To the Point: An Interview with Fels' Eric Rabe

Thu, 2011-12-29 16:39

Eric Rabe, former Verizon Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications, and head of Eric Rabe Communication Strategies, joined the Fels Institute of Government last spring to work closely with Fels Research & Consulting

As an R&C Senior Advisor, Eric has helped re-think, re-launch, and re-invigorate Fels’ innovative consulting practice which utilizes the talent of its graduate students, faculty and staff to provide high-quality services to governments and nonprofits. 

In particular, Eric has been a core member of the team developing the upcoming Promising Practices Report: The Rise of Social Government. The report will be the go-to guide for local governments looking to use social media to effectively communicate with their constituents. Based on his communications experience and expertise, coupled with original research, this report will guide users through the complexities and common pitfalls associated with social media.

Eric’s journey to Fels has been unique – from news reporting to corporate media relations – and he brings with him a distinct perspective regarding public administration. In his own words, below are Eric’s thoughts about his career path, his role at Fels, and the importance of strategic and clear communication in the public sector.

On Working His Way Up

I’m from Clearfield County in central Pennsylvania, in rural Appalachia. I majored in Journalism at Penn State and went to work in television news. I became the anchor and news director for the TV station in Altoona, the nearest one to Clearfield. After about five years, I came to Philadelphia to work at Channel 10 WCAU and then moved on to Metro Media in Washington, DC, which eventually became Fox. 

Most of my time in DC was spent covering the US capitol, White House, State Department and other national news. This was during the Regan administration, so I covered the Nicaraguan rebels, the Challenger explosion and aftermath, and the Regan tax reform issues. It was a great place to work - I was on the air every day, something I couldn’t have done as a freshman reporter at a “big three” network.  I got to write and produce the stories. 

Journalism gets you into situations that are unimaginable – the White House one day, a slum the next. You’re informing people and helping to change the way things are done. It’s a very satisfying job, but after about 15 years, I was ready to move on.

After watching people try to deal with the news media, I started a small consulting firm. Based on that business, I had an opportunity to work with Bell Atlantic, which later became Verizon. I was with Verizon for 20 years. 

On 9/11

For me, the tragedy of 9/11 was compounded by the operations crisis Verizon went through immediately following the terror attacks and my role in dealing with this crisis. Verizon operated the communications network in New York City, and still does. Our communications hub – not only for phone, but for all the data circuits in and out of the financial district - was located in a building right next to the north tower of the World Trade Center. When the WTC fell, debris hit our building (140 West Street) which housed 400,000 data circuits and processed millions and millions of bits of data every second – a huge center. 

It was a huge national priority to get the stock market open again as symbolic that terrorists cannot take down American capitalism. It was more than just, ‘could we do business again?’, it was saying to the world that, you might be able to perpetrate something really horrible against us, but you won’t defeat us. It really became a national priority at a high level. We had a lot of help and advice. 

We had thousands of people come to lower Manhattan within 24 hours to fix fundamental things – laying cable, doing hard, physical work. Our crews would come in, sleep in their trucks, come back to work after a four hour nap. And that went on for days, working in this very dirty, dusty environment. Nobody knew what you were breathing. Your throat would get raw. Within a week, people were donating, they had figured out how to get food and water down there, but for the first 2 days afterward, it was terrible, a complete wasteland. Not just where the Trade Center was, but the whole lower part of Manhattan. 

My role in this was to communicate on this crisis. I was doing television interviews almost every hour. The strategy was to communicate as much as we could. We were trying to be candid about the problems we faced and be positive about our ability to fix it. Of course, at that point we didn’t quite know what it was going to take to fix it. 

On Influencing Public Policy

My first interface with public policy was handling the political and public outcry when Verizon wanted to provide customers with Caller-ID. From the company’s point of view, we felt that this was a worthwhile service that could be provided to our customers. The state of Pennsylvania thought it was an invasion of privacy for us to provide the phone number to the person being called. The public policy debate about this went on for months. New Jersey had decided to allow it. Pennsylvania was adamantly against it.  Consumer advocates were saying this was a terrible thing. 

It’s a real example of how public policy can get disconnected from real people’s lives. The concerns were legitimate, but so were the benefits. It was my job to communicate the benefits of this brand-new technology to consumers and regulators.  

On the policy-front, there were many issues in which Verizon was interested - not just telecommunications, but things like health care. Verizon employs 150,000 people who rely on the company for healthcare benefits. At the time, this costs Verizon about $4 billion.

As a communications strategist, I had to battle the common misconception that, as a big corporation, our only motivation was to make money. People always assume the worst about large companies, but being open and honest about issues helped mitigate many concerns.

On Joining Fels

The people at Fels are trying to do good for their community, and that’s the best impetus for government. In joining Fels, I thought I could bring to the table my communications experience, particularly my experience in issue management. Issue management is the public relations practice of spotting issues that could be troublesome before they are troublesome and preparing for that. In the best case, it is making sure the issues are handled sensitively before they become a problem. It is learning how to adjust operations to legitimate community concerns. This is an important skill for public administrators. I’d like to help people who will be working in government understand these kinds of communications issues and the responsibilities they demand. 

On Social Media

I developed Verizon’s social media presence. I’ve got a long background in social media. When the Fels Social Media project came around, I thought it would be a great fit for me since it’s personally interesting, and I thought I could helpful. This kind of project can be a way that Fels can raise its profile nationally by providing needed information to city and state administrators who are working alone to understand one of the most dramatic shifts in the way we communicate since the printing press.  I’ll be disappointed if our report isn’t a national best seller!

Interview conducted by Christina Tierno, MPA '11 and Associate Consultant