Q&A: Beer, teachers, developers and Clinton highlight Bob Nelson’s 40 years in politics and advertising
Shawn VanDiver interviewed MNM’s Bob Nelson to help mark the 40th anniversary of the launch of Nelson’s first company, Nelson Communications Group. A contributor to USA Today and The Guardian, VanDiver is a Navy veteran, president of VanDiver Consulting and a director of the San Diego Chapter of Truman National Security Project. A longtime friend and sailing buddy of Bob Nelson, VanDiver is a community organizer and leader in San Diego.
Q. Tell us a little about your upbringing and how it shaped you.
Despite having two college educated parents, I grew up poor because illness and health care expenses ravaged our family. This made me very sensitive to public policy regarding healthcare and insurance. I became exposed to public affairs because my father was a gun collector and an officer of a large gun club. He was political but not especially partisan. I learned to look at issues from different angles, not just a pre-set position. So, I learned that government plays an important role in our lives and that politics is the way we select our government. I became politicized when I was 16 because of the Vietnam war. I was a long-haired protestor but didn’t trust Democrats because President Lyndon Johnson owned the war. When I was 19 President Richard Nixon signed the law that lowered the voting age to 18 so I became a Republican.
“Donald Bren of The Irvine Company and August Busch III of Anheuser-Busch are the most visionary business people I can imagine.”
Q. You’ve had a long and successful career, including forming Nelson Communications 40 years ago. Please share the highlights.
Golly (laughs)! That’s kind of a set-up for the Grateful Dead lyric “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” Overall, I’d say starting as a one-man band in a rented office with no windows and building America’s 15th largest independent PR firm with almost 60 employees over 20 years was a great ride. The highlights? I’d have to say the incredible leaders I have had a chance to work with, two of them long time clients. Donald Bren of The Irvine Company and August Busch III of Anheuser-Busch are the most visionary business people I can imagine. Bren built a few houses in Corona Del Mar after he left the Marines. He built that into ownership of the Irvine Company with 30,000 acres of land from the Pacific Coast to the Saddleback mountains and became perhaps the largest owner of office building and apartment complexes in California. But the important thing isn’t Bren’s business success, it is his incredible over-the-horizon vision that enabled him to seize control of the company and transform the Irvine Coast and inland areas into both a fantastic residential opportunity but also create a huge habitat reserve that drove new national policy for wildlife preservation.
Q. What do you do for fun?
I sail, which played a big part in anchoring me here in San Diego. I read a lot and I watch too much Netflix. I travel, fly fish and have recently been able to get back into scuba diving.
Q. What has been your best PR or advertising experience – why?
In 1990 we took on the campaign to defeat Proposition 134, which would have massively increased California excise taxes on beer, wine and distilled spirits. I worked directly with the principals of America’s largest adult beverage manufacturers and people like Ernest Gallo taught me things about advertising and research that have informed my professional work ever since. When we signed on for the campaign, the polls showed we were behind by 70% Yes against our 17% No. On election day we prevailed with a vote of 31% Yes to 69% No. To my awareness our 52% climb is the largest-ever swing on a major California ballot proposition.
Q. You worked with the Busch family for several years. Tell us about that.
I met August Busch III by chance in a 1981 meeting in St. Louis. I was not introduced to him, so I didn’t have any clue that I was sitting in a room with the head of a dynasty and CEO of America’s largest brewer. He liked the answer I gave to a question about public affairs strategy in a fight he was having with the Governor of Illinois and he made me a consultant to the company executive office for about 12 years. I worked with them on national grassroots lobbying, creating Beer Drinkers of America. I did a lot of consulting as they developed “Know When to Say When” anti-DUI campaigns. And we helped August’s daughter, Susie, who ran Busch Entertainment and its SeaWorld division. They took fire from MADD and others for putting in a beer tasting room at SeaWorld San Diego and our people helped calm the waters. The ultimate career highlight for me was introducing August to Bill Clinton because it kind of unified my business career with my personal life.
Q. What other clients stand out and why?
I worked closely with the California Teachers Association for 13 years. It was a real honor to help that union of more than 300,000 teachers stand up for better public schools. As a high school dropout, it was always fun telling teachers in a kind of tongue-on-cheek way that California public schools did such a great job for me that I was able to leave after only 10 years of education and create a successful business.
Q. Mayor Kevin Faulconer worked for your firm in the 1990’s. Tell us about that.
Kevin was hired by our San Diego division chief, Karen Hutchens, and he became a vice president at Nelson Communications Group. He and campaign division head Rick Manter were superstars, winning voter approval for the first San Diego Convention Center expansion. They also came within a frog’s hair of winning San Diego’s last hotel tax election and would have won but for a last-minute ad attack by Doug Manchester.
Q. You left the Republican Party in 1992 and became a Democrat. What drove this change?
I was a Republican, but increasingly a pretty disgusted one, when Bill Clinton emerged. I decided that he was the person I wanted to lead America, so I met him. In a strange twist, the meeting was arranged by my first major political mentor and Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, Stu Spencer. After I met with Clinton, I immediately put together Republicans for Clinton-Gore and I organized for Clinton in several states as a volunteer campaign staff member. After the election I was invited to Little Rock to help with the Transition and I arranged for August Busch – who was also a disenchanted lifelong Republican – to come down for Clinton’s Economic Summit and have lunch with the President-elect. I’d say that lunch in a museum dining room with the two of them is about as good as it gets. And dining in the White House State Room at a table with John Glenn and President Clinton, but that’s another story.
Q. You were chair of the San Diego Convention Center board then a San Diego Port Commissioner for more than six years. Tell us what that was like.
For more than five years I helped direct efforts to expand the convention center to increase tax revenue for the city. Jerry Sanders, Scott Peters, Steve Cushman and I jointly selected the brilliant architects who have designed the new expansion and I hope to be there to cut the ribbon on opening day. Being a Port Commissioner was the best experience of my life, better even than helping elect President Clinton. The Port Commission has real power with few constraints imposed from the outside because it is an independent state agency, not under the control of any city or the county or even the governor. It is both an enlightened public agency that protects public safety and the environment and it is a business enterprise. The Port doesn't get any sales, property or income taxes. It’s only revenues come from business operations, the majority of which is large scale leases for about 20 hotels, 70 restaurants, 20 marinas plus cargo and cruise ship operations. I often spent 30 hours a week or more as an unpaid Port Commissioner and were it not for my “day job” I would have done it full time.
Q. What do you like most in a client? What do you like least?
Our best fit is with a client that has a clear objective, understands where they fit in the broader public affairs landscape, and is a value-driven organization whether they are a developer, a non-profit or a labor union. That means they genuinely care about people, the environment and fair play. What do I like least? Hmm. Clients who dither or walk the walls trying to decide what to do.
A good ad must be intrusive enough to catch one’s attention, get straight to the point and close the sale.
Q. How did you learn to write advertising copy, and please also tell us what makes a good ad?
I learned the basics in a high school journalism class. Then my first boss in political consulting, Bill Butcher, taught me how to write and design direct mail. The biggest breakthrough in broadcast advertising came from mentorship by the late Hal Larson. He taught me how to write TV and radio scripts and introduced me to The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, whose 1959 first edition was named by Time Magazine in 2011 as one of the “100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.” I make sure every new employee in our company reads it. A good ad must be intrusive enough to catch one’s attention, get straight to the point and close the sale. With one exception in my career, every TV spot I have made is only 30-seconds long; if you can’t make your point in 30 seconds don’t do it on TV. Conversely, nearly all of our radio work is in the 60-second format which fits better to calmly and clearly explain things to people who are mostly hearing it while driving. And at age 66 I am now having to relearn a lot because of the advent of social media. I don’t yet have a rule book for that, but I’m working on it.
Q. Why did you form MNM with Kelly and Tony?
Kelly Murphy Lamkin and I have been in business together since a few weeks after her dad, Dick Murphy, was re-elected as San Diego Mayor in 2004. She is gifted at working with demanding clients and busy, complex workloads. She is an expert in the water world. I got to know Tony Manolatos when he worked as Kevin Faulconer’s spokesman and deputy chief of staff when Kevin was on the City Council. I had seen Tony’s work as Kevin dealt with highly sensitive matters on the City Council’s Audit and Budget committees. Later, I faced a crisis as chairman of the Port Commission. Our CEO stumbled on an ethics technicality and we needed to bring in an outside PR professional who could direct our communications efforts and process sensitive legal issues. Tony did outstanding work for the Port. So when Kelly and I decided to launch a new venture that would be more broadly focused than our other company, BNA Communications, which works primarily with water utility companies, we began talking with Tony. He has proved to be a really valuable partner and I am very proud of his work for our clients and his mentorship for our staff, and for me. I tell people Tony is the best PR guy in San Diego not because it’s a great talking point. I tell them that because it’s true.
I think MNM will be one of the three dominant advertising and PR firms in San Diego that focuses on clients who intersect with public policy.
Q. What’s next for you and MNM?
I keep trying to find time to retire and I hope to do so in a few years. The challenge, not the money, keeps me on the job. I think MNM will be one of the three dominant advertising and PR firms in San Diego that focuses on clients who intersect with public policy, which is different from consumer brands. In the 1990s there was an incredible crop of talent that grew at Nelson Communications Group in San Diego. I would like to see MNM produce a solid decade of attracting, nurturing and growing another class of ethical communicators. That would give me a great deal of satisfaction.
Q. You are well known in San Diego political circles, so if you’re willing please share with us some of your predictions for the 2018 and 2020 elections.
It’s all just conjecture, I don’t have any research data on any of these so take these as hunches, not predictions. Also, I should note that while MNM does take on ballot campaigns, our firm does not work on candidate campaigns in part because they’re so divisive. The 2018 ballot propositions are going to create a lot of confusion, especially the competing proposals for the Qualcomm stadium land. History suggests that will make both of them fail after spending millions of dollars and possibly muddying the water for the Convention Center expansion. If the Convention Center campaign can help voters understand that it is an entirely different matter that has nothing to do with the fight over Mission Valley, I think that wins and likely wins by a healthy margin because most San Diegans like and appreciate the tax revenue that the Convention Center creates.
On the candidate side, it is always a mistake to predict and I am not going to do so. I think the most likely winners for the Board of Supervisors are Nathan Fletcher and David Alvarez. That would be quite a shakeup and I personally think it would bring a great deal of energy to the Board. For Congress, Scott Peters and Susan Davis will have easy victories, Mike Levin or Sara Jacobs will likely face off against Rocky Chavez, and former SEAL Josh Butner will probably be up against Duncan Hunter unless Hunter retires. If he stays in the race, my guess is that Hunter loses.