I envy young people today for the variety of opportunities available to them. They owe much to their predecessors who fought the good fight to break down barriers of gender, ethnicity and institutional bias.
In the public relations profession, we stand on the shoulders of pioneers such as Muriel Fox, Herb Schmertz, and Harold Burson. They helped to drive the innovations that forever changed society’s perceptions and expectations of our government, corporations, nonprofits and media.
Museum Will Preserve their Contributions
I was a privileged to attend the recent launch of the Museum of Public Relations housed at Baruch College of the City of New York.
The Museum is the repository of materials collected by Shelley Spector, a PR executive, and Barry Spector, her husband and business partner.
The cornerstone of the museum is the trove of papers accumulated by Edward L. Bernays, who has been called the father of public relations. Joyce and Richard Newman (at right), of the Newman Group, donated a poster Bernays had inscribed for them.
The evening’s highlight was a panel discussion of the above-mentioned prime movers in public relations, corporate advertising and the media from the 1950s until the present.
Each panelist made important contributions to the way news and information are disseminated today.
I have great respect for Muriel, a long-time colleague in the PR business, because of her key role in helping to gain equality for women as a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Now 86, Muriel started in the PR business back in the 1950s when women found it difficult to get hired in professional roles in PR. She broke through those barriers, eventually becoming an Executive Vice President of Carl Byoir & Associates, then one of the leading PR firms.
Her life changed – along with the lives of future women in the workforce – when she met Betty Friedan, mother of the modern women’s movement, who asked her to help publicize a new organization that would champion women.
At the panel, Muriel held up the press release that she wrote announcing NOW that she donated to the museum.
Here she is discussing how she became involved in NOW and how the organization paved the way for so many women to reach their full potential.
Harold, at 93, is not only one of the godfathers of modern public relations, but he is also a true gentleman. His mere presence elevates the profession, in my view. He is one of the most respected elder statesmen in the business.
To this day, he’s in his office several days a week at Burson-Marsteller, the firm he co-founded. Long-time clients still seek his sage advice and he has been an advisor to many United States Presidents.
Harold stated that his belief is that behavior is the most important element of public relations. Public relations is meant to persuade people to a company’s point of view but if an organization doesn’t deliver on its promise, it will never succeed.
“The problem isn’t bad communications but bad behavior,” when a program doesn’t work, he said, because people don’t believe what the company is saying or doing is in their best interests.
The “youngster” of the panel, at 84, Herb Schmertz led public relations at Mobile Corporation in the 1970s during the first energy crisis when the company was the target of withering media criticism.
He became a public figure in his own right for going on the offensive, what he termed “creative confrontation,” to tell the company’s story, adapting what he called the “ PR of politics.”
“Companies have to participate in public policy to appeal to various elements of the electorate to build a constituency. Our goal was not to be loved; it was to be respected,” he said.
When The Wall Street Journal printed what Schmerz considered biased and inaccurate stories about Mobile, he pulled the company’s ads from the newspaper and wouldn’t take their phone calls. He barred the paper from the company’s annual meeting.
Then Wall Street Journal editor Norman Perlstein finally reached out to Schmertz and asked, “Can we make up?” Schmerz got a laugh from the Baruch audience when he said, “I told him we’re not ready yet.”
Career Advice to the Next Generation
At the conclusion of the discussion, well-known PR counselor Jim Arnold, who moderated the session, asked the panelists to give their advice to young people just starting out:
Muriel Fox: “Think of your legacy. What you are about. What is important to you?”
Herb Schmertz: “Take advantage of participating in a political campaign. That’s where you will learn a lot.”
Harold Burson: “Start now to build a network; learn how to write; learn how to be a member of team working with other people.”
You can watch a video of he entire 50-minute panel discussion by clicking here.