Like many companies, our employees have spent most of 2020 working from home, alternating between Zoom meetings, virtual school, and making another grilled cheese sandwich. In the evenings, we suddenly have more time on our hands. No ballgames. No gatherings with friends. No nonprofit or business dinners.
When it’s done right, isolation and idleness provide some great time for reflection – to think about what, and who, is important to you.
Which brings me to Chuck Schnake.
This year our firm, Schnake Turnbo Frank, turns fifty. Chuck started the company in Tulsa in 1970, after his previous employer, Sunray DX, gave him the choice of being laid off or moving to Philadelphia. Chuck stayed put, and hung out his shingle. It was one of the first public relations firms in Tulsa, and to this day is the oldest in the state.
Although I had known Chuck’s name and reputation for years, I never met him until the week I started at the firm, in 2001. We had an instant connection. He was one-of-a-kind: thoughtful, quick witted, curious, never one to seek the spotlight. Chuck was a mentor and friend to me, up until the day he died in 2009.
In researching a book I’m writing about the firm, I’ve gained some insight into what shaped Chuck’s thinking – which in turn shaped our firm. In 1958, Chuck read “Corporate Public Relations,” by John W. Hill, co-founder of a prestigious New York-based PR firm.
“That’s when I began to see there was another level of the game,” he wrote to one of the firm’s employees in the 2000s. “The true essence of public relations is how an organization behaves – not just how well it communicates. Good deeds first. Good words second. This concept is so simple that it is nearly absurd.”
During my first week on the job, Chuck plopped down in my office for one of his patented deskside chats. “I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard from a client in duress,” he said. “Their first question is, ‘What do I say?’ My response is always, ‘Let’s talk first about what you’re going to do. Then we can figure out what to say.’”
Deeds first. Words second.
It may seem counterintuitive for a company whose roots are in PR to not focus on words – not on news releases, or speeches, or talking points – but on behaviors and values. But Chuck was right. To properly manage your reputation, focus on your actions. “How do you avoid getting bad press?” Chuck asked rhetorically. “Simple. The best way to avoid bad press is to avoid bad behavior.”
Sorting through some old files for a fiftieth anniversary promotion, last week I found another nugget of Chuck’s wisdom: “Your word is only as good as your last deed.”
Chuck was never a member of Rotary. He’d rather have been in a conference room, brainstorming with a client. But I can say with confidence that Rotary’s Four-Way Test – about truth, fairness, goodwill and common benefit – would have struck a chord.
We live in divisive, anxious times. There is no shortage of words in the world. But there’s always room for good deeds.
Let’s make sure our deeds are worth talking about.