Getting to the Heart of the Story: A Q&A with Professors Mike Fernandez and Gary Sheffer

Professors Gary Sheffer and Mike Fernandez, previous VP/C-suite executives, are taking a new turn in their careers by launching a PR podcast called The Crux.

The COMmunicator sat down with them to discuss how it all started, and what exactly goes into managing a project like this.

 

 

Maya Taylor: Both of you have quite impressive backgrounds. Could you provide an overview of both your educational and career experience, to show how you have reached the point you’re at now?

Gary Sheffer: I graduated from Siena College with a bachelor’s in English Literature. I wanted a master’s, but I didn’t have any money. I had spent 36 years in journalism, political communications and corporate. I retired from GE in 2016 and then I guest lectured here at BU along with Professor Wright. I’ve spoken at a number of communication schools with Mike [Fernandez]. I had always loved coming to BU and found that the students were different in that they asked very good questions. So, I accepted a job offer, and I’ve been here ever since.

Mike Fernandez: I think our journeys are interesting because we’re both very fortunate to have had the careers that we’ve had, coming from families that were of modest means. My father grew up in Spanish-Harlem, and my mother lived in an orphanage in South Carolina. When I went off to school they didn’t know what that experience was like. They bought me new clothes… what did clothes look like in the 70s? You’re talking Saturday Night Fever. I got into the Georgetown University honors program with a scholarship in the government department. I then went to night school while working at Capitol Hill and got a master’s degree in accounting. It doesn’t sound too interesting, but it was enormously helpful for what I would later do.

I also had known Professor Wright for a long time. I knew a lot of people from their professional backgrounds. I was looking at BU because of my son who was looking at schools at the time; he met with professors, and I met professors with him. I worked as CCO for five very large companies, including Cargill, for 20+ years. My last role was overseeing public relations, government relations, corporate marketing, sustainability, etc., so it was a big job, and I was a co-chair of the company’s risk committee. I also decided to retire in 2016. To be truthful, I was in his [Sheffer’s] going away party video.

 

MT: Given your different backgrounds, how did you two come together and decide to take on this project?

GS: Well, Mike had the idea, and the first day we were here, he said, “Let’s do this!” He already had a ton of ideas. I agreed to do it, but I also had to think to myself, “What do I bring to BU?” I bring experience, and I bring my network. Because of that, we can get some great guests on the podcast. We can talk to our peers, but we can also talk to students on issues relevant to them. With Amanda and Rachel [our assistants] solely just being in the recording studio, they’re getting a lot out of it. Plus, I thought it’d be fun! And it has been.

MF: I wanted to have a conversation. We kicked around half a dozen different names. Dean Fiedler was great in helping us; I sent him three pages with names, formats, everything. We are really inspired by The Pollsters podcast, run by two women who do survey research and talk not just about politics, but the art of it as well. We’ve already had the CCO for Dunkin’, a women who used to be the CCO for the Olympic committee, Dean Fiedler, and if the world doesn’t blow up tomorrow, we will be recording with Matt Murray, who is the top editor of the Wall Street Journal.

 

MT: How did you come up with the name, The Crux?

GS: It’s like the subscript of communications and meant to get to the heart of the story. We are on Soundcloud, and now we’re going through the process of being available on Apple Music, so once we get Apple’s approval, we will be able to market ourselves. We’re also finalizing a Facebook and Twitter. I’m hoping to provide instructive storytelling and thinking for students to see what it’s really like inside of these jobs that are so sought after.  

MF: We filed as The Crux, because the word crux is used in so many ways. We’re taking the first steps, but it’s been fun and interesting. We do two tapings for each show, one tape as an interview, but we also tape a segment about the news of PR in a given week. A lot of what you get in the classroom is often times about the theory of how things operate. We are hoping to provide a lens because of the networks we have. We want to bring in a lot of individuals who have a similar hand.

 

MT: What is your typical routine in preparing for a podcast episode?

GS: We have to do more! We make sure we really know the guests coming on. But, at the end of the day, we are still just practitioners.

MF: We read a lot, talk to a lot of people, try to talk about what’s in the news that relates to the profession, and see where we could provide some insight that no one else has yet. We mostly try to tell stories that are interesting, funny, and honest.

 

MT: What is the main focus that connects all of your individuals podcasts together?

MF: We try to be aligned with current issues and culture, and what people gravitate towards. We talk about things that are important, and we are also not afraid to ask touchy questions. When I was at GU, we had a lot of Jesuit priests, particularly in my first two years of being there, and they were very keen on saying, “Questions are more important than the answers,” which is the ability to ask a good question to see how these individuals who have heralded careers respond, and to see what’s next.

GS: Networking. We had Becky Edwards on the show, who left the National Olympic Committee, and who worked at GE with me. I asked her on the podcast about the sustainability of the Olympic Games and whether they can go on because they are so costly, so to Mike’s point, we get to talk to them about what’s next and their future, so that’s what I mean when I talk about networking.

 

MT: Can you tell us about your assistants?

GS: We wouldn’t get anything done without them. They’re two graduate students here. They help us with the technology. One of them, Rachel Walman, has been particularly helpful with our social media site launch. We want to do more discussions with them about topics because they bring a generational point of view. We run things by them and their successors to see what young people are talking about, and it is so helpful to me and our discussions. But on the podcast, we haven’t incorporated students yet.

MF: Amanda, who has taken courses in production and worked at a TV station recently, has been extremely knowledgeable with the edits.  

 

MT: What new skills have you learned by starting this project?

GS: That I like to talk! Especially with communications and PR, I have to be very on point and concise, so reflecting back on the first few episodes… I hate listening to my own voice. I’ve also learned that everybody has a story, and that so many people in this business have done amazing things. That has taught me to look for a story that is engaging, not obvious.

MF: They tell me I have a face for radio. This project has taught me to really think about if you can you lead the witness to go to a place you’re not even thinking about yet, to a place neither one of us can expect.

 

MT: What are three attributes you think someone needs to kickstart a project like this?

MF: Good graduate assistants, not to be redundant to the audience, and to be fresh but also be serious and fun and continue to look at people who are coming onto campus.

GS: It’s like starting a business. You have to have a value proposition, but not get too corporate about it. It’s something unique. There’s a space for this kind of podcast, and what we bring to it with the network that we have.

 

MT: Where do you see your career going in the next 5-10 years?

GS: I love BU. Certainly it will involve BU. I’m a professor of the practice, and I want to continue that. The only ambition I have is I hope people will find it interesting and funny and helpful. We have our own logo, we’re getting t-shirts… we’re like kids! I have no greater wish than to make it valuable to people. Most importantly, it’s about attracting people to the profession because 1) it’s great work, and 2) it rebuilds trust.

 

 

 

Maya Taylor, Staff Writer

Maya Taylor is currently a junior in the College of Communication studying mass communication. She was born and raised in Pennsylvania, but hopes to move to NYC after graduation to pursue her love of fashion.

 

 

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