FROM A ROLL OF NICKELS AND A PHONE BOOTH TO HALLOWED CORPORATE HALLS
What Is This PR, Anyway?
Recently, the New York Times reported that the Public Relations Society of America, the austere body that stands guard over the public relations profession, had labored for some months to produce a new definition of public relations. Apparently, some 927 definitions were submitted and 1,447 votes were cast. And the winning definition?
Public relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.
Really? How high minded.
What about those poor souls who perform pure press agentry, building name recognition and publicity to sell tickets, to sell potato peelers, to sell celebrity? How about the political sound spinsters who sell candidates and their messages? They also labor in the vineyard.
Looking back on that large portion of my life devoted to public relations. I’m a bit befuddled with wonderment. While it’s true that part of my public relations history did indeed fit that definition, it isn’t the whole story. In the Army Air Force during World War II, before I went overseas, I was part of the “Men of 17 – You too can fly and fight in the Army Air Force” campaign (a small part, but I participated in it.) And before I was finished with my war time service (Air Force Intelligence, if you please) I did some public relations for the good folk in Alaska’s Elmendorf Air Base, where I was stationed at the time. At various times subsequently, I touted rug cleaning, the real estate industry, products both cheap and fancy, and even theatrical stuff. I helped the government of Puerto Rico sell its municipal bonds. For an international and domestic program I ran for the Vicks Chemical company in four European countries as well as domestically, I won a Silver Anvil Award – the Oscar of the public relations profession (awarded, by the way, by the PRSA). It was thereafter that I pioneered in the occupation known at the time as financial public relations, and then called investor relations, and even wrote one of the first books on the subject (and several more since). Back then, I represented a number of major investment banking firms. At one time, I probably was one of the leading authors and producers of corporate annual reports. And along the way, I helped pioneer the then-new art of professional services marketing.
And at no point did I ever feel the need to either apologize or aggrandize my occupation as more than it is. I needed no fancy definitions. Nor should any public relations practitioner – from the press agent with his roll of nickels and a phone booth, touting celebrities or shows to the gossip columnists (did that too), to helping develop tourism for both Greece and Turkey (which I did), to speech writing for politicians and giant corporation leaders.
And I will tell you that some of the most brilliant people I know are likewise proud of their profession as public relations practitioners. I’ve had wonderful mentors, such as the late and brilliant Bill Ruder, my personal mentor Richard Weiner (one of the most creative men in the field), from my friends Richard Levick and Larry Smith, and many more.
With this breadth of experience, I have to look upon the PRSA definition with a jaundiced eye. It somehow brings to mind, a cartoon by the revered World War II cartoonist, Bill Mauldin, in which a wounded soldier in an aid station says, “Never mind the Purple Heart, just give me a Band-Aid.” I could tell you stories.