|Sept. 13, 2017|
Communications pundit brings expertise to classroom
Robert Waite teaching public relations at Seneca
He has advised two United States senators, the White House and six corporate CEOs on both sides of the border. Now in his late 60’s, Robert Waite is sharing his wealth of experience and expertise with students in the School of Media.
“People ask why I do it. The truth is, teaching helps keep me fresh,” he says. “Through my interactions with the students, I clearly learn from them as well. I learn how they receive the news and their perspective of the world.”
A veteran in the broad field of communications, Robert has worked in a variety of sectors, including auto, technology, aviation and banking. He began his career as a journalist covering politics and politicians. At 29 years old, the Boston native became press secretary to Edward Brooke, the first African American elected to the United States Senate. He then served as press secretary to Bob Dole, the Republican senator from Kansas who later went on to run for president in 1996 against, and lost to, then incumbent Bill Clinton.
“The press secretary job was the most difficult I’ve had,” Robert says. “It was constant non-stop.”
And full of surprises.
While working for Dole in 1980, Robert was asked to write a speech on the spot for the senator to nominate George H.W. Bush as vice-president.
“We were expecting this speech to arrive and what came to us after a day’s wait was a bio,” Robert recalls. “I started writing. I had only finished the first half of the speech when the senator went on live TV to read it. The whole time he was up there, I was underneath the dais with his secretary. I was dictating the rest of the speech to her as she typed into the teleprompter. I was literally putting words into someone else’s mouth.”
That story made Newsweek magazine and subsequently landed Robert his next job as director of external programs with IBM in New York.
It wasn’t long, though, before the government came calling again. This time, Robert headed up public affairs and marketing at the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a federal-government-run agency. During his time there, under the Reagan administration, he advised the White House on trade issues.
Robert’s next job was managing Ford Motor Company’s Washington public affairs. It was with Ford that Robert made his way to Canada.
“They had an opportunity for me in either Detroit or Oakville,” Robert says. “I had not been to Toronto then, but I had been to Detroit.”
In Oakville, while working for Ford, Robert met his wife and settled in Canada.
Admitting he can be bored quite easily, Robert continued his career strategy to work for a company for a few years and then move on. He returned to IBM as director of communications, this time in Markham, and followed that up with CAE (formerly Canadian Aviation Electronics) in corporate affairs and marketing. He was senior vice-president of communications and public affairs for CIBC when the Sept. 11 attacks happened. The Canadian bank had a facility next to the World Trade Center.
“Communication was gone. It took us a week to verify everyone was OK. We sent people door to door just to make sure they were alive,” he recalls.
After CIBC, Robert went to Canada Post in 2005. He left the corporation in 2010 as senior vice-president of corporate social responsibility to start his own firm, Waite + Co. Among other things, he is a travel writer and a regular Huffington Post contributor. He continues to chair the Canada Post Stamp Advisory Committee after more than 12 years, during which he has helped to introduce living people (other than the Queen) on stamps. Oscar Peterson was the first in 2015. Others have since included the likes of Stompin’ Tom, Anne Murray and the Tragically Hip.
After having taught at Seneca for more than a year, Robert says one of the first things he tells his students about communications is that it’s a two-way process.
“You need to spend at least half of your time listening,” he explains. “Your role is to offer honest opinions and that’s why I tell them they should choose their boss wisely and walk away from a situation when they need to.”
Robert also advises his students in Government Relations, Public Relations — Corporate Communications and Public Relations — Investor Relations that they don’t have to take the first job they are offered.
“At the end of the day, public relations professionals are like lawyers,” he says. “You are advocates for the individuals or companies you work for or represent, and it’s important to align yourself with the right culture or person.”
Robert is currently pursuing his love of travel. He returns to the classroom next semester.