Start Here / Never Stop Podcast: Joyce Fitzpatrick ’76

Alumna Joyce Fitzpatrick ’76 is the owner of Fitzpatrick Communications, Inc. with thirty years of experience helping clients use public relations to their advantage. Her strategic planning and innovative thinking helps clients successfully change opinions, achieve business goals and get noticed.

Fitzpatrick implements successful and award-winning public relations strategies for corporations, law firms, universities, museums and non-profit organizations. She works closely with industries ranging from real estate and manufacturing to utilities to financial services. Her special expertise in crisis communications allows her to provide valuable counsel to clients during times of major change.

Fitzpatrick is the chair of the Board of Advisers of the School of Media and Journalism. She lectured on communications at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, The Kenan-Flagler School of Business, Wake Forest University, George Washington University and the Georgetown University Law Center.


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This is the Start Here / Never Stop podcast with Dean Susan King of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. 

00:00:18 Dean Susan King: Hello. This is Susan King, the Dean of the School of Media and Journalism, here at UNC-Chapel Hill with our alum, Joyce Fitzpatrick class of ’76, who everyone likes to call the “queen of crisis communication.” Welcome, Joyce.

00:00:32 Joyce Fitzpatrick: Glad to be here, Susan, thank you.

00:00:35 King: We want to start really talking about the public relations field. Because when you were here, it was almost not a field, it was not as important as it is now. It’s the largest area of study for our students. What kind of lured you into this? How did you define this as the world you wanted to enter?

00:00:55 Fitzpatrick: Great question, Susan. When I was a student in a journalism school in the ’70s we only had the news ed sequence and the advertising sequence. And I knew that neither one of those fit me quite perfectly, although I was a news ed major. And so frankly, I didn’t know there was such a thing as public relations. All I knew is that I wanted to tell people’s stories in a different way. So, I feel really good about the fact that I did have that news editorial background, because what that does is help you learn to write every day under all kinds of circumstances, early morning, late night. And I feel that that’s still a fundamental talent or skill that you have to have in public relations. So, I feel good about my background, but certainly now having taught in the school and seeing these amazing young people coming out of the school, I know that our public relations sequence is extremely robust.

00:02:10 King: Give me a sort of sense of the vision that you had then and how you would describe it now because it really wasn’t the field it was in the ’70s that it is now.

00:02:19 Fitzpatrick: Now, I mean, again, I felt that I was discovering a whole new field. Yeah, I really didn’t know that there was a thing called public relations. I went straight to Washington, D.C., after graduating — actually, I first worked for a book publishing company, briefly before I went to Washington and — I thought I wanted to be in the publishing business. Got to Washington, got a job with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Now, at that time, as you know, Susan, Washington was a government town, and not much of a private sector. So, lots and lots and lots of associations. So, I got this job as an editor and public relations person for the Association of Governing Boards, which was an organization that trained and helped college and university trustees understand their governance responsibilities. Heaven knows, I didn't know how handy that would come in...

00:03:25 King: *laughs* I was just thinking the same thing.

00:03:27 Fitzpatrick: ...later in my career, when I seemed to have a practice that specialized in higher education crisis. So I got a good schooling, worked for a wonderful guy who was my mentor — became my mentor — his name was Bob Gale, he was one of the first employees in the Peace Corps, was in the Kennedy administration, he was head of Young Democrats for Humphrey  in ’68 — just an amazing guy — And he introduced me to everybody in in Washington, D.C., who was anybody in the field of journalism, public relations and advertising. So I had a really amazing mentor, which meant so much to me and my career. And I've tried to do the same thing for young people coming out of our school.

00:04:12 King: And it really is the bridge between the world of journalism, which has changed now, because it’s — everybody’s in journalism, if you count social media — and organizations and individuals who need someone to help them navigate that, right? 

00:04:25 Fitzpatrick: Exactly. I look at myself as a facilitator or interpreter. I always felt that there was some sort of artificial barrier between the media and organizations that need to tell their stories or companies that need to tell their story. And so, I always saw myself as almost a doubles partner helping get the ball over the net for the journalists, and vice versa, help the corporations and institutions that I represented, tell their story effectively.

00:05:01 King: And then crisis communications really was not a field either in the ’70s?

00:05:07 Fitzpatrick: Hmm... Yeah, go ahead.

00:05:08 King: No, and it’s now a whole specialty. So tell me how that emerged. How did you see it?

00:05:13 Fitzpatrick: Well. After a brief stint with the Association of Governing Boards in Washington, I met a woman named Myra Peabody [Gossens] and she was in the Carter Administration — this is aging me now, Susan, that I’m talking about all of these past presidents — but she was in the Carter administration, and she had come back from a trip around the world. And she was eager to start a new kind of communications firm, and recruited me — at the ripe age of 25 — to start a business in Washington, D.C. Two females starting a business in Washington, D.C. I was 25. And she was 30. It was right before Ronald Reagan was elected. And actually, with his election, as you know, the private sector in in Washington boomed, and we found a niche representing not only nonprofit museums and higher education institutions, but also corporations new to Washington, needing to understand how Washington works. One of our very first clients was Gallaudet University. 

00:06:20 King: Oh, wow! 

00:06:21 Fitzpatrick: Gallaudet University is a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. It’s congressionally mandated. And they had been a client of ours for quite some time when they were in the process of a search for a new president. And at that time, the students at Gallaudet had made it very clear that they felt that Gallaudet needed a deaf president — hard of hearing president — not somebody who was not one of them. And so the search was conducted, and we were representing the Board of Trustees, and the university — because they were going for they were under scrutiny by the Reagan administration in terms of budget — and the search turned up a candidate, the leading candidate who was actually ironically from North Carolina, from UNC-G. And she was an amazing woman, but she was not from the deaf community. And so immediately upon the announcement of her choice, as president, the students rioted. Took over the campus. And would not let the administration back into the administrative building — harkening back to the ’60s, Susan — and that all of a sudden was our first crisis client. To add a little bit of color to that. Both my partner and I were in late stages of pregnancy, while we were handling this first crisis. And it was quite a crisis. We had to have the Board of Trustees meet in our offices. They couldn’t get on campus. We tried to help them understand that this was part of a — this was really a civil rights issue. It was not just a, you know, a group of ruffled kids. And long story short, the board finally understood that it was up against something bigger than itself. And the new president resigned and a hearing, I mean, a deaf president was chosen. So we didn’t choose the crisis. The crisis chose us.

00:08:47 King: I covered that story. I remember very well, Joyce. We were — we didn’t know each other at that time. 

00:08:53 Fitzpatrick: We didn’t.

00:08:55 King: Crisis. Not everyone can handle that. There is hardly a crisis in this area in higher education and elsewhere that you haven’t been part of. What is it that helps you navigate the problems and advise the clients? What do you think your strength is?

00:09:12 Fitzpatrick: Well, thank you. Let me say this, when I made the move from Washington, D.C., back to North Carolina, in the early ’90s — for lifestyle reasons — I commuted to Washington for several years. And then thought “That’s crazy,” and opened an office here of our firm: Peabody Fitzpatrick. When I was coming back to North Carolina, it was right after the OJ Simpson trial. And I thought to myself, you know, I’m going to find, I’m going to do a really good job of researching the legal community in North Carolina. And I’m going to try to find four or five evolved attorneys for whom I can provide communications assistance in times of crisis. So I  really set about it as a research project. And I found them and I’m still working with them to this day. So I really felt that I pioneered the whole, the whole relationship between media and the law. After the OJ case, as you know, Susan, people understood that the court of public opinion was as important if not more important than any court of law. And so I started working with several attorneys, both here and in Washington, all over the East Coast, who understood that that was an important part of what they needed to provide to their clients. And so, we would work as a team. I would be hired by both the attorney, so that was covered by the privilege. And then we would work as a team sorting through the client’s needs. Many times, and still to this day, my attorney friends like to say that people are not so worried about going to prison but are really worried about being on the front page of the newspaper. And so we tried to divide up our, our time and our energy so that my attorney friends could focus on practicing law. And I could focus on trying to minimize their risk and the reputational risk in the in the news. So that’s how we started. And I would say that fundamental to what I still do today. I guess the case of my career that I’m sure you would ask me about is the Duke lacrosse case. Seems like ancient history now. But wow, completely took over my life for two years. We were retained — the attorney Wade Smith and I — were retained by one of the boys who was indicted by one of the lacrosse players. And then as the three, ultimately three boys were indicted. I ended up doing the public relations for all of the boys, the players — while each of the players had his own attorney. And that was a that was a moment, when our backs were against the wall. The media had convicted those players of a capital offense, which is great. We did focus groups in Durham, North Carolina. And we knew if this case went to trial, that those players were going to be convicted. We knew also that something was up. That something was not, was not the things did not add up. Of course, at the beginning, we did not, we had no idea that there was criminal activity on behalf of the district attorney in Durham. We finally figured that out. We also had no idea that when we asked for DNA, we asked for DNA tests. And we were told there was there was no DNA present. Hmmm. Interesting. No DNA present. How could they, how could this woman have been raped by three or four men and have no DNA evidence? What we found out later was that by asking the right questions, interesting story there, if I may, if I may, Susan, they... We got a call from a woman in California, who had worked on the Kobe Bryant case. Who told our attorneys exactly what to ask for from the company doing the DNA testing. And what it revealed was that there was DNA, there was plenty of DNA and then present on and in her body, but not the DNA of the lacrosse players. And of course, that was the break in the case. The role I played in that, because we knew we were so against — our backs were so much against the wall — is that we went to 60 Minutes, knowing that 60 Minutes likes the counterintuitive story where the good guys are the bad guys and bad guys are the good guys. And convinced them to cover the lacrosse case. They did four hour-long pieces that won tons and tons of Peabodies. And again, really turned the case around. But it took two years and it took the intervention of our North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who’s now our governor, to see that this was a case of completely — a complete fantasy. There was no rape, in this case. And we had Time magazine, Newsweek saying ”Sex, lies and lacrosse.” I mean, it was a phenomenal uphill battle for us. But we are still in touch with the players and their parents to this day. And the players have moved on. The parents I don’t think will ever move on. And Duke University — there’s a lot I could say there — Duke University I don’t think really ever dealt with the case as it should have. If you remember, they fired the lacrosse coach, ended the lacrosse season. Faculty was demanding all kinds of changes to policies at Duke around athletic teams. And you know, unfortunately, as we can see from current issues in higher education today, not many lessons learned.

00:15:29 King: But I’ll tell you something, as you’re telling that story with great attention to detail and the digging. Those news ed classes you took — back to that point of journalism — you’re really digging to get to the next part of the story. So the journalist training is really part of what makes a great public relations professional.

00:15:49 Fitzpatrick: Absolutely. And I — you know, I feel very fond of and nostalgic for the old days, Susan, where news reporters were absolutely envied and championed and celebrated. But I feel that today, even more so, I have the responsibility of making sure that as we tell our clients stories, we are being fair, accurate, and trustworthy ourselves.

00:16:25 King: You’ve been such a great friend and important leader here at the Hussman School. What makes you give back — you’re a chair of our board of advisers here, I don’t think there’s anything I’ve ever asked you to do that you haven’t said yes to — what makes you give back to us?

00:16:37 Fitzpatrick: Gosh, you know, my parents were both schoolteachers, and very much valued public education. And when I was accepted to the University of North Carolina and to the journalism school, I felt — at the very beginning — a tremendous responsibility to give back to you still today. If you look at the tuition at Chapel Hill, only one of our three children went to Chapel Hill, but I couldn’t believe it. When I got the tuition bills. I said, I called the bursor and I said “I believe there’s a mistake. I don’t believe you’ve charged me enough.” She said, “Oh, yes. Yes, yes, we have.” ”Well, I’ll take two.”

00:17:27 King: *laughs*

00:17:28 Fitzpatrick: So we — I felt since I graduated, Susan, that I could never give back to the university, what it’s given to me.

00:17:37 King: And we’re glad that you’re in our Hall of Fame. Since 2000. And you’ve helped to move that up, you saw a vision in our Halls of Fame for North Carolina. Just say a word about that. You and Meryl Rose have moved it up. So...

00:17:48 Fitzpatrick: My good buddy Meryl Rose. Our careers have tracked through the years — Washington and all over the place — and she’s one of my best friends. We decided, when you were in your just first couple years as Dean. And we value your leadership so much, Susan. That we really needed. I’ve always felt that the journalism school now that it has embraced public relations and all kinds of media. We needed to demonstrate to the world: what we teach. And what we teach in public relations is absolutely: producing events, and celebrations that model the class and the character, and the excellence that the school provides. And we felt that through the whole Hall of Fame dinner that we had been having annually for many, many years, that we really needed to make that event more visible, more fun. And because we have so many people who celebrate who have come through either our school or have had some connections North Carolina. So Meryl and I wanted to show the school and to show the university and to show the State of North Carolina what we have here, the treasure that we have. And we hope — we’re trying to do that Susan. And I hope you’ll agree.

00:19:18 King: Oh, totally agree. Plus, you’re helping us to raise some money, which I’m very grateful for. I guess this conversation shows why you became a distinguished young alumna at UNC in ’95. And why we can see you’re a Hall of Famer for sure. But you’re also one of the Triangle’s most powerful women by the Business Journal. So, keep it up!  Thank you for giving us your time and for being always not only a great advocate, but a great storyteller. 

00:19:47 Fitzpatrick: Thank you, Susan.