“Young People Need to Know That They Can Pursue Their Dreams”
Bill Clinton’s Former Chief Speechwriter, Terry Edmonds, Shares Diverse Voices Thoughts From the Museum of Public Relations
Terry Edmonds, former Chief Speechwriter for Bill Clinton and Executive Speechwriter at IBM CHQ Communications is one of 40 extraordinary communicators featured in the new book Diverse Voices. He spoke with Doug Simon, CEO at D S Simon Media, about achieving career success while bringing diversity to an organization. The interview took place during the PRSA Museum’s fourth annual BlackPRHistory event. The event was also sponsored by the PRSA Foundation and Black Public Relations Society—NY Chapter. Terry describes his upbringing and the path he took that led him to becoming Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter. To purchase the book Diverse Voices, visit www.diverseleadership.net.
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Doug: Hi I’m Doug Simon from D S Simon. We’re here at the Museum of Public Relations. We just saw an event honoring some of the participants, those featured in the great book. One of them, Terry Edmonds is here now. Thanks so much for joining us.
Terry: Thank you.
Doug: Great. Now Terry’s had an amazing career. Among the high points, the chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. So, what were some of the key steps along the way that created that opportunity, to have such an important role in our history?
Terry: Wow. That’s a great question. I would say that from my earliest memories I’ve always loved to write and to read. And I grew up poor and in the inner city of Baltimore. And I thought that writing would be the way to get out of it—to pursue that as a career. And I wanted to go into journalism, but those doors were closed in the early 70s when I got out of Morgan State University. So I got into public relations work, and started with a nonprofit. Moved to a succession of jobs, promoting myself when whenever I hit the glass ceiling, and just kept moving in and believing in myself. And in 1993 I decided to send my resume to the Clinton Gore election team, and it popped up in the office of Donna Shalala who was the
Secretary of Health and Human Services. So I became a speechwriter for Donna Shalala in the Clinton administration, and after two years of that I got recognized and a job opened up at the White House. And I was encouraged to apply, and I did. And lo and behold I got the job and worked my way up from being a junior speechwriter to being the chief speechwriter for Bill Clinton.
Doug: And one of the themes of tonight is trying to bring more people of diversity, diverse backgrounds,
into the public relations industry. Given your sensibility at the top of government, those experiences, what are some things that—both the companies they’re trying to bring them in as well as the young people, middle people in the industry trying to grow—what are some things they need to think about to be successful?
Terry: Well the young people need to know that they can pursue their dreams. Nothing should stop them from doing that, even no matter what obstacles they face. I faced many obstacles. I’ve had my ups and downs during a very lengthy career and I think they just need to prepare themselves to seek out mentors to take courses that will prepare them. When I grew up, graduated from Morgan State University, there were no courses in public relations. Now there are quite a few to get involved in organizations like PRSA and PRSA. And for the corporations I would say it’s time to come up to the 21st century and realize that you’re not going to be successful unless you bring in people of diverse backgrounds and diverse points of view. America is quickly becoming a majority minority country. And if you want to reach out and be successful, you’re going to have to become more diverse.
Doug: You know one of the pieces that we discussed tonight was the importance of mentorship, which often said another piece that might be missed is a suggestion for young people is thinking in terms of “how can you be helping those who are more senior?” Who can give you a path to success? Because if you’re providing value to them, you’re definitely going to get some feedback, build a relationship. As a final note, just in our country right now the dialogue is so fractured if you will, and you know building trust makes it challenging for communicators. Any advice for communicators with what’s going on in the country? How can they navigate to get their message out?
Terry: Well I think. You know, with anything you have to be truthful and you have to believe in what you’re what you’re promoting. For me I’ve been fortunate to associate myself with people, organizations and causes that I could put my heart and soul into. I would caution anyone to not to work for someone that you don’t believe in or do that for any cause that you don’t believe in. And your messages have to be fact based. You know, where we’re getting into a lot of you know, the era of fake news and what have you, fact-based messaging is key to your success. And that’s what I would say.
Doug: Awesome, its great advice. Thanks so much for being with us.
Terry: All right. Thank you. I hope I added something to the conversation.