The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Bob Witeck of Witeck Communications
Welcome to Pride Month and to the first Common Sense Colloquy to focus on LGBTQ communications. Going forward, we’ll be including LGBTQ communications leaders along with the energy and environment communications leaders we’ve highlighted in the first 27 (!) Q&As. This commitment to including LGBTQ leaders matches our expanded business focus area which now formally includes LGBTQ communications (although we’ve been working on LGBTQ communications and energy and environment communications since our first year in business).
I can think of no better person to start with than the man who helped usher in the modern LGBTQ communications practice nearly 30 years ago: my dear friend Bob Witeck. Bob is president of Witeck Communications in Washington, D.C. and works with leading corporations, advocacy organizations and non-profits on LGBTQ communications and public affairs.
Bob and his colleague (and our friend) Wes Combs started Witeck-Combs Communications in 1993. Over the next decades, these two visionaries worked with a who’s who of corporate, association, advocacy and nonprofit leaders on a breadth of LGBTQ communications challenge and opportunity. In 2006, Bob and Wes co-authored the first book on LGBTQ marketing, Business Inside Out. They set the bar for what LGBTQ communications could be and established a standard for all who followed.
In addition to being a legend in communications, Bob is a dear friend and a colleague whom I have collaborated with, learned from and admired for decades. I’m thrilled to celebrate Pride Month on the blog by sharing this insightful Q&A.
Our thanks to Bob for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.
Q: As we’re living with the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, we’re in the midst of a Pride Month unlike any we’ve experienced. During this unique Pride season, what can communicators do best to respond and reflect the world today?
A: First, fifty-one years ago, Pride grew out of an uprising. It was born not in celebration but in protest out of frustration and indignity. LGBTQ people hated our oppression and invisibility and took to the streets. Sound familiar?
We can and must bridge to other movements. We should put #BlackLivesMatter leaders and queer allies in central roles. Pride is actually a great marker for civil right movements. Our own history tells us that out of repression, hurt, alienation and ignorance, good things are rising if you fight hard enough. Stonewall and the emergence of Pride showed that – and these narratives are central to our story in 2020. An expert communicator is sensitive to the times and the tone it demands.
The pandemic changed how we communicate. While socially and safely distant, we’ve accelerated our virtual celebration. No parades and packed parties, and instead, we’ve emphasized more creativity, artistry and global online stories, art and inspiration.
To be clear, LGBTQ whizzes, artists and activists did not invent the Internet (by ourselves) however, we’ve often made it a palette for free expression, love, individuality and honesty. It will be the universal platform of choice this year.
Q: Over the span of your career, you’ve seen the dramatic changes in the number and ways business and organizations have engaged with the LGBTQ community. Where do you think we are now? Can you give us a status check in terms of the state of things for LGBTQ communications?
A: Decades ago, there were few companies, if any, that were emboldened to address gays and lesbians (let alone everyone else in the LGBTQ community). Marketers and executives saw only risk and public retribution. They feared reprisal in the marketplace and in the media. Opening up the corporate closet was neither easy nor swift.
In the decades since, most risk of backlash has vanished. Companies came to realize and welcome the tangible rewards of inclusion. They examined the business case. From small steps to a sea change, companies recognized the value of their LGBTQ workforce, customers, guests and neighbors – and drove contemporary strategies into high gear. They did so through new policies, practices, communications and engagement.
Today, in my observation, companies and community leaders see LGBTQ people in a more honest, refreshing way. Our visibility has transformed most perceptions, and we are no longer monochromatic. We are seen everywhere as teachers, executives, military leaders, elected officials, clergy, parents, educators, and in every walk of life. Communicators understand better that to address LGBTQ concerns is to know we’re present in every gathering, every neighborhood, every company, every faith and every brigade.
Q: Your career has included time as a Congressional staffer, executive at a global public relations agency and public relations business owner. What lessons have you learned in these roles that you apply today? What has changed over the span of your career?
A: Almost everything has changed. Let me merely share one anecdote, at the risk of sounding like I labored long ago in Ben Franklin’s print shop.
After college, when I first joined a U.S. Senate staff 45 years ago, I enjoyed working with local television stations in our state 3,000 miles from Washington DC. On a Tuesday, for example, I would schedule 4 or 5 broadcasters to hold one-on-one telephone interviews. The stations would film their questions at their studio, and we would film the responses with our Senator at his desk. A crew developed the film, shipped it overnight by air to the west coast, where the broadcaster would weave the two parts into a news segment and air it on Wednesday evening. We found the 30-hour turn-around as immediate as our circumstances allowed.
What took a day and half now happens in real time, of course. Over these decades, I’ve embraced lifelong learning about emerging communications and technology. We deliver media and messages without filters, with and without journalists, without and without networks and we do it with immediacy and skillful judgment. As a communications professional over many years, I am still a teacher and a student and both roles are intrinsic.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: Great question. The advice I revere most is my indispensable belief in trust. None of us, no company, no institution, no leader, or communicator can succeed without sustaining trust. Our reputation and credibility are only as good as the trust we foster and grow in public spaces. It can be so easily squandered, and never easily restored.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: When I am offering any advice to young professionals, I think the two most frequent recommendations I make are these: Write every day, read constantly.
I found early in life that I am addicted to words, to writing and to reading. I believe they have given me a lifelong advantage to be nimble with writing everything from editorial pieces to speeches to blurbs to articles and book chapters. The breadth and variety of writing is a marvel, and it takes a lifetime to master even a fraction of it – but truly to appreciate good writing.
Reading is so basic and so personally rewarding. It is a universal window into extraordinary stories and the countless ways other people think, act, and feel. Great story-telling is one of the most valuable gifts I’ve ever received at a young age – and it has made all the difference to me as a professional too.