How Three PR Pioneers Opened Doors for the Next Generation

Museum of PR resized

Muriel Fox, moderator Jim Arnold, Herb Schmertz , Harold Burson

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.

Joyce and Richard NewmanThe 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.

Muriel Fox

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 Burson

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.

Herb Schmertz

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.

What is your advice to young people just starting out in a career? What should they do? What should they avoid?

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  1. I never knew there was a Museum of Public Relations – thanks for sharing this, Jeannette; you just added one more thing on my to-do list when I come to New York one day 🙂 but it says it was established in 1997..’ what happened recently?

    And to your question about career advice for young people – I would say you should love what you do; that’s the only way you can succeed. And if you meant career advice for those who have chosen public relations – then staying truthful to yourself and to your audience is paramount. Being ethical will matter more and more simply because too many people today decide to compromise and ‘take shortcuts”. People appreciate honesty.

    • Diana — The Museum is only just now open to the public. It was basically housed in the offices of Shelley Spector who personally collected all the items that she contributed to make the museum a reality. They are now on loan to Baruch College that has the space for them. I agree — you’ve got to love what you do. Unfortunately, many people hate their jobs but are stuck in them because they need the money or the benefits. I’m a Fellow of the Public Relations Society of America and we have a Code of Ethics that is strictly enforced. As Harold Burson said, “behavior” is at the heart of public relations. Behavior means individuals and organizations being honest. Fortunately, the Internet is providing the transparency that is making it easier to ferret out the “bad” guys.

  2. If I was young today I would not opt for the PR/communications/marketing/journalist field. There are 200 to the dozen and you need the right connections to get a job or parents that are prepared to support you for, most likely, quite some time. A young person today with an entrepreneurial mind could have a go though, start a company and if they are exceptionally good succeed.

    For a young person without those advantages I would opt for a profession that will always be needed such as medical doctor or dentist.

    • Catarina — there are too many people who go into the communications field because the feel their only qualification needs to be “I like people.” You’ve got to know how to write, to understand what your company stands for and how to build a brand and reputation. Unfortunately, the barriers to entry are very low. The bar is set much higher for a doctor or dentist. I actually think there is more need than ever for what’s called “reputation management.” But many company leaders see PR/communications/marketing as an expense that detracts from the bottom line. Then, when a crisis hits, they are scrambling to contain it because they have not built a reservoir of good will among their target audiences.

  3. What a great flashback here Jeannette. And as someone already commented, who KNEW there was such a museum. But aha, bet NY has museums for so much.

    Interesting what Muriel Fox said in the video you shared, “I think it’s angry people who make revolutions.” This explains a lot, and maybe why in some things there are no revolutions in that most of us are doing our best to remain optimistic and make changes from the opposite of anger. Something to ponder.

    Valuable post and thanks.

    • Patricia — sometimes you have to shout to be heard. Even Muriel — who worked closely with Betty Friedan for years — said she was very difficult. I personally know a number of women back then in PR who joined the “revolution” by speaking out and they never worked in the field again. Employers considered them toxic simply for asking for equal treatment. I hope young people today appreciate people like Muriel and Betty and Marlene Sanders who worked so hard for what many young people take for granted today.

  4. How cool that this museum now exists. I bet that was an amazing experience to have attended the museum’s launch. What an esteemed group. I loved the Muriel Fox: gave to young/new comers; “Think of your legacy. What you are about. What is important to you.” These are words we could live by on many levels, in many walks of life. 🙂

    • Susan — it was so inspiring. I know Muriel and Harold and only knew Herb by reputation. But they were giants in their time. As I grow older, I’ve thought about my legacy and hope it will be that people will remember me for having been “a good person.” That’s about all any us can ask.

  5. OMG! I was a member of NOW for years. I didn’t know the backstory or anything about the founders. How serendipitous for you to feature Ms. Fox and share a bit of of that momentous history. (I would not have connected PR and NOW without this!)

    Public Relations has a dirty rep. In the mind of the layman, the public relations department spokesperson is trotted out when the company has done something wrong, is trying to hide something, or is trying to screw the little people.

    But the industry itself is not often focused upon (at least not in meaningful ways that I have seen). It’s good to have a PR Museum and to see/hear those who were at the forefront of the “early movement.” They bring context to the profession for those of us outside it.

    • Vernessa — I worked in public relations for years and never worked for an organization where we didn’t tell the truth. Of course, there are some bad PR people, but there are bad people in every profession. Trust me, when there is a crisis the first person a reporter calls is the PR department, which are also the source of many of the product-related stories you read about and see on TV. They can’t live with us and can’t live without us. Muriel Fox is still a beautiful woman. She didn’t typify the stereotype of a “women’s libber.” She is elegant and smart. I’m proud to know her.

  6. The advice to learn how to write is of utmost importance, but too many students aren’t really being taught how to write and how various forms of writing can serve difference purposes depending on the audience. I always used to try to get students to see the link between clear writing and clear thinking, but boy was it can uphill battle at times.

    • Jeri — it wasn’t incidental that Harold Burson emphasized good writing. I worked in public relations for years and it was appalling that students graduating with public relations degrees couldn’t write. I once interviewed a young woman, at the request of a client, who had just graduated with a degree in communications and thought she might be interested in public relations. She told me she had never taken a writing course. I asked her why not? Her response: “It wasn’t required.” !!!

  7. Hi Jeannette; thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. Its great to be able to hear some of the wisdom from these public relations giants. I think my advice would be the same start building your network early. the more people you can truly connect with the better able you will be when it comes time to promote yourself or your clients. and if you do it right you will learn a lot from them and never really have to ask. I plan to listen to the whole hour later. I wonder what they think of social media. great post, max

    • Max — they are really are giants in the profession. Just look at our blogging network and how it has helped all of us develop relationships that extend offline as well. Glad we met that way and it’s been fun to observe your transformation.

      • Hi Jeannette; it is great that we met online and have become friends and support each other in our blogging and business efforts. I am glad you have been part of my transformation and i feel like i am only at the beginning of it. in the last two days I have exchanged emails with a magazine editor from san antonio and a tv producer from toronto and the amazing adrienne smith has invited me to write a guest post for her. not all these will come true but so much of it is stuff i would have never imagined just a few months ago. thanks so much for being part of my community my online family helping me to see the very best of myself even when i may not have wanted to. yesterday harleena called me a gem and instead of disagreeing with her i said yes i’m an almost finished diamond. well take care my friend. xoxo max

  8. Jeannette, I have a question. In your reply to Jeri you mentioned a young woman who had a degree in communications and had never taken a writing course. How in the world did she graduate? It seems to me good writing -as well as good speaking – is the basis of all communications, whether journalism, PR, etc.
    In 1969 I was refused a promotion on the basis of being a woman so yes, I very much appreciate the work done by people such as Muriel Fox and Betty Friedan.
    I love to hear about women CEO’s who are tackling the tough jobs (GM).

    • Lenie — I could write a book about how difficult it was for women in the workplace not only to get promotions but getting invited to sit in on the meetings where the decisions are made. Re the young woman, I have no idea she could have gotten a degree without a writing course and spending four years and not knowing what she wanted to do in the field. It was mind-blowing.

  9. Enlightening Jeanette. The most important aspect, to me, is learning how to be a member of a team and how to operate as a team. This hit home with me because of a project I am involved with now where one Lone Ranger is on the verge of ruining it. And all for greater glory…. sad

  10. Wow Jeannette!

    I can only imagine that lifetime of both wisdom and knowledge those three iconic figures must posses!

    and it took a lifetime of continuous struggle to get it too! And then there’s the museum for the rest of us to treasure hunt!

    That must have been a pretty awesome and lively discussion for sure! Wonder who and what the legacy will be of the next three iconic figures will be?

    • Mark — it was a privilege to hear them speak. They really did forge new paths for the PR professionals who followed them. I honestly can’t think of anyone in the business today who will leave such lasting legacy. They developed the blueprint for how PR is practiced today.

  11. What a great post Jeannette and I loved the Muriel Fox video. What an exciting time, and as Par said angry people start a revolution. The struggles women in the 60’s and 70’s went through to get us where we are today in feminism are often overlooked, so this was refreshing to hear. As to what young people can do now, I think network and communication is essential, but to try and think, as Muriel says, of your legacy. This is the hardest part for any young generation who never believe they too will be old. I still feel surprised at the age I’ve become! Thanks for an insightful and interesting post Jeannette:-)

    • A.K. — it does take angry people who are willing to risk everything to cause a revolution. I’m afraid too many young women today don’t appreciate how much they are benefiting from the early pioneers. When I hear someone say she’s not a feminist (so afraid it will scare away the boys), I ask, “What,you’re not for women!”