We at Rasky Partners are proud of our talented public relations and public affairs experts across the firm’s practice areas. In our ongoing Meet the Expert series, we sit down with a different agency leader on Mondays to get their thoughts on several important and timely questions and gain a greater sense of their industry expertise and experiences. This week we sit down with Rasky senior advisor, Robert Sherman.
Prior to joining Rasky Partners as a senior advisor, you were a founding member of the Boston office of Greenberg Traurig, and served as U.S. Ambassador to Portugal under the Obama administration. How have your experiences shaped your work today?
I think a constant thread is my desire to help others by devising strategies to find solutions to problems. That was instilled in me at an early age, growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts. My dad was an immigrant from Russia who never went to college, but managed to talk his way into law school. He had a small general practice and often in the evenings, he would meet with clients in our house. The issues spanned the spectrum – people who wanted to form a business or write a will, or who had been injured in an auto accident or arrested. The house was very small, so I would overhear their stories and listen as my dad advised them on the path to pursue to resolve their issues. Even as a U.S. Ambassador, my job included resolving disputes, not only with people, but with countries as well. I think the problem-solving skill sets I developed throughout my legal and diplomatic career align perfectly with the services offered at Rasky Partners. I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and assisting the firm’s clients.
What originally drew you to the area of international relations and law?
It was the natural evolution of my law practice. My last several years as a practicing lawyer, I specialized in Foreign Corrupt Practices investigations and compliance. That work took me to numerous countries on five continents. I realized, to paraphrase Tom Freedman, how flat the world had become and how interdependent the world community was. When President Obama asked me to serve in his administration, I felt my experience was best utilized internationally. I was honored to be one of only a handful he selected to be a U.S. Ambassador. As a result of my international law practice and diplomatic career, I have a deep understanding of global relations as well as a network of contacts around the world.
Which projects or initiatives did you undertake during your time as Ambassador to Portugal that you are most proud of?
I took a very non-traditional approach to my role as ambassador. I ran the embassy more like a business than a government agency. By that, I mean I empowered people to make decisions, to take on risk, and to know if they did so and occasionally failed as was inevitable, I had their backs. Creative thinking was rewarded and bureaucratic responses completely disfavored. I also stressed collaboration among all embassy personnel and agencies. Many things I take great pride in were the result of that collaboration and culture of creativity. For instance, we scrapped the traditional way the State Department messaged. Instead, I learned to ride a Harley and traveled much of the country by motorcycle (also promoting an American product by the way) and chronicled the trips on social media. The Portuguese people loved it! We became famous in the country for being able to communicate serious messages in an interesting and often fun or humorous way, and thus developed a strong following. Perhaps the project I am most proud of is Connect to Success, which I established with my wife, Kim Sawyer, who is a very successful entrepreneur in Boston. C2S is a women’s entrepreneurship and empowerment initiative that brought mentoring and support services to women starting businesses. This was a novel program within the State Department and one which, had we asked for advance permission, would never have been approved. But it became a smashing success, winning major awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Today there are over 950 women in the program. Kim still serves as executive director and we are looking to expand C2S to Africa.
What was the most rewarding aspect of your time as Ambassador to Portugal?
I came to Portugal at a difficult time. Shortly after I arrived, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the economy in Greece melted down, and ISIS rose in the Middle East spreading terror into Europe. Portugal is a founding member of NATO, an EU member and a member of the coalition against ISIS. When it comes to these organizations, the United States does not operate alone and in order to act, consensus must be achieved. In essence, each member holds a veto over all others. This requires a considerable degree of diplomacy and consensus building within the individual countries. That was a strong focus of mine and I take pride in the result. I believe I made a strong contribution to the safety and security of the United States and indeed the world. The magnitude of my responsibilities was reinforced every day I arrived at work at the embassy, where the first thing I saw was the American flag flying proudly. As I entered through the gate, the Marine at Post One would snap to attention with a sharp salute. That was not for me personally but for the fact that I represented the President of the United States and the American government in a foreign country.
During your time as Ambassador, you championed bilateral investment between the United States and Portugal. As we become a more globalized world, what is the importance of international cooperation, and how can businesses improve upon their global standing?
Economic statecraft was a term coined by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State and expanded during John Kerry’s tenure as Secretary. It essentially means using economic means to pursue foreign policy goals. There was no question in my mind that strengthening the economic ties between Portugal and United States was not only in both countries’ interests, but in America’s foreign policy interests as well. I gave as an example earlier Portugal’s membership in the coalition against ISIS. When countries have close ties economically it spreads to other arenas such as diplomatic and military engagement. And economic engagement brings with it the spread of American values. In a globalized world, there is great opportunity for American companies to expand their businesses and take advantage of opportunities across the world. Here’s a simple example: a company that does business solely in the U.S. has a market for its products or services of 323 million people. If that company only expands to EU countries, it adds another 511 million people to that market! Globalization is here to stay and any American business which fails to recognize that fact risks being left behind. The challenge is to develop the strategic plan and contacts to take advantage of that opportunity.
How has globalization affected international law and international relations?
The world is too complex for any one country to be its policeman – not China, not Russia and not the U.S. We are stronger when we act together as countries who share common interests. Notice I did not say friendships. An example is the P5+1 talks that led to the Iranian nuclear agreement. No one country could have negotiated that deal. And we need to remember that the members of that successful negotiating coalition included not just our staunch allies like England, France and Germany, but also China and Russia. The key was common interests. I think we are seeing that play out in the current crisis in North Korea. If a non-military solution is to be achieved, the United States will have to partner with other key players in the region. Currently that focus is on China, which has the economic power over North Korea no other country has. We may be averse to China as it seeks dominance over the South China Sea, and compete with them economically, but it is a critical ally if we are to escalate the tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
As Ambassador to Portugal, you were very involved in strengthening engagement in cyber security issues. Why is cyber security a pressing issue, and how will your insights help you in your new role at Rasky Partners?
Prior to the current North Korea crisis, if former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Admiral Jim Stavridis were asked what kept him up at night, his answer was “cyber”. Former CIA director John Brennan shared that view. A destructive cyberattack has the potential to devastate American infrastructure and the American business economy. It can come from state actors, terrorist groups, or a lone wolf sitting in his apartment. The fact is that we are still poorly prepared to defend against a cyberattack. This week’s news concerning the Equifax data breach is a sad but timely example. Sensitive personal and financial data of 143 million Americans (more than half of the country’s adult population!) including credit card numbers, social security numbers, and drivers licenses are now exposed. This illustrates the fact that many government entities and private businesses simply do not have the necessary protocols in place to identify and prevent a penetration into their systems. And even the ones that do are networked with suppliers and partners that do not, making them vulnerable to attack through their own network. A 2017 Bloomberg survey found this is not just a problem in the United States, as 88% of companies in 79 countries surveyed self-identified as “very concerned” or “concerned” about cyber threats. As ambassador, I spent considerable time on this issue working alongside the U.S. military commands. I believe I can be a resource in helping the business community in establishing resilience tools to hacking threats.
One of your responsibilities at Rasky is to assist in crisis communications, especially regarding data breaches and cyber security. In an increasingly technological world, how can companies adapt to protect themselves and their online property from cyberattacks?
Companies have two responsibilities. One is to protect themselves to the fullest extent possible from a breach. The second is to manage that breach quickly and competently in order to minimize damage as well as alert employees, customers, clients and anyone else for whom they hold personal information, that their data is at risk. The current Equifax breach is a case study. The breach occurred in mid-May but was not even discovered by the company until July 29th. That time lag gives the cyber criminals an incredible head start to not only do serious damage with the stolen information, but to cover their tracks as well. It demonstrates the magnitude of the problem that companies face. Equifax is a victim – its reputation and business have been catastrophically damaged. But so too are the 141 million people whose sensitive information is now unprotected. It was over five weeks after the company’s discovery that it acknowledged the breach and its magnitude publicly. And since Equifax warehouses its information from other sources like credit card companies and retailers, people may not be aware that they are affected. I could be a victim, as could you. The individual notifications are only now being communicated via letter. This is the paradigmatic example of how a crisis communication firm is essential in the process. That firm should be brought into the C-suite from the moment of discovery, advising on the recipients of notification (regulators, customers, management, board, public, etc.) the manner of notification, and the contents (including advice to potential victims as to remediation steps). The notifications must be customized based on legal requirements, the objectives of the company, the interests of those individual affected, and the need to minimize the spread of further damage. There is only one chance to get the communications right and if it is not handled properly, the secondary damage may indeed be as bad as or worse than the original problem. The Equifax disaster – and it is a disaster – should be the latest wake-up call to all companies, no matter the size and scale, that they need to bring in knowledgeable consultants to evaluate their cyber security. Rasky Partners is a great resource in identifying those resources, as well as handling the crisis communications in the event of a cyber breach.
There is no shortage of PR and public affairs firms in Boston and Washington, DC. What sets Rasky apart from the rest when it comes to our approach?
Upon leaving my position as ambassador, I had many opportunities. What thoroughly impressed me about Rasky Partners are the substantive knowledge, practical decision-making, collaborative atmosphere and results-driven approach of the professionals here. This is a fully integrated firm from Boston to Washington that is capable of handling an array of clients’ needs in the public relations, public affairs and crisis communications space. The firm has an extensive reach in the business world as well as in government and both Republican and Democratic politics, meaning it is “one-stop shopping” for companies that utilize their services. And often overlooked but very important is the fact that besides being serious professionals, Rasky’s staff are extremely nice people who enjoy what they do and working with each other as a team. That is the tone set at the top, and it transcends the whole organization. I am thrilled to now be part of such an exciting and dynamic organization!
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