Charlie Hayslett was more than a decade into his career as a newspaper reporter when Bob Cohn of Cohn & Wolfe PR firm called him one afternoon and asked, “Have you had enough of the newspaper business?”
“You happened to have called me on a day when the answer is ‘Yes’,” Charlie told him. That’s how quickly it took for a veteran writer of the AJC’s Washington bureau and state government beat in Atlanta to switch careers.
Charlie, who has run The Hayslett Group for the past 18 years, remembers Bob Cohn “as something close to a genius. If PT Barnum and Bob Cohn had been born in the same year, you never would have heard of PT Barnum.”
Charlie was born in Columbus, Miss., but moved to Atlanta in his senior year of high school and graduated from Briarcliff High School. Then it was off to Athens where, as he puts it, “I managed to cram four years of college into six years.”
While a student at the University, he started working for The Athens Daily News in the production department, delivered a newspaper route and later covered local sports and government. He moved to the Atlanta Journal in January 1973 just as a major ice storm hit town. He covered government and politics in DeKalb and Fulton counties, eventually moving to D.C.
“It was 1976 and Jimmy Carter was preparing to enter the White House,” Charlie said. After two years in D.C., he returned to the Atlanta Journal for another two to cover state government before that call came from Bob. Charlie worked at Cohn & Wolfe for a year before starting a freelance writing firm. Then calls started coming in from candidates running for the 1982 Georgia governor’s race.
“I turned down an overture from Joe Frank Harris and worked instead with Bo Ginn,” Charlie recalled. Though Harris eventually won, Charlie learned a lot.
“You learn a lot in a campaign environment that are hard to pick up in others,” he said.
“It is a great testing ground for improving your own skills in an environment where there is a clear outcome at the end of the campaign. Someone described it as a challenge of selling out a store on a given day. You are stuck with any inventory left afterwards, so it causes you to think more urgently about a communications strategy.
“Even before working in the 1982 governor’s race, I had been a real research junkie, but the campaign and the use of research in that campaign gave me a much better appreciation for the way public opinion and marketing data can be used to understand how messages are received and how to shape them. “
After that campaign, Charlie wrote speeches for BellSouth and devised an internal communications campaigns for the telecom and, later, other firms. “That research approach was very useful to managing broader communications initiatives in a larger organization. Our work was driven almost entirely by a unique employee attitude and survey process,” he said.
After 10 years at BellSouth and a one-year stint at Fleishman Hillard, he opened The Hayslett Group, handling public policy work. His first client was Georgia-Pacific and they’ve recently returned to his portfolio of work. His firm grew to nearly 25 people before the 2000 tech implosion. Hayslett has a half dozen professionals working now on clients such as the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Healthcare Georgia Foundation and Gwinnett Medical Center.
“For the past three years, we’ve been working to improve the public health system in the state. Georgia spends only four cents a day per capita on public health and we get what we pay for. It’s embarrassing. Our public health agencies are incredibly strapped and they do great work. Our state is 500 nurses short of what we need. As a comparison, Alabama spends more than four times as much as Georgia.”
Looking back on a career in journalism and PR, Charlie thinks his path was a good one. “If you have an instinct to learn the craft of journalism, figuring out the right questions to ask and what story needs to be told, it’s a useful and marketable skill whether you are working for a newspaper, for a client or in an agency situation.
“In a lot of ways, I’m still doing the same thing I did when I worked as a newspaper writer. I’m still trying to figure out what the story is and the best way to tell it.”
– Chris Schroder, SchroderPR.com