January 31, 2014
Courtney Dreyer, APR, J.D., is senior manager of contract compliance and trade secrets at DuPont Pioneer in Johnstown, Iowa.
This past fall, she also won the grand prize — an all-expenses-paid trip to International Conference — in PRSA’s Winning National Network Sweepstakes, a campaign recognizing members’ involvement and dedication to the Society’s growth.
In addition to working in various roles for the DuPont and Pioneer businesses for more than 12 years, Dreyer worked in public relations for The Integer group and FJCandN, and she serves on the board of the Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity. She graduated from the University of Northern Iowa and Drake Law School and currently lives with her family in the Des Moines, Iowa area.
Dreyer began working in the industry at age 12 while detasseling corn for $7 per hour as a summer job.
“It does build an incredible work ethic in someone because it’s not easy work, but I never really knew what I was doing and how that fit into the seed corn development process,” she says, adding that she didn’t realize how important this role is or that she would still be involved in the agriculture industry today.
Why did you decide to go into public relations and how did you come to work for DuPont Pioneer?
While I was in high school, I heard a college student explain his major, public relations. And the minute I heard him describe all the different career possibilities, I immediately knew that’s what I wanted to do and that I would be good at it.
I’m probably the only person I know in college who declared a major and never changed. I’ll always consider myself a communicator first and foremost, even as an attorney.
I worked in agencies right out of school, and I hadn’t thought about working for a corporate entity. But a friend who worked at Pioneer called me and said there was an opening in the public affairs group. I held several different roles in that organization for about eight years before I moved into biotech affairs and regulatory while I was going to law school. And now, I’m in the legal department.
Why did you make that mid-career switch?
I came from agencies where I worked with ski resorts and Hard Rock Café. And [now] people say, ‘Oh, you work for a seed company. How is that interesting?’
It’s a privilege to get to go to work every day for a company that’s trying to address the world’s greatest challenge: global food security or food insecurity. We are trying to figure out how to feed the world.
And while it isn’t glamorous like working with celebrities, it feels good to be contributing to society and figuring out how we are going to help prevent 26,000 deaths every day from starvation. More people die every day from starvation than existed in my hometown growing up.
This was my first corporate PR job. Even five to eight years into it, I decided I want to be here for the rest of my career. I want to contribute even beyond press releases, talking points and communication. I want to be at the table, helping make the decisions.
What is your job like each day?
I wear three different hats. I work on contract compliance. I work on trade secret compliance. And then I also do some legal counseling. Each of those roles is vastly different.
From a compliance standpoint, I’m making sure that the contracts are written exactly the way we intended so that when we’re interpreting them, we get the right outcome.
You write a contract planning the divorce even though you’re working on the marriage proposal, so to speak. You always have to think about how this might end badly.
From a trade secret perspective, it’s been a communications campaign in our organization to help people understand what trade secrets are.
Can you explain what a trade secret is for our readers who may not know the term?
A lot of people don’t know what a trade secret is — it’s a standard operating procedure, a strategic plan, a way in which we do things. It’s not something that’s patentable, generally.
What challenges do you face in your day-to-day job?
Teaching clients what can be privileged (and what can’t) is a challenge. All of a sudden, you can waive privilege because you forwarded an email that was from your attorney.
And helping other parts of the business — not the communications team — choose the right words to say what they intended to say in a succinct manner is a challenge for anybody.
We all communicate every day, so we all think we’re good at it. But most people don’t have hours and hours of training on how to communicate efficiently.
What makes your job unique?
As an attorney, having a background as a communicator is incredibly valuable. When I come into a situation, whether it’s a communications issue or a legal issue, I’m looking at it from both aspects.
I may come into it and say from a legal aspect — here’s what we can and can’t do. And then I can also say, from a communication standpoint, how might that be perceived? What kind of considerations do we need to take into account from all of our stakeholders?
How do you communicate with so many different organizational departments and make sure that everyone’s on the same page?
One of the greatest challenges in any organization is communication. It’s all about openness and transparency.
If you make the message personal, then people are more apt to accept it and change their behavior. It is important to work with all the functions and help them understand the communication aspect of what they’re doing.
The program may be perfect. But if you don’t tell people why we’re doing it, it doesn’t matter.
For you, what is the value of PRSA membership and continuing education?
It’s important to be involved in organizations like PRSA. You’re continuing that learning process — either informally through the relationships that you build, or formally, like attending a conference such as the PRSA International Conference.
[It] was great to do that this year, through the generosity of the organization, and to learn from formal presentations and motivational speakers.
Being a part of PRSA for the past 15-plus years has been a great benefit to me as a communications person. It is a way to stretch your mind and learn about new processes and tactics, even though you might not be in a graduate program.
What advice do you have for young people entering the profession?
First, do as many internships as you can. I did four internships by the time I graduated from college. And even then, it was hard to get an actual PR job right after graduation.
Not only does it give you that experience to get your foot in the door, but it also gives you an idea of what kind of communications you’d like to do.
I would also say start at an agency. I tell people a year at an agency is kind of like dog years. It’s like seven years of experience in corporate communications because you are doing so much.
And then, read and write. Read as much as you can — anything you can get your hands on. The more you read, the better a writer you will become, which is my last piece of advice: Write, write, write. When you have an opportunity to write or to edit other people’s work, do it. Use everything you can as an opportunity to practice your writing.
What trends do you think we’ll see more of looking into 2014? What do PR professionals and communicators need to know right now?
Be concise and succinct. You can tweet 140 characters. But recently, a speaker was saying that we need to make it 120 so the next person who retweets it has the ability to comment or add a link.
Media and organizations are going to have to become a lot more targeted, because buying the front page of a section of The Wall Street Journal or USA Today is so expensive. You’re hitting a lot of people you want, but probably many more that you don’t need.
Identifying the [opportunities] where you’re targeting exactly who you want — it’s almost surgical in who you’re going after — will become important. It’s all about communicating. It’s all about how concise, succinct and convincing you can be.
Favorite leisure activities?
Gardening, going to the movies or catching up on three lost years of TV shows from during law school.
“Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch and Sheila McGraw — I have three sons.
“The Usual Suspects” and “The Wizard of Oz” — How’s that for diversity?!
Best places to travel?
Sundance and Park City, Utah; Oregon Caves National Monument; Saint-Malo, Mont Saint-Michel and Normandy, France
Managing Editor Amy Jacques interviewed Courtney Dreyer, APR, J.D., for this month’s member profile.