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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PR's Forrest Gump Finds Excitement Out East

MTHaving headed UPI's bureaus in Kentucky and West Virginia, Willard switched to PR.
Rubbing shoulders with music legend Johnny Cash in America's deep South or getting a guided tour of the Kremlin from Leonid Brezhnev's ideology chief Mikhail Suslov was how Michael Willard spent his workdays until he moved to Ukraine to start all over from scratch.

"I'm sort of like Forrest Gump," said Willard, founder and CEO of The Willard Group, a public relations company with offices in Moscow and Kiev. "I've always ended up in interesting situations."

His colorful resume and rich Southern twang, however, seem to exhaust the similarities between this seasoned public relations guru and the Forrest Gump character, immortalized in the eponymous 1994 Hollywood blockbuster.

"Luck first, determination second" is how Willard explains his professional success, which led him to spend his life in "the backwaters of the famous and the semi-famous."

After breaking into the newspaper business in Florida at the height of the American civil rights movement, Willard wrote a country music column in Nashville, Tennessee, headed the Kentucky and West Virginia bureaus of United Press International, and then did something he never thought he would: switch to PR.

"Lewis, I sold out," he recalled telling an old friend and editor at U.S. News and World Report, Lewis Lord. "No, you cashed in," Lord responded.

"Cashing in" is not how Willard prefers to put it, but he described becoming press secretary in 1976 for the U.S. Senate's then-majority leader, Democrat Robert Byrd, as his big break.

It was only his second-ever trip to Washington when he was hired as the heavy hitter's spokesperson. However, Willard learned quickly and gained access to the U.S. corridors of power.

"Byrd, to his credit, has always made his press secretary part of his inner core team," Willard recalled. Virtually any meeting -- whether with the U.S. secretary of state or with leaders of foreign nations -- was open to him.

"Not only did I get to travel, I got to travel on Air Force Two," Willard said. "If you're going to travel, that's the way to travel."

An official visit with Byrd brought Willard on an eight-day visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg at the height of the Cold War. However, the time for Willard to move to Eastern Europe had not yet come, since the Soviet government still dominated all public relations.

"We had a hard time moving around. Everywhere we went, we were chaperoned," Willard said.

After leaving Byrd's team, Willard stayed in politics long enough to direct West Virginia Governor Jay Rockefeller's 1983 campaign for the U.S. Senate, before starting his own business.

"We were thought of as a very creative shop. ... [We] won 'best of show' five out of seven years in regional competitions, but that didn't gain us any business," Willard said about the PR and advertising company he opened in West Virginia, one of the most economically depressed regions of the United States.

"I was getting close to 50, thinking I was going to spend the rest of my life ... being a medium-sized fish in a very, very small pond," he said. "I thought, 'Hey, is that all there is?'"

To answer his own question, Willard took a media director position with the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm in Washington, where he moved into a houseboat on the Potomac. A year into the job, however, Willard realized that working as a hired hand after having owned a company is difficult.

"I was bored," he admitted. So when an opportunity to go to Ukraine with B-M to manage a U.S. government-funded market reform education program presented itself in 1994, Willard jumped at the chance.

"There's a hospitality in the [American] South," Willard said. "You find a similar hospitality in Ukraine."

While feeling comfortable in Ukraine, Willard saw great demand for Western PR services, especially since multinationals were pouring into the country. He opened The Willard Group, an advertising and PR firm affiliated with B-M, in Kiev in 1998.

"Once you've been through the crisis of '98 and survived, then you figure you can outlast anything," Willard said.

B-M was less optimistic about the former Soviet Union, so the company closed its Moscow office in 2000. Willard, however, decided to gamble on the transitional economies, keeping the Kiev office and opening another one in Moscow in 2001.

The Willard Group plans further expansion to Istanbul and Almaty this year, and Willard says he has no regrets about starting over on this side of the Atlantic.

"I've met a wonderful person and we were married," he said. "I have children aged 6 to 36."

Eleven years after his first trip to Kiev, Willard feels he has set down roots there, now having spent more consecutive years living in Ukraine than any other place in the world.

Willard's autobiographical primer on public relations strategies, The Flak, is enjoying commercial success in Russia, and his new book, Surviving Professionally at 60, is also coming out this year.

"I am not there quite yet," Willard said with a laugh.