PR'S GOLDEN OLDIES: They're your elders, they say they're yourbetters, and they've got things to say about the state of PR today

According to PRWeek's 2001 Salary Survey, the average age of a

staffer in the PR industry is 35. Narrow it down to PR agencies, and the

age drops to 31.



To put this in perspective, your 31-year-old PR practitioner was born in

the year that the Aswan Dam was completed, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin

died and Paul McCartney filed a lawsuit to dissolve the Beatles.



But this week PRWeek is celebrating the surprising number of

still-practicing PR veterans who were born as the World War I was just

coming to an end, when Rudolph Valentino was the heartthrob du jour, and

when Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang were No. 1. Propping up the

PR business with their years of experience, wit and wisdom - not to

mention some of the fattest 401K plans in the industry - are PR's Golden

Oldies.



Some of them have their names above agency doors - Al Golin (71); Harold

Burson (80), David Finn (79); Betsy Plank (77, Betsy Plank PR); Dan

Edelman (81); Stewart Newman (79, Stewart Newman Associates,) and Bill

Ruder (79, William Ruder, Inc.).



Some work in agencies - George Goodwin (84, Manning Selvage & Lee); Bee

Marks (79, Ketchum). Others are involved in industry bodies - John

Felton (72, president & CEO of the Institute for Public Relations).

Still others are active consultants - Tim Traverse-Healy (78); John Reed

(74, founder of Consultants in Public Relations). In addition, many of

the above are published authors and are, or have been, lecturers and

advisors for college PR courses.



Still plenty to offer



So why do these people find it so hard to cut the cord? Reasons vary,

but the overriding feeling is that they just haven't found a hobby

that's quite as entertaining as PR. David Finn, who's been knocking

around for well over half a century, fairly gurgles with pleasure when

discussing the business. "I love the opportunity to interact with the

people who work here and with clients. I'm still excited, challenges

come up, and I talk to clients about new ideas and new directions.

People say to me that if I retire, I can spend more time writing books.

But I'm 79 and I've written 79 books. How many more can I publish?"



The number of oldies who lecture and consult gives away another reason

for their staying power. Tim Traverse-Healy, a 78-year-old London-based

consultant whose rich background in US public affairs has garnered

several awards here, says that while he's not one of the PR

millionaires, he has led a good life thanks to the industry and feels he

owes something of a debt. "I'm now going to sound pious, but I have a

large family, lots of grandchildren and a very good life through PR. I'd

really like to put something back."



But these, after all, are the people who helped build the very industry

they say gave them so much. Edelman says that there was very little

knowledge of what PR was when he started out in 1948. "We'd be at a

party and someone would ask my wife what I did. She'd say I was in PR

and they'd ask 'don't you mean advertising?'" As a journalist before and

during WWII, he had been aware of some firms emerging before the war,

but says PR really became a business afterwards. "When we returned, it

was no longer something that five or ten companies did; it became a

reality, a living."



Another benchmark, says Al Golin, was Nixon's downfall, which to him

underlined a perception that had been gradually shifting since his entry

into the industry in 1954. "When companies saw country leaders being

devastated by bad press and presidencies brought down a la Nixon, they

realized the need for strategic counseling and crisis management."



Harold Burson feels that many people in the industry today have an image

that the industry back then was all about publicity, with no strategic

impact - and that's just not true. "We were talking about integrated

communications way back, even though everyone thinks it's an invention

of the past 10-15 years." In fact, he adds, the industry has taken a

step back in his view. "Lots of people aren't in this for counseling and

advice; they're just in it for the stunts," he says, somewhat peevishly.

"Although the corporation communications departments have expanded their

function strategically, the conduct of the agency business has supported

the flackery for which we are known."



Much of Burson's disapproval comes from old-fashioned gentility, in the

manner of someone who is standing in line behind garrulous youths. "The

value system has changed," he laments. Traverse-Healy also pines for the

good old days when PR was motivated by "better" principles: "People now

are more interested in the size of budget than the virtues of the

case."



It's understandable that these septuagenarians and octogenarians feel

this way, given that the scattered handful of PR agencies that were in

existence in their early days have all grown, spawned, been subsumed by

ad agencies and become huge, sprawling, many-tentacled beasts, grappling

with a vast media. Golin thinks the size of the industry and the amount

of information available today has made people jaded. "Things were much

simpler then," he says, wistfully. "If you had a gut feeling, you did

it. These days, people are too stuffy and self-conscious and worried

about making a mistake. We're just not having as much fun anymore."



A new breed of executive



But Burson, as well as many of his peers, cheers up enormously when he

notes the number of women that have flooded into the industry during his

time. Goodwin says: "It started happening when we realized that the

business fits women particularly well. They can juggle, while men tend

to be a little more single-shot. We have men who can work on several

accounts, but it's the women who can handle three to four accounts very

crisply, and still have husbands and families. That's kind of a

requirement of the PR firm. You have to think fast, have several clients

wanting portions of your time, while keeping balls in the air - and

women do it better than men."



Overall, our seniors have seen a change in the type of person entering

the industry. "The first lot of staff weren't kids; they were in their

30s and 40s, and most came from journalism," Edelman recalls. "They were

serious people who got the point about the possibilities of PR, but had

never had a PR job before. They learned on the job and I learned with

them."



Reed thinks that the diversification from the typical journalism

background he has seen in his 50-plus years in the industry is a good

thing. "Today, entrants come from a broad, liberal arts or PR education.

I've been teaching at American University for 12 years and can see these

bright, young, smart people who see this as a serious profession to

which they can make a serious contribution."



Goodwin, however, thinks that the formalization of PR education has had

a detrimental effect on the industry. "You can teach the techniques of

PR, but you cannot teach brains," he says. "If the college is really

emphasizing PR, it means they're slighting English, history,

sociology ... the things that build up the educated person."



How times have changed PR



But PR has become a more exact science since those early days, with a

whole raft of techniques and methods to learn. Reed says: "We now have

these systems for telling how well you are doing in the media, for

measuring results and risks, and informing you of movements that are

interesting to the company. I remember having to buy newspapers and

getting the international ones in the mail, out of date. We'd take

scissors, paste and a ruler, cut out the clippings and measure how many

inches they added up to. We had to read the different languages and

devise our own rating system. Very crude. I look around these days and

see fancy bar graphs and charts that come off a computer."



There is a perception amongst the older crew that public relations

people had a closer relationship with the journalists back then. Goodwin

says that because there were fewer journalists and PR executives, "the

clients expected us to be pretty much on a first-name basis with the

media. We were expected to be able to call a reporter and be very sure

that phone call was going to be returned." Edelman adds: "At Gillette,

we had a press conference at the Plaza Hotel in New York for a new

beauty product and 80 editors took the time to show up. That doesn't

happen now."



There is also less interaction between industry personnel these days,

according to Traverse-Healy who is nostalgic for the "old boys'

network." "Back then, you could call someone up and say 'I've got this

client ...'" he says, somewhat mistily. "There was a greater desire to

swap experiences and things weren't so formal. We were striving to

articulate what we were doing, and were actually formulating what we

were trying to do. We knew each other and trusted each other."



But while many point to what they see as a dip in principles and

strategy over the years, some are modest about their wisdom. "With age,

naturally, comes experience - but not necessarily full understanding,"

says Finn.



"A great writer on Japanese life in the 19th century wrote that in the

first week of being in Japan he thought he understood the Japanese mind.

But after he had been there for 50 years, he realized he knew nothing.

It's the same with PR. It's difficult to understand how ideas catch fire

and it's silly to make claims that we can be responsible for that." He

pauses, then concludes: "One thing about age is that you don't make the

silly claims you do when you're younger."



- So is the PR agency business really too concerned with stunts? Has the

quality and the fun gone out of PR over the decades? Have your say at

letters@prweek.com.



GEORGE GOODWIN



Age: 84



Title & company: Consultant, Manning Selvage & Lee Atlanta



"Every day, I try to get here at 10am" says Goodwin, with a puff of

pride. "And if I don't ... so what?"



His days are still full, however, working in MS&L's building on their

clients, plus some of his own.



A newspaperman until the early '50s, Goodwin names his first foray into

public relations as becoming head of the downtown Atlanta Property

Owners' Association in 1952. That, he says, was when he "gave up

newspapering and got into the promotion of other people's

interests."



He went on to be the First National Bank of Atlanta's VP of advertising

and PR in 1954. In 1961, he launched Forward Atlanta, a promotion

program for the city, and in 1965 he started the Atlanta arm of New York

PR firm Bell & Stanton.



He came to MS&L when it merged with Bell & Stanton in 1976. He has since

seen a number of changes in the business, including PR firms being

snapped up by the ad agencies; an influx of women into the business; an

increasing specialization into practice areas and staggering

technological advances.



But he's not dizzied by this, and wouldn't stop working for

anything.



"I hope everyone else has had as much fun as I have," he says, though

adds by way of a confession: "Besides, Mrs. Goodwin would go crazy if

she had to put up with me every day. She married me for love - not

lunch."



DAN EDELMAN



Age: 81



Title & company: Founder and chairman of Edelman Public Relations

Worldwide



Edelman reckons he has been in the industry long enough to afford the

luxury of picking and choosing which parts of the job he wants: "I'm not

a good planner - I'm not even a good budgeter," Edelman senior confesses

with the air of someone not at all bothered. "Richard (son, and now CEO)

knows all that stuff. I just think about day-to-day things and I'm

always surprised things turn out so well."



Given a typewriter at the age of five, Edelman's progression into

journalism by way of Columbia College and then CBS seemed a logical

progression. But a spell in the US Army Psychological Warfare and

Information Control divisions during WWII clearly put the notion of PR

into his head. A subsequent job as PR director of the Toni division of

Gillette furnished him with enough chutzpah to set up his own firm in

Chicago in 1952. "I never thought it would become that big a company,"

Edelman says, slightly baffled, a perfect example of his so-called lack

of planning.



He's made the most of it, however, and is intensely proud of the

expansion of the firm, not only into different PR sectors and up the

strategic ladder, but into uncharted international waters.



And Richard's got his dear old dad around for some time yet. "I'll die

with my boots on," the senior Edelman promises.



HAROLD BURSON



Age: 80



Title & company: Founder & chairman Burson-Marsteller



As PRWeek's most influential PR figure of the 20th Century, Burson's

role as the Godfather of PR and architect of one of its largest agencies

has been widely noted.



Just as remarkable, he continues to turn up to his 13th-floor office

every day at 9am, and barely has time to look at the magnificent

view.



He still counsels several clients, most notably Philip Morris, Merrill

Lynch, Coca-Cola and DuPont. "The days seem to go by very fast," he

says.



Like most, Burson came up through journalism, paying his way through the

University of Mississippi as a stringer for his hometown paper. Back in

Memphis in 1940, he got a story that a huge ammunition plant was to be

built near the city and escalating union unrest led the contractor to

ask Burson to take a leave of absence from the paper to handle his

press. A salary jump to $50 a week was the clincher.



He later met Bill Marsteller through a client referral, and the pair

joined forces in 1953.



Burson is a bit dismayed at some of the turns the industry has

taken.



"People are no longer willing to make a lifetime commitment to a firm,"

he says, adding that there is also little commitment between agency and

client. "The PR firm is treated as a vendor, not as a professional

consultant."



Still, he has a lot of pride. Burson's biography runs to seven pages

with all the boards he serves on.



BEATRICE MARKS



Age: 79



Title & company: SVP, Ketchum New York



Believe it or not, there was a time when the American public at large

believed that eating potatoes was unhealthy. Bee Marks was one of the

first people to help change that, and PR - not the french fry - was her

weapon.



Thirty-six years ago, Marks was referred to Botsford, a full-service

agency in Portland, OR. Reluctantly, she went to work for the firm: "I

didn't want to go, because I thought advertising was so cutthroat," she

recalls. "But they were just great people."



And that's more or less remained Marks' mantra: learn and do as much as

you can and work with great people. It's why she didn't leave Botsford

when it merged with Ketchum, and why she's still working there

today.



"When we first got the national potato account, the people were so

wonderful to work with," she says. "When we talked to scientists and

nutritionists, we found they were interested in telling the story. It

told us we were right about the way we did things to educate the

public."



She was more right than she probably thought at the time. Marks got a

small story in Vogue about how potatoes are good for one's diet, and the

agency told her to go with her instinct from then on. Marks has since

become one of the most active and influential voices in the areas of

food and nutrition - topics that she's helped bring from obscurity to

obsession in the American mindset.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.