for Dummies — as well as six other titles, including Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs (with over a million copies sold). He will be recounting his lifelong ability to look towards the bright side for his upcoming book The Audacity of Silver Linings, set to release in 2022. He is a regular TV pundit, and his expert commentary has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, The Washington Post, The New York Times, HuffPost, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox Business, Inc., and PR Week, among others.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have been working in PR for over 40 years now. Getting Yours: The Complete Guide to Government Money by Matthew Lesko was the book that started my career. After meeting Matthew at 19, I somehow convinced him to let me run his book’s PR campaign. I was still in my sophomore year of college at the time and originally just looking for some work experience outside of the classroom. But Matthew was unconventional, creative, and encouraging of my sense of hustle. He was also willing to try whatever idea I came up with. Between spending hours in classes, doing mountains of homework, and all my other jobs, I promoted that book everywhere I could. Eventually I landed it on the New York Times Bestsellers List and my own career in PR was born.
After that initial success with Matthew’s book and my follow up success with his third book (which was the first time a $20 trade paperback ever made the New York Times Best Sellers list), I received some really exciting offers, including to run the Atlanta Braves communications department. I ultimately ended up moving to Toronto to head the communications department of an international tech company. However, the company went bankrupt after only one year. It was a great life lesson for me. I had uprooted my entire life to move to another country to pursue this dream, and it didn’t work out as planned. This is where I got my first life lesson in going with “plan B,” and I’m grateful I did.
I decided to return to DC, and this time, I bet on myself instead of someone else and started my first agency on Capitol Hill, Jericho Communications.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
My first real brush with what I thought was “fame” was in 1985. I started a widely-covered and influential national citizen’s action organization — which my partner and I called “Strike Back” — during the Major League Baseball threatened strike of that year. We went viral before the term meant that! Even the commissioner of Major League Baseball cited Strike Back as one of the reasons that the strike ended so quickly. I did Nightline and Good Morning America. The New York Times and papers coast to coast covered us. We landed the cover of USA Today the day the strike ended — an enormous feat for me at the time and one that I was certain would cause me to be recognized and applauded. But no one noticed. I spent the entire day anticipating and waiting to be recognized. Finally, after last call at the bar that night, a stranger on the street looked at me as I waited for a cab and said, “Hey, I saw you on the cover of USA Today!” I learned humility and to manage my own expectations from then on. I realized that any relative “fame” my career provides doesn’t change who I fundamentally am, even a little bit. I don’t get too wrapped up in believing my own press — something I counsel my own clients on as well. I am who I am. Accomplishments, awards, magazine covers, are great to remind me of all the hard work and to be proud of in retrospect, but that night I learned my sense of value and worth has absolutely nothing to do with recognition.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The first person, besides my parents, whom I really credit for influencing my professional philosophy is Henry Kissinger. My Uncle Abe, who also had a big influence on me, introduced us in my youth. Of all the wise things Henry Kissinger said, the phrase that stuck with me the most was: “Does anybody have any questions for the answers I’m already giving?” That lit the fire for me, and I have spent four decades teaching exactly that — my associates have come to call this “messaging.”
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
After selling my first big agency, I spent a little over a year as a managing partner at the Wall Street holding company that bought and merged us. Big lesson learned there: I like running the show, not working inside a large company. I just kept wondering, I had built a successful company from the ground up, could I do it again? I was uncomfortable inside a Wall Street machine and was eager to creatively engage with all the moving parts of a business again — something that had been a part of my professional life for decades. However, there were some changes I wanted to make this time around. I didn’t want to be consumed by the job like before — I had kids and a family that I was raising and frankly, there were more important issues to me than just my business. The “Aha” moment came when I decided to ensure that my next agency offered balance and worked more for a purpose than just profits. I wanted to balance my professional life with parenting at the time, which was something that had been more elusive while running my first agency. Making that idea of purpose central to my entrepreneurship this time has made me, my company, and the work we do better than ever. I feel like a walking hashtag for loving what you do now; it’s so much more gratifying. While it is still working, I genuinely love every minute of it.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, I was diagnosed with COVID-19 and spent 90 days running my business from my bed. Then earlier this year, almost to the day, I found out that I had contracted one of the COVID-19 variants.
If the world weren’t scary enough this past year and a quarter, your boss getting COVID-19 not once but twice could easily cause a lot of fear within a company. Both times, I made sure to openly share with my employees and my clients that I was sick, update them regularly on how I was mentally and physically feeling, and ensure they were always in the know about what was going on with me and how it would impact my work. We’ve all built strong personal relationships through this unbelievably challenging time, and I’ve encouraged them to be open about what is going on in their lives as well. And through it all, I project hope and positivity about my recovery, the company, the state of the world, and the unique personal challenges my team and my clients are all facing. This mindset saved us as the scariest and most uncertain days of the pandemic swept over so many throughout the world.
With the second diagnosis, that positivity was returned many times over, as my employees checked in and offered words of encouragement. My confidence the first time, eventual recovery, and general positive outlook surrounding the virus itself (which I’ve been open about with my employees throughout the pandemic), has really helped them to feel more secure at such a terrifying moment in history.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Absolutely not, I consciously chose to be hopeful and used positive thinking like a life preserver both for myself and to share with others. I am convinced we could not have weathered the storm without it, and there’s a secret silver lining in there that far too many have missed: if we are going to be a team, we must be a team together, and that means being in it together. Transparency, communication, compassion, and hope had to be the tools that got us there, and with me confined to bed, they were pretty much the only tools I had. And they did the job perfectly.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It’s leadership’s job to share calm. Not chaos, because chaos is easy to find. Just turn on the news; you’ll find plenty. Recognize the moment you are in and do what needs to be done: see your people through.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I remain convinced that our best way forward is with openness, compassion, human understanding, and hope. Encourage your employees and thank them for all of the hard work they are doing. Know that they are doing their best and let them know you aren’t going to leave them behind. Be clear that your team really is stronger together and proactively make it work together.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Do it immediately and with transparency. Let your entire company and clients know exactly what is going on. Even if that means you are being more transparent that you are comfortable with. Communicate with all the tools that you have and do it transparently, optimistically, and realistically.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
How have we ever done it? The future has always been unpredictable. Fear of the unknown exists in everybody’s mind, and overnight we suddenly found ourselves with a lot more unknowns. The illusion of control has finally been made clear for what it always was: an illusion. There is no such thing as control and the future has and always will be unknowable. This is why knowing that you and your team are in it together and making the conscious choice to go forward with hope is essential.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
If your first thought this morning wasn’t, “thank you,” you might want to reconsider what matters now. It seems like we all got dealt some new, real surprising cards, and now we have to learn how to play them. And I say, play the hell out of them.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
1. Panicking. When the world changes overnight, a good leader is there to ground and take care of his employees and clients. They will instinctively turn to you and if your reaction is panicked, then that will be theirs as well. Your reaction signals your belief about the outcome — so make sure your actions are communicating the right message.
2. Failing to act with integrity. A leader’s words always need to match their actions, otherwise their word is effectively meaningless. Acting with integrity and doing what you said you would do is essential for building trust with employees and clients. If they don’t know whether you’ll honor your word, then you can’t build real, meaningful relationships.
3. Not being transparent. A lack of transparency is a recipe for disaster, because employees and clients know when something is off, especially when there is a long-standing relationship. Trust is too vital to compromise by being opaque. If you don’t approach your business with openness and honesty, you’re planting seeds of distrust that will fester and undermine your relationships and consequently, your business goals.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Ericho Communications’ most distinguishing feature is that we’re not aiming to be the largest agency, but we compete with them. Staying highly selective about who we take on was an intentional choice I made from the beginning. We’re not one of the giant mega-firms, so it’s easy to be underestimated because there can be a misconception that you may not have the numbers to produce the same work as those larger firms. But we focus on quality, not quantity — the level of personal attention, time, and care we’re able to give each of our clients is unmatched. Not because I say it is. They do. Everything we do is completely personalized and bespoke for every client, something which is not found at an agency with a revolving door of clients and talent. We build real relationships and long-lasting partnerships. And the level of creativity we bring to the table is unlike anything I’ve seen at larger firms. Our clients are continually impressed by the way my team can come up with new angles and turn them into meaningful opportunities to share client stories. We genuinely love telling our clients’ stories, putting them out in the world, and shining a light on the great things they’re doing, and I think that genuine passion and commitment to the work — and our clients — is what makes our influence as outstanding and outsize as it is.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Communicate clearly and effectively. When I was diagnosed with COVID-19 not once but twice, the only way that my company was able to survive was with clear and transparent communication. Both times, I made sure to let my team and clients know I was sick, update them regularly, and ensure that they knew about what was going on with me and any effect it would have on my work.
2. Be honest. It would have been easier, in some ways, if I had not been open and honest with my team and clients about my diagnosis (both times!). By being honest, there were naturally concerns that arose and rightfully needed to be addressed, even though I was very sick. However, by being straightforward from the beginning, both my team and clients knew that they could trust me to be truthful going forward, and that if I said something, I meant it.
3. Be transparent. Being completely transparent with both my employees and clients was uncomfortable. Speaking about health and medical issues in a professional setting often isn’t done, at least not traditionally. However, by being transparent, my team and clients knew that they had all of the information they needed to make informed decisions. They were never left guessing or in the dark. And it gave meaning to my words and what I was communicating — they knew this was genuine, I wasn’t just uttering platitudes.
4. Be positive. Communicate effectively and be open, honest, and positive. There is always a silver lining, and learning how to communicate it effectively is essential. While things may be scary and unpredictable, the focus does not need to be — and shouldn’t be — on that. Just as quickly as life can go badly, it can also turn back around. A leader has to be the light in the storm for their team.
5. Be empathetic, compassionate, and encouraging. As CEO, it is my job to steady the ship. Both times I was sick with COVID-19, while there was clearly a lot happening in my own life, all my employees, clients, and their families were similarly going through their own unique and personal experiences. While it may have been easier to simply focus on myself, I also needed to be understanding of and compassionate about what everyone else was going through and the challenges they were facing. That compassion brought us all closer together, and made us a stronger team.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Growth is a process, not a light switch.” Culturally and socially we are so wired for quick fixes that we often forget things take time. I’ve found that the joy of life is in the journey — enjoying the things that we have when we have them, and being grateful for the changes they inspire within us.
How can our readers further follow your work?