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
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
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
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
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,"
"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
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
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
But he's not dizzied by this, and wouldn't stop working for
"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
Title & company: Founder and chairman of Edelman Public Relations
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
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.
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
He still counsels several clients, most notably Philip Morris, Merrill
Lynch, Coca-Cola and DuPont. "The days seem to go by very fast," he
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
"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
Still, he has a lot of pride. Burson's biography runs to seven pages
with all the boards he serves on.
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
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
"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
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.