Joe Epley could write a book, a history of the economic and civic growth of Charlotte. Prominent names, such as Stan Brookshire, John and Tom Belk, Hugh McColl, Pat Hall and Stuart and Allen Dixon trip off his tongue when he reminisces about his early days in television news and public relations in the Charlotte metro area. Epley readily admits Charlotte wasn’t so metro when he first came to town in 1963. “We jokingly called it an oversized country town,” he says.“It’s really been amazing to see
the evolution of Charlotte over the past 40 years. It’s a city that has been extremely blessed with people who have foresight, individuals and families who really, truly care about their community and have put their city first.”
As an award-winning news reporter and editor for WBTV in the 1960s, Epley rubbed elbows with the movers and shakers; as founder of city’s first public relations firm, Epley guided the most influential of the city’s businessmen and politicians, and continues to do so 35 years later as president and CEO of what has become one of the Southeast’s major public relations firms, Epley Associates, Inc.
As Charlotte got on the map, so did Epley’s reputation for reliable and ethical public relations consulting; he and the city have grown together as has public relations in the region. “I had no mentors; I had no peers when I first came here,” Epley says as he explains how he founded his company. “There were no public relations firms in Charlotte, but I knew a few people.”
Despite an admonishment from his boss at WBTV who questioned why Epley wanted to jump ship to practice “this foolishness” (public relations), Epley took a risk and contacted people like Charlie Baker of HDR Engineering (still an Epley client) and began his new career, which up until that time did not include owning his own business.
The art of persuasion – military style
Epley earned his public relations stripes – his uncanny knack for swaying public opinion – while serving in the military. He attended several schools offered by the Army, studying public information, motion picture photography, special forces operations and psychological warfare, all involving the art of mass persuasion.
“It seems sort of funny for people who don’t realize that the Defense Information School was the first school certified by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA),” says Epley. “But it really gave me a leg up on a lot of people. There weren’t many schools teaching public relations in the old days.”
With drill-like precision, he translated those skills into civilian life. Epley was running successful mayoral campaigns for prominent Charlotteans such as John Belk and Eddie Knox. In fact, Epley was concerned he was too much into politics, becoming “that political guy.” He mustered his forces and began work with area businesses such as the then Charlotte Memorial Hospital. Working with Chairman of the Board Stuart Dixon and then president Harry Nurkin, he provided the public relations counsel that assisted them in expanding the hospital into today’s Carolinas HealthCare System, a global medical force, a healthcare frontrunner and dynamic teaching center.
Epley also teamed up with the late Pat Hall, another prominent Charlottean, for some fun and games. Epley learned more about public relations by introducing the concept of building an amusement park at the border of North and South Carolina. Today’s Carowinds, the well-known 105 acre theme and water park, is one of five theme parks in the Paramount family, hosting 13 million visitors annually.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris was also an early client, although it was no small task explaining to corporate leaders exactly what consulting service Epley could provide. “Back then nobody knew what public relations was,” says Epley. “I spent the first ten years explaining to people exactly what we did. I told them we are problem-solvers. We use communication to turn a problem into an opportunity.
“All of the aspects were very fulfilling for me,” Epley says, “working on the strategy development, examining how the information would be received by constituents and what the reaction would be. It was exciting to be a part of all of this.”
Epley didn’t shy away from tough public relations issues. In fact, his firm was among the first to tackle environmental issues on behalf of companies. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was coming out and jumping on everyone, particularly the chemical industry,” says Epley. “Some of it was right. Some of it was overreaction. We brought balance to the issue and helped the chemical industry in particular.”
Epley worked with Sandoz Chemicals (now Clariant Corporation) in Mount Holly to counter the EPA’s decision to make their Sodyeco plant one of the country’s first superfund sites. Plant neighbors took tours and saw the positive, environmentally sound measures employed by the manufacturer. Thanks to Epley’s input, Sandoz was prepared to educate constituents – political and the media – and present the facts that the company was environmentally responsible. According to Epley, it was a sound public relations tactic that staved off misunderstanding and misinformation. North Carolina political leadership was soon praising Sandoz for its environmental leadership.
When the Soviet Union dismantled, Epley was there
Joe Epley is also known for having put public relations as a legitimate, professional field with a code of ethics on the map in the Southeast. When first practicing, Epley had to travel out of town to attend PRSA meetings. Today, his credential list is long and his peers are at his side in Charlotte and worldwide. He served as president of both the Charlotte Chapter of PRSA and the Charlotte Public Relations Society; he was twice president of the PRSA Foundation. He also served as the national president of the 20,000 member PRSA and chaired its Counselors Academy, which then represented 1,000 or so CEOs and senior executives of public relations consulting firms in the U.S. and Canada, and today chairs the PRSA College of Fellows.
“I’ve never approached the business (of public relations) with a narrow focus,” says Epley. “I have a very inquisitive mind and one of the philosophies that I tell my people is that when you stop learning, you need to be out of this business. I understand communication, the art of persuasion and of being an advocate. I don’t have to be an expert in any industry, I can learn.”
Epley applied that same philosophy to the practice of public relations not only in Charlotte, the Southeast and the U.S., but also internationally. In 1988, Epley became a founding partner of the WORLDCOM Public Relations Group, an international network of more than 90 independent public relations firms operating in 35 countries. He also served as chairman for North and South America from 1998 to 2000 before taking over a two-year term as global chair. Roots for the international network of PR firms began in Tokyo and soon extended into the United States. Epley says he was very interested in being a part of a global consortium because, “As I was driving up and down I-85, I was seeing lots of flags that were not The Stars and Stripes. We were fast becoming more a part of the global economy.” This gave Epley and other member firms the ability to reach globally to provide local expertise, therefore providing companies in the Carolinas with more effective reach to their international constituencies.
In these capacities, Epley also had the opportunity to consult the University for International Relations (MGIMO) in the Soviet Union and helped put in place the public relations curricula needed for a country entering the free market economy. He traveled several times to Moscow to consult and was there two months prior to the actual dismantling of the USSR.
“We kept emphasizing that they needed to develop a public relations profession based on a strong code of ethics,” says Epley. “We got them going and developed a successful intern program for Russia. They have had no mentors, and we’ve been able to train interns here so they could go back and help get things started there.”
Clutter, ethics, the future of public relations and Charlotte
There is so much for people to wade through, Epley says, and so many communication channels – television, newspaper, satellite, cable, the Internet, and e-mail – to choose from that public relations experts must roll up their sleeves and push through the clutter for their clients.
“Some people become so saturated that they give up on all of it,” says Epley. “When teaching public relations students I ask, ‘Who read the newspaper today?’ Usually only one or two hands will go up and I tell them those are the two people who will succeed in public relations. You can’t service or counsel your client if you don’t know what’s going on in the world. We are global. We need to know what is happening.”
Epley is also keen on emphasizing the need for impeccable ethics in public relations and looks toward today’s professionals to mentor tomorrow’s leaders. “We have to set our professional standards high and practice ethical communications,” he explains. “If we lose credibility with a reporter or anyone else, it is nearly impossible to get it back. We put a code of ethics in our contracts. There is no room for deception and we certainly won’t damage our own reputation.”
There is also room for growth is his field. “The more channels of communication and the more sophisticated businesses become, the more corporate executives need to understand the imperative to have public opinion on their side,” says Epley. “But the challenge for our profession is to become counselors and to work at a much higher level.
“We in the profession spend too much time thinking about tangible things – media releases and brochures – rather than counseling an organization to help it reach its goals.” Epley hopes senior members in the profession will spend more time as mentors and help new public relations practitioners understand how to do the job well.
Epley now divides his time between homes in Tryon and Charlotte, and enjoys focusing more on writing and his hobbies such as travel and photography. “I was 66 years old a couple of days ago; I think it’s time to refocus my energy on other things,” says Epley. “I tell people I’ve had the same job for 35 years. Soon, I will leave the management of the company to my senior people. They’re good at what they do. They don’t need me telling them what to do.”
Epley’s vast experience in Charlotte gives him a unique perspective on where the city was, where it is today, and its potential for the future. He praises its past leaders, but shares concern that the names Brookshire and Belk are only the names of highways to the vast number of newcomers to the city. His hope is that the new leadership will fully embrace Charlotte with the same passion as the leaders of the past 40 years and bring the vision needed to keep the community healthy, vibrant and growing, reinforcing the sense that Charlotte is truly home and worth everyone’s effort.