Keeney offers saving grace under fire
By Erin Quinn
Dan Keeney ('84), president of the 450-member Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Houston chapter, has earned a reputation over the past 10 years as an invaluable person to have around during corporate crises.
In 1997, while Keeney was working at the Portland PR firm Conkling, Fiskum and McCormick, Warner Brother's "Free Willy" star, Keiko the whale, was at the center of an environmental and animal rights' controversy. Keeney's strategic communications plan helped resolve a dispute between his client, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and an activist group, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation.
"It was a huge challenge during this time," said Keeney. "Our client was being cast as the evil corporate entity, only interested in the box office."
Keeney advised his client to come up with a contingency plan in the event that the whale could no longer be the aquarium's main attraction. Not only did Keeney's approach help the aquarium refocus its fundraising efforts, it landed the organization a high bond rating that was later used to finance a $14 million expansion.
For his innovative work on the Oregon Coast Aquarium's campaign, Keeney received the Creativity in Public Relations Award for issues management and a PRSA Silver Anvil, the industry's equivalent to an Oscar, for excellence in crisis communications. He has received three additional Silver Anvils for his work with Intel Corp., the Tobacco Free Coalition of Oregon and the Healthy Forests Alliance.
Keeney is now the president of his own firm in Texas, DPK Public Relations, which specializes in crisis communications. His advice has helped many of his clients overcome potentially damaging situations, such as layoffs, product recalls and corporate restructuring.
Pat McCormick, a partner at the Portland firm where Keeney worked in the late 1990s, said Keeney pushed his colleagues to do the best work possible by following four PRSA guidelines - research, planning, execution and evaluation.
"He's the type of person who thinks about, and then employs, best practices in his own work," McCormick said. "Dan is a 'thought leader' in the practice of public relations."
Keeney began his communications career as a broadcast production management major, due in part to his interest in Assistant Dean Steve Jones' classes.
"[He] was a great influence on my decision to pursue the broadcasting phase of my career," Keeney said.
All of Keeney's internships, however, were in public relations, including one summer spent working for the Coors International Bicycle Classic. He said his undergraduate education at CU was instrumental in preparing him for lifelong learning.
At the time he was about to graduate from college, Keeney's brother was diagnosed with leukemia.
"I completed my final semester though correspondence courses so I could serve as the bone marrow donor for my brother," he said.
Keeney traveled to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle to be by his brother's side.
"Today, the procedure is largely outpatient, but at the time, it was highly experimental and required my brother to be hospitalized in a sterile bubble for 100 days. I was required to be there to provide platelet support for two months."
Keeney said the leader of his brother's medical team later won the Nobel Prize for his work with victims of the Chernobyl disaster, much of which was based on research findings that included his brother's case.
After graduating from CU, Keeney worked in Virginia and Chicago as a news director for radio stations and, later a radio network, which he said helped him gain insight into the inner workings of corporations.
"A lot of what I did was more organizational in nature, so I had an understanding of the business side of things," said Keeney. He explained that having information thrown at him minute-by-minute with constant deadlines also prepared him for the fast-paced world of crisis management.
In 1994, Keeney moved to Ketchum Public Relations in Pittsburgh. Since then, he has worked in Portland in high-tech public relations, and was most recently the general manager of a firm in Houston before starting his own company.
Asked about changes in the industry he's observed over the last decade, Keeney said the mass media's influence has been greatly diminished, and one-on-one communication has expanded through modes such as blogging.
"You look for opportunities to speak through the voice of other trusted individuals in those groups," said Keeney. "It's important to communicate singularly - people don't believe the media as much as they used to."
Keeney, who jokingly attributed his love of the news business to starting a paper route when he was 8, views his current job as "telling the story before the story." He added, "It's our job to help an organization identify and change problems when necessary, helping build bridges of understanding."
Keeney lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area with his wife, Julie.