PR Pro looks like an Irish Boy Scout
By Greg O'Brien, Boston Irish Reporter
George K. Regan, who looks more like a Boy Scout leader than he does one of the most successful, hard-charging public relations and crisis communications connoisseurs in the country, is the essence of Irish in so many ways: bright, passionate, reflective, an artist in his trade with superior political and media instincts. But looks are deceiving.
While some critics even suggest that a caricature of Regan might bear resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman, the fictional mascot of Mad Magazine, Regan’s “what me worry” persona is more imagined than real.“He’s a real character,” Bob Sheridan, SBLI president, CEO, a friend and client of Regan’s, and a “no-nonsense” guy himself, writes in an e-mail. “People either love him or hate him.
”I’ve been stabbed in the back so many times, I’m like a porcupine.” -Regan
I fall in the former category.”
No doubt, Regan’s public relations maneuverings over the years have gotten people’s dander up and have been the subject of columns and industry babble, his triumphs at the Boston-based Regan Communications Group and his notable contributions to charitable organizations are celebrated.
"I’ve been stabbed in the back so many times, I’m like a porcupine,” Regan concedes in a wide-ranging interview with the Boston Irish Reporter.Does it bother you?“Of course it does,” he says, “but it’s part of the business and part of life. You have friends, you got enemies and you have people waiting for you to fall or fail. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether people like you or not, so long as they respect what you do. That needs to be the focus of our efforts.”Regan is sustained by the sage advice of his late father, George, who labored in the Charlestown shipyards. “You grow up fast,” his dad once told him. “But you come down faster.” It was counsel reinforced later in life by then Boston Mayor Kevin White, a surrogate father type to Regan, who instilled an unrelenting work ethic, problem solving and zeal for politics during his tenure as White’s Director of Communications and most trusted advisor.
The namesake or his company—New England’s largest privately-held public relations firm and the ninth largest privately-owned public relations firm in the country with branch offices and associations in Florida, New York Connecticut and Cape Cod and a killer client base the likes of the New England Patriots, Boston Celtics, Dunkin’ Donuts, Bank of America, New Balance, Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, Mohegan Sun and Suffolk University, to note a few of the more than 200 clients—isn’t coming down any time soon, and you can be certain of that.So why is Regan subdued on this bright day in early December with all the promise of Christmas, surrounded in his office at 106 Union Wharf, overlooking a world class city that his mentor built, with testimonies of his accomplishments—photos with the business and political elite, citations, news clips and other memorabilia?“It’s the eighth anniversary of my father’s death,” he explains. “I was up thinking about it all last night. He was my best friend, and a man of great virtue.” Particularly reflective this morning, Regan adds in candor and humility, “My father was everything that I am not: patient, sensitive and compassionate. He believed in me, and I have never forgotten that. He taught me that there are things more deeper and critical in life” than the day-to-day striving for secular achievement.
Clearly, it wasn’t a natural segue from Regan’s working class roots in the Wollaston section to Quincy to the privileged board rooms of Boston and New York. Nonetheless, Regan’s father, born in South Boston, and his mother, Ann (Kowalski), who was raised in the South End and still lives in Quincy, made sure that their son and his two sisters (Marianne and Patti, now deceased, who helped jumpstart Regan Communications in 1984) were primed for the real world. A third-generation Irish American, Regan’s paternal grandfather was born in Cork, then immigrated to Boston—“a man,” Regan says, “who worked hard with his hands’ and fortified through his father fundamental Irish Catholic principles.
“The bond between my dad and me was tight,” he notes, offering that he frequently took his father as his guest to key sporting events and through connections with Suffolk University President David Sargent had the university’s gymnasium named after his dad. “(Patriots owner) Bob Kraft and (Boston Herald) owner Pat Purcell spoke at the dedication,” says Regan, acknowledging that it’s nice to have friends in high places when it comes to honoring family.
Regan’s feminine side is equally dominant. “I’m more like my Mom,” he says of his mother, who worked part-time in the airline business, recruiting stewardesses. “She was the disciplinarian of the family and much more aggressive.”A forceful young Regan was a good kid, as neighborhood kids go, no lingering embarrassments. He attended Wollaston Elementary School and North Quincy High School where he played soccer and baseball. “I wasn’t a bad catcher,” he proclaims. Asked if could hit, the spinmeister adds, “I want to say ‘yes,’ but I think my coach would say ‘no.’” He insists, though, that he could hit a good fastball—an assertion borne out by a rough-and-tumble career in the media, politics and business. After high school, Regan attended Sufffolk, majoring in journalism, and upon graduation earned a masters degree in communication from Boston University.
During and just after his university years, he had a brief career at The Boston Globe, working for a day as a runner for the ad department, then as a copy boy in the editorial department and as a correspondent who earned his first front page byline at the age of 18. His ad work at the Globe was unremarkable by his own account. “I was dropped off at the Downtown Crossing to pick up ads at the various agencies and banks. In those days, there were no faxes or cellphones. I didn’t realize I had to get the ads back to the paper for deadline. When I returned at 8 pm, I was hastily informed there was a search party out for me, and was diplomatically told that I probably belonged over in the editorial department. They showed me the door.”
Following a stint in the newsroom, Regan tried his hand briefly again in the ad world, then responded in his early 20s through a well-connected friend to an opening for a deputy press secretary position in the Kevin White Administration. “My interview with Kevin was the worst of my life,” recalls Regan. “It was awful. I was paranoid. I was awestruck. Here was this guy of national stature, the mayor of a prominent big city, and I whiffed at the interview.” White, he says, didn’t suffer fools gladly. “You had to be passionate, hard working and smart. He couldn’t stand stupidity.”
But Regan is no fool, as White could see, and soon he was traveling the country as an advance man for the mayor’s foot-in-the-water political outreach, then became the city’s spokesman on the bruising issue of busing. In an ironic case of mistaken identity, Regan says his father took heat from his South Boston buddies, who assumed “that the George Regan quoted in the paper defending busing was him.”Regan’s White years have been well documented in the press as his admiration for the mayor, now struggling with Alzheimer’s. “The night before Kevin left office, I had dinner with him and his wife Katherine at Pier 4,” says Regan. “I was honored to be with him at his moment, after an inspiring 16-year-term, the longest consecutive term of any major in America.” He recalls that White was “very reflective” that night. “He felt there were things he could have done better, and gave himself a B plus for performance. He’s like the Bill Belichick of politics. Whatever you accomplish, it’s never good enough.”
Regan remains in awe of White and recently had dinner with him and Katherine at Toscano on Charles Street. just before Thanksgiving. “I still learn from him,” he says in the deepest respect. “It has helped me tremendously in my business.”In starting up a new venture, the exit from city hall and the limelight of a celebrity mayor can be jarring, as Regan found the day after White left office. No one had prepared him for the abrupt landing. “We had an inauspicious start,” he says with understatement. “I hadn’t realized that ATT and New England Telephone had actually broken up at this point. So when I went to my new office at 75 Fulton Street, all I had were wires hanging out of the walls. We didn’t have phones for about a week.”
The staff at first included Regan’s sister Patti, his redeeming Aunt Mary (now deceased) who emptied her personal bank account to make payroll when checks were late or revenues were lax, Earl “The Pearl” Marchand, a former Boston Herald American reporter who wrote like a dream and had worked in Regan’s city hall press office, Dennis Sullivan, another city hall recruit, and Regan’s secretary. “The early days were very discouraging,” says Regan, noting that many of his old Boston connections were missing in action. “I thought I had all these friends.”But taking a cue from advisors and falling back on the Tip O’Neill axiom that “all politics are local,” and recognizing that this then applies to marketing and media strategies, Regan was off and running with a mission: “The right message delivered in the right way,” as his firm’s website declares.
A baseball player at heart, like his father, and confident in the Field of Dreams claim that “if you build it, they will come, “ Regan and his new firm were soon stretching singles into triples and building an extraordinary list of clients looking for services that range from messaging, to marketing and collateral pieces, to crisis communications, to cutting-edge websites and new or rich media.“We call ourselves a full service, non-traditional public relations company. We have some clients who couldn’t care less if their name was ever in a newspaper. They are more interested in what is the best message for their product.”Regan is quick to credit a young, talented staff for the firm’s growth—a recruiting technique he learned from White. “I’m not a good manager,” he admits. “I’m a visionary.”
Regan’s admirers would add that he has an excellent skill set for problem solving and clearly understands the bridge between the media and politics. And that’s gold in the PR business.Days later in a follow-up interview, Regan, who was engaged twice but still is single, is asked if he has any regrets about life. “There are a lot of things I wish I did differently. I’m trying to get more balance in my life. I think that I—and we as a company—sometimes have been a little too harsh, that we might have overdone it, probably been a little to tough.”
Is this a kinder, gentler George?Yes, if his on-going contributions to charities are any indication, including The Arc of Greater Boston, The American Liver Foundation, Carroll Center for the Blind, Beth Israel Hospital and the Franciscan Children’s Hospital.His father, indeed, would be pleased. “We all have thrown sharp elbows in life, and many of us are trying to make up for past sins,” he says as he darts from meeting to meeting. “I’m a very lucky man. I’ve been blessed in life, and I don’t ever want to take that for granted.”No chance of that, if his father and Kevin White have any say, and they do. In spite of a frenzied, eclectic schedule, George K. Regan has found religion in the direction of his mentors.