Roger Martin, APR, Communications Giant

In News, Professional/Networking by David Waymire

I couldn’t be prouder to see Roger Martin be named an outstanding alumnus of the Michigan State University College of Communications Arts and Science.

He’s a man who has stood out from the crowd in everything he has done.

  • As a reporter and public relations practitioner, he has focused on communicating clearly, honestly and with the intention of leaving his audience better informed than before they encountered his work.
  • His deep engagement with his family has made him an exemplary husband and father – and soon, grandfather.
  • His commitment to success has driven Martin Waymire into its position as the state’s pre-eminent public relations firm, creating positive change since 2004 and helping make Michigan a better place to live, work and play.

I first met Roger in 1982, when we were both young reporters in our 20s, part of the Capitol press corps covering Lansing and statewide news. He came to the Detroit News Lansing Bureau in January of that year after spending time as a general assignment reporter in Detroit attached to the city desk, covering downriver Detroit, grabbing additional assignments and quickly making a name for himself among the other hard chargers at that major paper.

While Roger likes to brag about the high level of partying he did at MSU, he also was a top student and writer for the MSU State News. He covered the board of trustees and interim President Edgar L. Harden and his successor, Dr. Cecil Mackey – along with writing music reviews of bands such as U2 that showed up in East Lansing. He leveraged his clips into a job as the eyes and ears of the Detroit Free Press on campus, and then as an intern for the paper in Detroit covering police and courts. When the Free Press passed on picking him up, the paper down the street, The Detroit News, offered a position.

Nolan Finley, editorial page editor at The Detroit News today but at the time a top editor on the news side, remembers Roger as “a hard ball reporter. Not much interested in touchy-feely human interest stuff. He wanted to go after the red meat. He was dogged as a reporter. We put him Downriver when he first came up – he put the fear of God in the folks down there.”

But it was at the Detroit News Lansing Bureau that his journalism reputation was made. He made the move back to Lansing – where his wife’s family lived – in January 1982, just in time for the inauguration of Democratic Gov. James Blanchard.

The Detroit News Lansing Bureau at the time was growing and taking on increased importance at the paper. The staff included Charlie Cain and George Weeks, both Michigan journalism legends, and top reporters such as Mark Hornbeck, future Pulitzer Prize winners Eric Freedman and others. Another future Pulitzer winner, Jim Mitzelfeld, also joined the Lansing bureau during Roger’s stay.

Joanna Firestone, a legend herself, was bureau chief at the time. She recalls Roger as “a kind of gigantic St. Bernard puppy. So much enthusiasm. He would bound into my office and say, ‘you would never believe what I just heard.’ His enthusiasm was just great to have in the office.”

In 1986, auto entrepreneur Dick Chrysler was running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. The primary was crowded, and Chrysler was a front runner. Then Firestone got a tip that the candidate, who was still running a substantial auto supplier operation that was facing some tough times, told his employees to apply for unemployment insurance but then come into the factory to work anyway.

“I immediately got Roger running on that story. We worked that story for 24 hours a day for several days and got it into the paper. This was shoe leather time. Getting records was a lot more laborious than it is now. It was old fashioned hard work,” Firestone recalls.

The story was printed just five days before the primary. Chrysler went from 10 percentage points up in the polls to lose by 10 percentage points to Wayne County Executive Bill Lucas. It was a key part of the body of work that resulted in Roger being named Michigan’s best reporter by Metropolitan Detroit magazine that year.

(As a sidelight, that story came after one filed by some guy named David Waymire for Booth Newspapers that showed Chrysler had tax liens totaling $130,000 imposed against his business in 1980-82. He paid the liens and $147,500 in penalties after those articles. It was just part of the ongoing competition between two reporters who became friends and partners.)

A year later, in August of 1987, Roger was reading in bed watching a Detroit Tiger game when he got a call from The Detroit News city desk. An airliner had crashed at Metro Airport. Reporters were being mustered.

Roger was one of the first to get near the scene, stuck in traffic on I-94 as first responders limited access. He was one of the last to write on the immediate story, covering the National Transportation Safety Board hearings. The death toll: 156, including two on the ground. The survivors: Only one, a 4-year-old girl who lost her parents and brother. While Nolan Finley might have said Roger didn’t like to get into the “touchy feely” part of journalism, he did on this story, interviewing family and friends of survivors to bring the human element to his readers, as well as covering the government machinations involved in determining the cause of the crash.

“Roger was a key piece on that story,” said Finley, who called it “one of the biggest stories I (managed). We wanted to figure out what happened. A big piece of the reporting out of the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) and NTSB was on what happened and why, and that was his forte.”

“There was never an assignment he couldn’t handle. He would rather die than not get the story you sent him out to get.”

It wasn’t all work in the bureau. Firestone remembers Roger proudly driving up in his new Pontiac Firebird – and her digging him about buying a muscle car with an automatic transmission. “He couldn’t drive a stick shift. Why would anybody buy a muscle car without a stick? I thought that was hilarious – any red-blooded Michigan boy should be able to drive a stick!”

All along, Roger kept his MSU ties burning bright. He taught undergraduate and graduate journalism classes, and former students such as Ed White and Jeff Karoub have gone on to be journalism stalwarts in Michigan. Cheering on MSU sports teams, in person or at home, was second nature.

In 1988, when Firestone headed to Detroit to become business editor, Roger was picked to be bureau chief of the still growing Detroit News Lansing Bureau. It wasn’t based on seniority – he was one of the younger members of the team.

“He had the organization skills, the discipline.. He’s a natural leader,” Finley said. “He was very competitive. He didn’t want to get beat. That’s what you need in a bureau chief, in every leadership job in a paper. He managed some big egos, and he could keep it moving. I didn’t have to worry about anything when Roger was in charge.”

That’s about the time Republican Senate Majority Leader John Engler started his long-shot campaign to replace Blanchard as governor. Nobody gave him much of a chance, but hard work and smart selection of issues (along with some Blanchard nonchalance) opened the door to his surprise victory. Roger had led the bureau’s coverage of the race. Now he was given a chance to pull all that coverage – and some additional reporting – into a book.

“The Journey of John Engler” carried the byline “By Roger Martin, Nolan Finley and the Detroit News Lansing Bureau, Charlie Cain, Mark Hornbeck and Yolanda Woodlee.” It’s a slim volume, but it captures the excitement of the race and lays out some expectation for Michigan’s political future that today seem prescient. The last page quotes longtime observer Craig Ruff, who had served under GOP Gov. William Milliken, saying of Engler, “He’s drawing the line, saying ‘you’re either with me or you’re on the wrong side.’ He understands that the old political center has evaporated.”

The book came out in 1991 – but by May, Roger was gone from The Detroit News. He was married and ready for a new professional challenge. He and I had talked. In March 1990 I had left my job managing the Capitol team for Booth Newspapers and moved to Marketing Resource Group to help build that company’s public relations arm. He was intrigued by the work I was doing and the capacity for growth. His brother was running a successful small business, and Roger was interested in his experiences.

Kelly Rossman remembers overhearing Roger talking with colleagues at a Detroit News party. By then the News and Free Press were on the way toward implementing a Joint Operating Agreement that the business folks said would save the paper, but that the journalism types knew would result in cost cutting and less competition.

“Roger was really dissatisfied and disgusted. He was not happy with his career,” she says. “I was at a point where I knew I couldn’t grow unless I had someone who could help me bring in business and do the work. I knew he had the skill set, so I said, ‘Would you ever think of joining me.’ His eyes lit up. He said he’s always been interested in being a business owner.”

“I think the first day he started, I was driving into office saying ’Holy shit I can’t believe I did this. How am I going to afford this?’ He was thinking ‘Why did I do this. I took a cut in pay? What was I thinking of?’”

Rossman Martin quickly became a powerhouse firm. They worked with Greektown business leaders Ted Gatzaros and Demitrios “Jim” Papas and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians to get state and local approvals for the Greektown Casino and Hotel, and handling its opening and ongoing communications. DTE was a client, and the Telecommunications Association of Michigan, big names in big fights in the Legislature.

Roger took on a pro-bono millage campaign for the Mason School District, where his children were enrolled. He won twice, first with the millage increase, and then nabbing a coveted national award — the Public Relations Society of America Silver Anvil, the Oscar award of PR. (Martin Waymire has now earned three others, to go with one I won for a ballot proposal – against Roger. That’s another story, though).

He earned his Accreditation in Public Relations, an arduous set of classes, reading and tests that he aced. He brought his writing skills, his understanding of public policy and his dogged tenaciousness to his new career.

“He was very good partner,” Rossman says, “but we were more silos in our firm, in hindsight, than we should have been. Neither of us knew anything about running a business.

“I loved working with him. He was very good at quickly analyzing a situation, but he was also stubborn in that once he saw a path, he tended to have blinders on. But he hit the ground running when he walked in the door,” she said..

Rossman has one memory in particular when she remembers her work with Roger.
“We flew up to Sault Ste. Marie to meet the tribe, in a small plane. I was five or six months pregnant. We land in a small airport, and we were naïve. We were thinking there would be a taxi or a driver. But the only person who was there was the guy who ran the terminal.

“He said, ‘You can just borrow my truck and bring it back.’ That is when I learned Roger Martin couldn’t drive a stick. I was pregnant and 40, and I drove us to the meeting.”

(Roger has a taste for fast cars. The Firebird is long gone, replaced by Corvettes. But … paddle shifters. Sigh. Just not the same as a stick!)

Fast forward to 2004. Roger was getting disgruntled with his arrangement with Kelly. It was time for another move.

I also was looking for my next step after spending 14 years with Marketing Resource Group. After rewriting a business plan a half dozen times, I concluded that I needed a partner. Roger and I had become pretty good friends, mostly through our families. Our wives were close friends; we had children about the same age. We had enjoyed ski vacations together, sports and paying attention to policy. I asked him to consider starting a new firm.

Martin Waymire was the result. We joined a friend in purchasing a building at 426 W. Ottawa Street. I found furniture from a client. Two great young people agreed to join us, Brian Brown (now Regional Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at McLaren Health Care) and Andrea Ness, now Marketing Director at Gud Marketing. We opened our doors in March, offering our clients a month of free service to see if we could meet their needs. We were successful from the start, meeting payroll.

We’ve grown to a team of 15 extraordinary people. We have clients who came with us from Day 1 – and clients who came to us a few weeks ago. The one constant has been Roger.

As he was when Martin Waymire started, he is more dedicated to his family than any one I know. His wife, Lynne, and his daughters Kelsey, Tori and Alexa get his entire attention when they reach out to him. And soon he will have a granddaughter to enjoy.

We’ve been on the front lines of some of the most contentious policy battles in Lansing, helping bring health insurance to some 800,000 residents by working with a bi-partisan coalition to pass Medicaid expansion; fighting for increased competition in telecommunications and electricity; assisting the Lansing Board of Water and Light repair its image after its disastrous response to the 2013 ice storm; winning ballot proposals including the recent Voters Not Politicians campaign to end partisan gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts; and much, much more.

His clients know that when Roger is engaged, they will get his best advice and his always tenacious determination to win.

When he speaks of journalism and communications, it comes from the heart. A few years ago, as we watched newspapers deal with financial decline, Roger came up with the idea of giving away subscriptions to the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News and MLive publications as part of our annual holiday “Martin Waymire Gives” program.

Roger manages the business side of our company, watching the pennies and making sure we have few accounts receivable and pay our vendors promptly.

Staff members know if they are working with Roger they will be expected to bring their best work, but also that he’ll be a mentor and set the example for how to get the job done. They know Roger has a vision for their future and how they can make it a reality.

There’s a reason Martin comes first in Martin Waymire. It’s not just because he’s bigger than me. It’s because around Lansing and around the state, Roger Martin is a highly recognized communications giant. His teaching, mentoring of MSU student practitioners at Martin Waymire, and his counseling of many young journalism and communications professionals have strengthened their careers, at the time and in the future. He’s influenced dozens of reporters and communications professionals, and his work has made the state a better place.

His recognition by the MSU School of Communications Arts and Sciences is most appropriate. Go Roger. Go Martin. Go Spartans.