PR exec hasn’t shied away from con­tro­ver­sial projects

San Antonio Express-News - - BUSINESS - By John Tedesco STAFF WRITER Tr­ish DeBerry, pres­i­dent and CEO of The DeBerry Group

Even if you’ve never met Tr­ish DeBerry, you’ve prob­a­bly wit­nessed the strate­gies her pub­lic re­la­tions firm has crafted over the years to pitch San An­to­nio’s most con­tro­ver­sial projects.

Reimagining the sa­cred ground of the Alamo? Check.

De­vel­op­ing a lux­ury golf re­sort smack dab in an en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive area where rain­wa­ter re­plen­ishes the Ed­wards Aquifer? Yep.

Adding flu­o­ride to the city’s drink­ing sup­ply at a time when many San An­to­ni­ans thought the enamel-strength­en­ing min­eral was part of a Com­mu­nist plot?

DeBerry was there for that cam­paign and many more — and she’s learned some lessons along the way about what makes San An­to­nio tick.

“One thing that I will say about San An­to­nio is it likes a lot of dis­course and a lot of di­a­logue about any­thing,” DeBerry said. “You’ve got to be able to go out there, take the slings and ar­rows where nec­es­sary, to be able to get your point across in a very log­i­cal, ra­tio­nal way.”

A for­mer tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist at KENS-TV, DeBerry changed ca­reers in the mid-1990s and helped launch the well-con­nected pub­lic re­la­tions firm Guerra DeBerry Coody. She suc­cess­fully man­aged Ed Garza’s may­oral cam­paign in 2001 and later jumped into pol­i­tics as a may­oral can­di­date her­self, but lost against Julián Cas­tro in 2009. DeBerry now runs her own firm, The DeBerry Group, which rep­re­sents ma­jor clients such as gro­cery store gi­ant H-E-B and the San An­to­nio Wa­ter Sys­tem.

The San An­to­nio Ex­pressNews in­ter­viewed DeBerry in her of­fice at the 110 Broadway Build­ing in down­town San An­to­nio. Here is an edited tran­script of the in­ter­view:

Q: I saw your Pecha Kucha speech, and it was in­ter­est­ing that you talked about fail­ure. You ran for mayor. You came in sec­ond. But you said it was still worth it. Why is that?

A: Yeah, in that speech you prob­a­bly heard me talk about the fact that I’ve never been one to be afraid of step­ping out­side my com­fort zone. When I man­aged Ed Garza’s (may­oral) race, I had never man­aged a mayor’s cam­paign in my life. In fact, I told him he was prob­a­bly talk­ing to the wrong per­son. He was like, “No. You’re who I want to talk to.” For­tu­nately, we won, and so that was a re­ally pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

Then you fast-for­ward prob­a­bly about five to seven years, and I de­cided I was go­ing to throw my hat into the ring and run for mayor. I met so many great peo­ple on the cam­paign trail. And I will tell you be­ing a can­di­date is com­pletely dif­fer­ent than it is be­ing be­hind the scenes. You put ev­ery­thing out there. You’re in­cred­i­bly vul­ner­a­ble. Peo­ple are tak­ing pot­shots. I mean, you’ve got to have pretty thick skin to do what you want to be able to do.

But it changed me as a per­son be­cause there were peo­ple on the street who be­lieved in the plat­form that I put forth. These are peo­ple who are will­ing to give up their week­ends to go block­walk for you and do things, and you’re like, “I barely know this per­son, but they’re will­ing to give up their time to be able to do this be­cause they be­lieve in what could be ac­com­plished.” And so that was the great thing about run­ning for mayor. And it was a great les­son for my kids.

Q: When we fail, the temp­ta­tion is to think to your­self, “Ah, I should have known bet­ter or I shouldn’t have done that.’

A: Oh, I’ve had lots of that, lots

of re­flec­tion.

Q: But now be­cause you ran you don’t look back and say . . . A: Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Q: You don’t play the “What If” game. You tried it.

A: Yeah. And you just move for­ward from it. And I think you carry the lessons that you have from that ex­pe­ri­ence into how you pro­pel your­self for­ward. I mean, if you look at some­body like — one of my fa­vorite pres­i­dents is Abra­ham Lin­coln. If you look at how many times he ran for of­fice and failed be­fore he was pres­i­dent of the United States — and in my opin­ion he was one of the great­est pres­i­dents we’ve ever had — he didn’t let fail­ure stop him.

Q: You men­tioned how you like go­ing out­side your com­fort zone. A lot of peo­ple like staying in those zones. Why do you think you’re dif­fer­ent? And how does some­body be­come that way?

A: I’m the youngest of six and so I think noth­ing was ever re­ally handed to me. Mod­est in­come fam­ily. We all had to work very hard — I and my broth­ers and sis­ters — for ev­ery­thing that we’ve had and ev­ery­thing that we’ve ac­com­plished. You know, I think a lot of it was I had a very strong­willed mother who said you can be any­thing you want to be as long as you put your mind to it. And so I think that sort of en­cour­age­ment car­ries you through the years.

I played com­pet­i­tive sports grow­ing up and so I think be­ing on a team and play­ing in team sports teaches you a lot about chal­lenge and over­com­ing ad­ver­sity. You know, when you’re down and there’s three in­nings left, are you out or do you rally and try to come back? I think all of those things com­bined into, I’m never one to shy away from a chal­lenge.

Q: As a fe­male ex­ec­u­tive, do you have to deal with things that male ex­ec­u­tives don’t have to deal with, and how do you han­dle that?

A: Yeah, I think I’ve been work­ing in this in­dus­try long enough that I’ve earned my stripes. Very early on or even mid­way into my ca­reer, I think there was a low ex­pec­ta­tion. I would tell you even re­cently, I laid out a strat­egy and there was some­one who barked back at me, “You’re crazy if you think that it can hap­pen in that or­der, there’s no way that will hap­pen.” So I just looked at him. I said, “You don’t know me very well. Watch.” Yeah, you still en­counter a lit­tle bit of that. But my whole feel­ing through­out my ca­reer is if the ex­pec­ta­tion is low, that’s an ad­van­tage to me be­cause I can knock it out of the park and then peo­ple will be like, “Whoa.”

Q: We just had an elec­tion — speak­ing of strong women — for Propo­si­tion B. Nearly 60 per­cent of vot­ers voted to cap the salaries of fu­ture city man­agers. Why was (City Man­ager) Sh­eryl Scul­ley’s salary such a light­ning rod? Was the elec­tion just about the money or was there more go­ing on there?

A: I think there are a lot of dif­fer­ent dy­nam­ics at play. I don’t think peo­ple fully com­pre­hended what the fire union wanted or how the fire union con­tract re­ally had the city kind of bent over a bar­rel, con­sid­er­ing the perks and the ben­e­fits as­so­ci­ated with the cur­rent con­tract. It was very union driven, but a lot of the mes­sag­ing within the cam­paign was re­ally about fire­fight­ers. There’s a dis­tinct dif­fer­ence from a mes­sag­ing strat­egy stand­point be­tween unions and fire­fight­ers. When peo­ple think about fire­fight­ers, they think about those who go in and save chil­dren and kitty cats and things like that from fires.

For the av­er­age San An­to­nian, when you look at pay scale here from $35,000 to $45,000 earned in­come, it’s very dif­fi­cult for folks to wrap their head around the big salary that they saw the city man­ager get­ting. When you look at what some­body like a Sh­eryl Scul­ley would be mak­ing in the pri­vate sec­tor, which is prob­a­bly three times what she would be mak­ing, I think we were prob­a­bly get­ting her for a pretty good bar­gain. There are in­tri­ca­cies which are very dif­fi­cult to ex­plain in a cam­paign. Fire­fight­ers re­ally had the eas­ier sell, which was take City Hall back.

Sh­eryl is hard-charg­ing. Wicked smart. Def­i­nitely has a grasp of City Hall and city is­sues. It was a dif­fer­ent lead­er­ship style that peo­ple were not used to.

Q: Would we be hav­ing this de­bate if she were a man?

A: I don’t think so.

Q: You were in­volved in some of the most con­tentious is­sues in San An­to­nio. PGA Vil­lage, flu­o­ride, Vista Ridge.

A: Alamo.

Q: Yeah. What are some lessons you learned from deal­ing with those con­tro­ver­sies?

A: One thing that I will say about San An­to­nio is it likes a lot of dis­course and a lot of di­a­logue about any­thing. You’ve got to be able to go out there, take the slings and ar­rows where nec­es­sary, to be able to get your point across in a very log­i­cal, ra­tio­nal way. It doesn’t mean nec­es­sar­ily that it’s a lot of fun when it’s hap­pen­ing.

And more re­cently I can talk about the Alamo project where we had some 200 or 250 hear­ings. And there was a point where some peo­ple were like, “I don’t un­der­stand why we’ve got to do all these any­more. It’s the same peo­ple who are mo­nop­o­liz­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.” And I said, “We have to for trans­parency pur­poses. Be­cause if we don’t, the au­to­matic as­sump­tion is that ev­ery­thing is hap­pen­ing be­hind the scenes. All the de­ci­sions are be­ing made in an un­der­handed way.”

Whereas as painful as it was to go out there and do this time af­ter time, at least we can say, “Look, we talked to many peo­ple. We had 200-some­thing hear­ings. We an­swered all their ques­tions. We put them up pub­licly on the web­site so they can

x"I've al­ways been fas­ci­nated — and it's a com­pletely dif­fer­ent line of work — on how the hu­man body works and heals it­self."

Fa­vorite board game?

"Mo­nop­oly. I think there's a strat­egy in­volved in Mo­nop­oly and in my heart of hearts I think that’s what I am, a strate­gist.

What’s the best strat­egy for Mo­nop­oly?

Buy up Park Place.

see that their ques­tions were be­ing an­swered.

I think it’s easy on a con­tro­ver­sial project to be de­terred. To pack your bags and go home. Be­cause the heat gets pretty hot. You’ve got to be laser-fo­cused on endgame strat­egy to get there and stay the course.

Some­times that means you may have to make some piv­ots. You may have to com­pro­mise along the way. And some­times I think in a con­tro­ver­sial project it’s very dif­fi­cult for folks to com­pro­mise. I’ve seen lots of adults who slam fists on the ta­ble and act like chil­dren. But my feel­ing is on the con­tro­ver­sial is­sues: If both sides walk away from the ta­ble a lit­tle bit frus­trated, typ­i­cally you’ve struck a pretty good deal.

Billy Calzada / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

For­mer tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist Tr­ish DeBerry now runs her own pub­lic re­la­tions firm, The DeBerry Group. Her clients in­clude H-E-B and SAWS.

Billy Calzada / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Tr­ish DeBerry: “I played com­pet­i­tive sports grow­ing up and so I think be­ing on a team and play­ing in team sports teaches you a lot about chal­lenge and over­com­ing ad­ver­sity.”

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