The longtime public voice of General Electric in Schenectady retired from GE a year ago now but couldn’t stay away from her profession for long.
“It was a great run,” said Jan Smith, GE Energy’s former manager of communications and public affairs. “It was a great opportunity to learn more than I ever thought was possible.”
Smith, 63, is getting an education today in what it’s like to run a business. “When you come from a large corporation to a small business model, you have a lot to learn,” Smith says, but she adds that her new venture is going well.
The learning curve for Smith began after a retirement that lasted all of six months before she decided to incorporate Castle Rock Ranch Group LLC, which Smith calls “a communications and public affairs consulting group.”
Just don’t call it public relations.
“It’s not classic PR. In fact, it’s not PR at all,” Smith said. She said her main focus is on a client’s reputation, with a motto of “Build It, Promote It, Protect It.”
Smith says that while her two-plus decades of experience at GE have been invaluable in building her business, the concept reaches all the way back to her childhood and the values taught by her parents.
“Like my mother used to say, ‘Your reputation is all you have.’ Good reputations don’t happen by accident,” Smith said. “They develop, grow and are protected through thoughtful and deliberate actions based on truth and authenticity.”
Smith said when she stepped down from GE last May, she knew it was time to move on to the next stage in her life but wasn’t exactly sure what that would be. “Actually, I tried to take my time. When you retire, one question you hear constantly is ‘What are you going to do?’ I kept saying ‘Give me a minute.’ Three to four months into retirement, I started to think about [this business concept], and it started to feel right.” From there, Smith said, she started “venturing out and talking to some people” about her ideas, and the business soon got off the ground.
Smith says she decided to focus on reputation because of its relevance in public life today. “What causes people to lose their reputation? Usually from withholding information and then trust breaks down. Reputation is something everyone thinks about, and in today’s business climate, it’s critical for their survival,” Smith said.
Like many people, Smith is closely watching what transpires with British Petroleum in the wake of the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, especially from the perspective of crisis management. While the company’s reputation has been battered over the past two months, Smith said it remains to be seen if the damage will be irreversible. Smith believes BP did a decent job at first with their public response to the disaster.
“Initially, the spokesman they used was a person who seemed quite sincere, quite genuine,” she said. “In a crisis, you have to be genuine. You have to have a single message and a single messenger. Sometimes, the highest person in the company should be giving statements. Other times, the spokesman can give updates.”
While she never had to deal with a crisis on the scale of the BP oil spill, Smith was the public face of GE through many difficult periods, including the company’s numerous work force reductions in Schenectady and a public spat between corporate officials and the administration of former Mayor Al Jurczynski.
But she said the worst events by far to deal with were those that involved serious injury or loss of life to employees. Smith describes those moments as “the most gut-wrenching” but adds, “Thankfully, there were only two or three of those.” In those instances, Smith insists communication with employees “has to be first” because if they get the information from elsewhere, morale will break down.
Of her time with GE, Smith says, “I truly enjoyed what I did. I worked with a team, but also, you went to work and got your hands dirty. For 24 years, that was part of my job, too.”
Smith said there are some common threads between her work with GE and her current business venture. “It’s good old-fashioned communications and public affairs, blocking and tackling. When you put it all together, that’s what you have.”
In her new venture, Smith plans to reach out to individuals, businesses of all sizes, associations and nonprofit groups. “I don’t want to be a one-trick pony,” she says.