Dave Chapman, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a 30-year public relations veteran who is now director and partner at Ketchum West, delivered the annual Robert Taylor lecture this spring.
Chapman shared insights with an audience at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, reflecting on a career dominated by influential mentors, collaboration with well-known clients and a willingness to change perspectives.
As a J-School alum, Chapman focused his presentation on students who are interested in pursuing a career strategic communications.
“It’s great now that this point in my life to be able to do this kind of thing where I’m no longer the guy who’s trying to suck the goodness and smartness from my friends brains, and I’m giving more back,” Chapman said. “Whether that’s giving more back as an individual or to organizations.”
His current position leading the San Francisco and Los Angeles offices of Ketchum West, one of the leading global public relations agencies, was years in the making.
“If there’s anything to take away from my career it’s this: mentors are good, life is a business, style matters, and, mostly, pay it forward,” Chapman says. “In communications it’s important to see the communication strategies in everything and ultimately pass that along.”
Chapman started his career from his parents’ home, doing volunteer work for an environmental initiative, thanks to an assist from his own mentor. When Chapman graduated without a job in 1979, Chapman accepted professor Clay Schoenfeld’s offer to volunteer for Earth Day 1980.
Chapman wrote pitch letters and news releases, planned events and made media relations calls. Throughout the experience Schoenfeld was providing guidance and editing Chapman’s work.
“The message for a lot of the undergrads is that even though I was unemployed, I was doing volunteer work,” Chapman said. “I was building my resume, I was building experience, I was building a better understanding of how media relations work and how journalists work and how to write a little bit differently.”
Chapman was offered his first position in industrial relations at the Chicago offices of Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations and communications firm.
“It wasn’t the most glamorous job when I was having to take pictures of pigs and work with lift-truck-related press releases, but it’s where I got my feet wet reporting business to business,” Chapman said.
After his time in Chicago, Chapman divided his career between Los Angeles and San Francisco. He spent 24 years at Burson-Marsteller before joining Ketchum West a decade ago. He stressed to students the importance of committing to a company for an extended period of time.
“I think students fresh out of college expect to go through three jobs before they’re six years out,” Chapman said. “It’s important to grow into an organization. I was asked to move to San Francisco because they wanted someone who knew the agency, and that comes with being there for more than a year.”
These days, Chapman provides direction and experience to marketing communications across a wide range of industries and oversees Ketchum West’s global sustainability initiative. He leads the team in crafting effective platforms for organizations developing sustainability problems.
Though his career presented him with moments one doesn’t often come by, Chapman stressed that kind of career is the result of learning how to manage people, writing for businesses and simply letting it all happen.
As someone who once did a cartwheel into a meeting with Cranium, a toy and board game company, and later secured their business, Chapman is well aware of the success that comes with taking risks.
“A lot of the places I lived and agencies I worked for were never on my radar,” Chapman said. “You can’t plan anything and have to be open to taking risks.”