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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Five Minutes with a Legend: James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, CCEP (Part I)

When a crisis comes calling, people call Jim Lukaszewski. His name has appeared in Corporate Legal Times as one of "28 Experts to Call When All Hell Breaks Loose," and in PR Week as one of 22 "crunch-time counselors who should be on the speed dial in a crisis." Lukaszewski's practice is in New York; since he is originally from Minnesota, we took some time to catch up with him. This is the first of two parts.

1.  How did you get or make the chance to go to New York?

It was really a fortunate accident. For some years, Chester Burger, a public relations and management communication specialist and consultant, was our business advisor. His firm was based in New York City on Madison Avenue. In early 1986, we were at a crossroads in our existing business, and it became clear that we would be making a change. Chet Burger called and asked if I was interested in coming to New York and working for his firm. My wife and partner, Barbara, was on an extension phone a short distance away. I looked at her, she gave a thumbs up, and the rest, as they say, is history.

James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, CCEP
2.  What are some of the differences between practicing PR from the Twin Cities and from New York?

The fundamentals of practicing public relations are pretty uniform all across America. Americans invented public relations, after all. Perhaps the biggest difference is the mindboggling number of firms. Even in New York, most firms practice locally, which is called BosNeyWa -- the Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. corridor. There are also significant numbers of firms who have national and international clients. It's probably pretty analogous to Minneapolis-St. Paul, which is also a national center for communications expertise; the difference is primarily in scale.

3.  You graduated from Robbinsdale High School in 1960, then got your bachelor's degree from Minnesota Metropolitan University in 1974 after having attended Macalester College, some night school and the University of Minnesota. What took you so long?

I was a college student who spent many years majoring in self-discovery. My father paid for my freshman year at Macalester, and after that I worked my way through. I finally graduated when they invented Metropolitan State University, a school for people just like me -- adults with lots of credits and valuable life experience, looking for a place to bring it all together. There are two reasons why I am where I am:  Barbara and Metropolitan State University. The school began as a state college in 1971; I signed up in 1972 and graduated in 1974 as one of the first 100 graduates of the institution. The university has been and remains a part of my life.

4.  How did you decide to go into PR after studying chemistry, physics, liberal arts and pharmacy?

I entered college in 1960, three years after the Russians launched the first Earth satellite (Sputnik). As a nation, we rose up to meet the challenge that this international American embarrassment represented. My guess is that during that time, the highest registrations of science and engineering students as a percentage of college enrollments was reached. I was carried along by the enthusiasm. However, the word calculus kept coming up, and I've never been able to reliably add, subtract, multiply and divide (Barbara can). My future needed to be from some other place.

5.  Most of your PR career has been devoted to crisis communications, situations you describe as tough, touchy and highly sensitive, involving contention, anti-corporate activism, victims and other angry people. How do you handle the stress?

There is very little stress in my work. It's clients who experience extraordinary stress, fear and concern, often with very good reason. It has been their misjudgments, mistakes and often failure to decisively prevent, detect and deter bad behaviors, decisions and actions that bring them to me.

The nature of my practice is such that I am usually called in when the client has tried almost everything possible to avoid doing what they know they should be doing or those they rely on for advice just don't have the necessary experience. In some cases, I arrive on the scene about the same time, or just before, the government or the police.

6.  What is the toughest, touchiest, most sensitive case you ever worked on?

First of all, I believe that I have yet to see or do the toughest, touchiest, most sensitive case of my career. My client list has always been confidential, but most of my clients are very large corporations and organizations, often international in character and scope. Although I'm not an attorney, I have a very robust litigation visibility management practice including civil, criminal, class action and bankruptcy. Almost all of my clients are under attack by their victims, offended or harmed organizations, institutions, special interests and activists. Contentiousness, anti-corporate activism, community opposition and confrontation are almost always a part of the mix. On my website,, there's a category called "Examples of Recent Projects," which lists (by practice area) several hundred types of problems I've been involved in over the years.

Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Lukaszewski later this week.

-- Brant Skogrand, APR, MBC / Risdall McKinney Public Relations

Read part two of this interview here.