For Burson-Marsteller CEO Don Baer, ‘eclectic career’ led to top spot

Don Baer started his career in public service at an early age. 

In the autumn of 1960, he was tooling the streets of Fayetteville, N.C., a loudspeaker strapped to the roof of the car, his father at the wheel and 6-year-old Don exhorting the citizens to “Get out and vote for John F. Kennedy!”

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At age 9, he accompanied his father, a lawyer, to the statehouse in Raleigh and met Gov. Terry Sanford, a living symbol of the new progressive South.

“It was growing up in the South in the Civil Rights era that brought me into a life of public service,” Baer told The Hill at a recent interview in the Washington offices of Burson-Marsteller, the public-relations behemoth that, in July, named him global CEO.

“My eyes were opened to the world during the Civil Rights era,” he said, noting that North Carolina under Sanford was one of the few Southern states that did not oppose public school desegregation.

“I developed a strong sense of purpose, a desire to make a difference with my life.”

He has. In high school, although not yet 18 himself, Baer worked for passage of the 26th Amendment, which made 18 the legal voting age nationwide.

“After the constitutional amendment was ratified, I worked to register 18-year-olds.”

At the University of North Carolina, Baer helped write the institution’s first affirmative action plan. Upon graduation, he considered three different career paths — the law, journalism or politics. He ended up taking all three, although not all at once. Later, he became a corporate executive.

“I’d say I’ve had an eclectic career,” Baer said with self-deprecating humor. “I’ve never been able to hold down a profession.”

He started as a media lawyer in New York City. In 1984, he re-entered North Carolina politics by working on Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt’s unsuccessful Senate campaign against the icon of the Old South, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

That was also the year that Ronald Reagan demolished Walter Mondale for the presidency, leaving the Democratic Party in disarray. Out of the ruins, the Democratic Leadership Conference took shape, advocating a “third way” between the political right and left, seeking to win back the white middle class that had abandoned the Democrats for Reagan, and featuring new young leaders like then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and -Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee.

Don Baer said he recognized the movement as the wave of the future. “People like Clinton and Gore showed us a positive way out of the South for politicians,” he said.

Baer credits Clinton as one of the great influences in his life, but he did not rush into the fray as a New Democrat in the mid-1980s. Instead he went into journalism, covering politics, the White House and international affairs for the U.S. News & World Report from 1985-1993.

It was fellow North Carolinian David Gergen who brought Baer to the weekly news magazine. When Clinton, elected president in 1992, tapped Gergen as an adviser, Gergen recommended Baer as a presidential speechwriter. He worked on each of Clinton’s State of the Union speeches from 1995-2000, speeches that have been credited with helping to save Clinton’s presidency, first from the Republican juggernaut that captured both houses of Congress in 1994 and then from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

From speechwriter, Baer moved up to White House director of communications and was instrumental in Clinton’s reelection in 1996.

“I’m idealistic. I know some people call that naïve,” Baer said. “I have not always been thrilled with the challenges the nation has faced. And at any job, there are times when you think, ‘Is this what it’s all about?’ But I know you have to stay involved to be able to make a difference.”

Baer entered the corporate world after leaving the White House, taking a senior executive post with global media company Discovery Communications. Involved in multiple aspects of management, Baer most publicly fed his passion for making a difference through the production and promotion of documentaries.

He produced the 2004 Emmy-winning documentary series “Decisions That Shook the World,” which presented FDR’s decision to arm Britain, LBJ’s support of civil rights legislation and Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative.

He followed that with a Discovery/New York Times collaboration for television documentaries based on the work of columnist Thomas Friedman.

“I also drove the creation of Silverdocs,” Baer said, referring to the Discovery/American Film Institute’s internationally acclaimed annual event in Silver Spring, Md., that Variety magazine dubbed the “nonfiction nirvana.”

The Discovery Channel, he said, “opens up awareness of the world” with the “highest-quality content.”

In 2007, he joined Burson-Marsteller as a member of the public relations firm’s global senior management team. In July, he became the company’s worldwide president and CEO.

He remains confident that he is making a difference in his new role.

“It’s sad, in a way, that we’ve become so cynical about business in this country,” he said, noting that the majority of his corporate clients dedicate “extraordinary amounts of resources to bolster the economy and help people re-enter the job market.”

His clients often want his help to “drive conversation around the big issues.”

He pointed to Burson-Marsteller’s work for Microsoft in developing “Conversations With the Next Generation,” two highly successful electronic “town hall” forums — one held during each of the national political conventions.

“Each lasted three and a half hours, engaging the young in a national conversation about prospects and possibilities,” he said. “Keeping the conversation going is what it’s all about.”

Baer said that keeping the conversation going is also essential on Capitol Hill.

“Our clients are very concerned about the major issues facing the nation — the breakdown of the political process, debt issues, education, the re-education of the workforce. They are responsible for large enterprises, and they are being held back by the situation in Washington.”

Baer said that corporate leaders “are builders, optimistic by nature, but they are frustrated.”

He said he shares the optimistic view that lawmakers can resolve their differences sufficiently to move the country forward.

“We’ve done it before. Tax reform in 1986, debt reduction and welfare reform in the Clinton years, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind — there was bipartisan support for each of these efforts. And we can do it again. But it requires leadership, someone who can step across party lines.

“The costs of not doing it are so horrendous, it’s hard to imagine we won’t get it done.”