PR legend Jack Felton died Saturday at 84. You know what I remember about Felton? Exactly everything he wanted me to take away from our only meeting.
He had a glass of water at the lectern and a piece of litmus paper in his hand.
He dipped the litmus paper into the glass, and as he pulled it out, he said—and these were his exact words—"Communication is the litmus test of management's decision-making."
Meaning that, to the extent you have a hard time communicating it, it's probably a bad decision. And if it's easy to get across, it's probably a good decision. So communicators, and management, should use the attempt to conceive the communication of a new policy as a way to evaluate the policy and, if needed, modify it or scrap it altogether.
I accepted that, then and there, as a fundamental truth about our work.
Felton also remarked on parenthetically on the litmus paper gimmick, saying that connecting messages to visual things helped people remember them.
Yeah, I guess so.
You know when that meeting took place? Twenty one years ago. It was put on by an organization I don't remember, it was held at some hotel reception to which my 23-year-old ass was sent for reasons long lost to me now.
Aside from trying to pretend I was enjoying my first glass of scotch, I remember only what Jack Felton wanted me to remember—and I remember it as warmly as I remember it well.
Thanks, Jack. We'll take it from here.
A month and a half ago, I asked here whether anybody really cared about all the change that's happening at the International Association of Business Communicators, and I urged people to participate in a Ragan Communications survey that sought to answer that question.
Well, the results are in. They're varied, and compellingly so. IABC members have strong, mixed feelings about their associaton (and also about Ragan, which is characteristically brave about sharing the criticism it received).
Me? At this point, I respect the variety of informed opinion, and I'm content to wait until the International Conference in New York in late June. There, I hope to interview IABC executive director Chris Sorek, as well as outgoing chairman Kerby Meyers and incoming chair Robin McCasland to see where they think the association is and where it's headed.
Unless something unforeseen happens between now and then, my next IABC report will come that last week of June.
Meanwhile, thanks to Ragan and its aptly named reporter Russell Working for taking on the IABC coverage. Their coverage of these issues makes people pay more attention. And pay more attention to the fortunes of the trade association that is the soul of corporate communications, people should.
I once asked my retired adman dad if he ever felt bad about making good ads for bad products, and he trotted out the old saw that nothing kills a bad product like good advertising, because the advertising exposes the product to the harsh light of day.
But I pressed him, asking if he ever felt weird about making warm creative for cold corporations, smart ads for dumb clients or noble messages for morally bankrupt executives.
Even in the privacy of his den, he leaned forward and whispered.
“Sometimes,” he confessed, “we hoped our stuff might make them a little better.”
Virtuous communication shaming a client into changing its ways, or inspiring a client to live up to a higher standard: It’s the communicator’s secret hope.
But has it ever actually happened?
I wonder, and I don’t want to know.
My nephew Danny is getting married this weekend, and the whole Murray family is gathering in Chicago, for ... what should we call it? What else could you call it, but a .. murmuration!
Nelson Algren wrote about a guy who made money up and down Chicago's Division Street by finding lost dogs and collecting rewards. Sounds pretty labor intensive until you understand that he was the one who stole the dogs in the first place.
Is that what your job seems like sometimes? Stealin' dogs and gettin' paid to find 'em?
Well, it shouldn't feel that way all the time. Especially if it's a job like PR or communication, that don't pay too good. Doin' a job like that, you ought to feel like you're doin' some good in the world.
What's the useful social purpose of PR? A couple Fridays ago, Shel Holtz, PR professor Bill Sledzik and I were kicking it all around in Sledzik's office at Kent State University.
As is my annoying habit, I was bemoaning the dearth of philosophical, moral and intellectual thinkers in the communication business these days. When I was a boy, I said, there were giants in this industry: practitioners like the late Chester Burger and Mike Emanuel, writers like Roger D'Aprix and the late Pat Jackson, who helped communicators understand the ideal and the real function of their work in a healthy society.
That's kind of important. Because without an independent sense of your purpose, all you'll ever be is a tool for the goon you're working for this week.
Shel could tell I was just beginning to get cranked up, and he smiled patiently and shifted his weight, as choir members do when being preached to.
Sledzik interrupted me by quoting Jackson on the overarching purpose of our work: "Public relations enables individuals to participate in decisions that affect their lives."
Oh. Right. Well. As long as we're all clear on that, then I guess we don't need any more philosophers.
The problem is we're not all clear on that. And as a matter of fact, the concept hasn't occurred to many of us.
So if that's not what you're doing in this world—and PR is not what I'm doing; I'm just a humble storyteller, which is an old and honorable trade, but only as moral as the storyteller's own heart—what will you tell your maker or your children when they ask what exactly you did for your fellow human beings on this earth?
Cuz I'm afraid stealing dogs and collecting rewards is going to sound a little silly.
Strategic communicator, what would you say if I advised you that, in order to get more clicks, hits and likes on your communication media, you should seek plausible ways to encrust your articles with photographs of scantily clad, smokin' hot female employees?
Well, it's exactly what the communication experts recommended—and what the editors of conservative corporate publications routinely carried out—only a few decades ago.
Ragan.com editor Michael Sebastian (who's on his way to Ad Age—good onya, Michael!) unearthed a wonderful article on the proper use of what was called "cheesecake," in a 1962 issue of Reporting, the magazine for the International Council of Industrial Editors (an association that merged with another to become the International Association of Business Communicators in 1970).
"An alert editor should have no trobule finding plenty of professional model material among employees, and employees' wives and daughters," the Reporting article advised. "Don't settle for girls that are not photogenic or would be out of place in a bathing suit."
Apparently DuPont editors were particularly adept, and their "fine inter-and-external magazine is a good example of the effective use of sophisticated cheesecake."
The haunting question is, what are we doing now that will in a half century seem as shockingly insane as this? What current standard practice is Cheesecake 2.0?
At a conference I attended recently, a speaker quoted Ricky Van Veen, the cofounder of the online website CollegeHumor as saying, "Documenting the experience is becoming more important than the experience itself."
Van Veen's bland observation reminded me of a ballsier one that my late mother made in a memoir she wrote 35 years ago:
"Told my dad, many Christmases ago, as he swung from the chandeliers with a new Polaroid and rest of family huddled on couch and said cheese for two hours, you either record having fun or you have fun."