As part of its Texas Power Brokers series, the San Antonio Express-News interviewed our President and CEO, Trish DeBerry, about the controversial campaigns she’s been a part of, her 2009 mayoral run, and stepping out of your comfort zone.
By John Tedesco, San Antonio Express-News
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 Express-News 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 block-walk 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.
Quick facts on Trish DeBerry
What’s your typical morning routine?
“It’s hard to say that any morning is really typical because I have two teenagers.”
What book are you reading right now?
“I just finished ‘Fear’ by Bob Woodward, which I thought was fascinating and very insightful.”
“Oh, gosh, I have lots of favorite restaurants. Depends on type of food. Sushihana is a big favorite of mine.”
First job with a paycheck?
Cashier in a clothing boutique at North Star Mall. Most memorable lesson: Counting back change. “It’s a skill, interestingly enough, that I still use today.”
Passion or hobby outside of work?
“I love to cook. I think I’m a pretty good cook.”
If you could pick a completely different career, what would it be?
“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.
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 strong-willed 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: 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 x many people. We had 200-something hearings. We answered all their questions. We put them up publicly on the website so they can 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.