The two people chosen are Rea Smith, former Executive Vice President of the Public Relations Society of America, Inc., and currently Executive Director and Secretary of the Foundation for Public Relations Research and Education, Inc.; and Daniel Hirshfield, Assistant Director of Corporate Communications for Union Carbide.
Rea Smith has been in public relations for more than thirty years and has seen it grow from a limited specialty to a full-scale profession. She went into PR by accident of marriage. Previously she was chief payroll officer at a large company. So Mrs. Smith is also an interesting example of a successful mid-career changer.
Were you interested in any special field when you first went to work?
When I was growing up people didn't worry too much about a career. You got a basic education and then you went out job hunting and hoped you got one you liked. Today it's very different.
I was a child of the Depression. You went looking for a job and when you found one you told them that you had all the skills they were looking for. I remember getting a job in a hotel as a night auditor because I had an accounting background. They said that I would have to run the switchboard because the regular girl went off about 10:00 P.M. They asked if I knew how. I answered, "Of course." I went home and asked my mother, "Who's that friend of yours who knows how to run a switchboard?" I called her up and she taught me over the telephone.
So you didn't start out in public relations?
No. I was in accounting and, in fact, during World War II, I was the chief of payroll for a very large company. My husband worked in public relations there and that's how I met him. After we were married we went to Memphis where he set up his own counseling firm. That was in the forties and he had difficulty finding people who knew anything about the field. I was pretty tired of housekeeping, so I went to work in his office and became fascinated with the whole profession.
What did you do when you joined your husband in PR?
We were handling a variety of accounts. For instance, we handled the annual fund raising drive of The Easter Seal Society. We handled the City Railway Company, which had all of the bus lines, and also a drug firm. My husband put me to work on most of the accounts we had. Fortunately, I've always been good at the written and spoken word so it wasn't much of a chore for me to edit publications or to write promotional appeal letters for fund raising. All I really had to do was to learn the theory of public relations.
Do you think you had any qualities which made this easier for you and would be helpful for others to know?
When people think that they want to go into public relations, they are often told that they must have writing skills. This is true. And that they must like people. This is not true. You do not have to like them; you have to be able to understand them. There is a vast difference. Many people think that you have to be an extrovert: love parties and be gregarious. This is not so. Many public relations positions do not require this sort of thing. Frankly, the glad hander is not the person who usually does best in the public relations field.
Being able to understand people and being able to communicate with them are very important. So is salesmanship. No matter how you slice it, in public relations you are trying to make other people accept your point of view. This is salesmanship of a very subtle kind.
Every successful public relations person I've met has had a great deal of curiosity. They have an insatiable need to know. They need to know about people; they need to know why they act the way they do; what will turn them on, what will turn them off. In my own case, coming out of accounting where my sense of curiosity was never satisfied, I had a field day in PR. It was easy for me to learn because I wanted to and because I was curious about everything.
It's this sort of need-to-know quality that people going into public relations should have. Otherwise, they will fall into doing work by formula. They may be moderately successful but it will only be a living- that's about it. Not a career.
What about imagination?
Well, imagination is something else. I'd rather use the word creative. A creative approach and the desire to communicate effectively are essential. Everybody is bombarded with so much more information than they can handle. None of us has the time to sit down and analyze it all.
Look at this energy crisis. On one side, you have people saying "It's the oil companies," on the other side, "It's the government." There seems to be no time to have a quiet forum and get all the facts. That's why every organization and I am not excluding the government itself, needs public support. In order to get public support, they need to make the public understand their story. And that is basically what public relations persons do.
Does public support require a certain belief in the company, product, etc. involved?
Public relations people in publicity are primarily interested in getting people to accept the product and they work on one side, while advertising tries to work on the other: to get people to buy the product. But it doesn't make any difference how hard they work if the product itself does not stand up.
I remember when I first did public relations, I knew the man who was the PR head of Du Pont. I was at one of their meetings when someone asked, "What is your overall plan for public relations for Du Pont?" My friend stood up and said, "The public relations of Du Pont is nylon [then a fairly new product]. In other words, we develop nylon, we sell nylon. Nylon is a good product."
You have to start out in public relations not only with a product or a service, but a concept that you can sell. You can't function in public relations if you don't believe in the work or in the product your organization puts out, or the service it renders. Once in a while somebody doing political public relations will say, "I really don't belong to any political party, so I can represent any candidate." That's not true. They may be able to represent any candidate, but they have to represent a candidate they believe in. It may not be the party they favor but they've got to believe in the candidate.
Belief, then, is a basic ingredient?
Yes, and this is where the public relations people get separated from the old press-agent types. Maybe I should say "advance men." Press agents are good people and do a good job in their field. What I mean is the old P. T. Barnum approach of taking anything and selling it to the public. Today, the public is much smarter and I think if P. T. Barnum lived today and pulled some of his stunts he would find himself broke. You can't fool too many people in this world today. Somebody is going to find you out. A professional public relations person knows he can't fool the public and there's no point in trying because you'll be in worse trouble than before you started.
How did you become associated with the Public Relations Society of America?
My husband and I worked in Memphis from 1945 to 1957. Then, we came to New York and my husband became head of the PRSA. I worked as his administrative assistant. Two years later, he became seriously ill, and the PRSA asked me to take over for him until they could find a replacement. Then the replacement wanted me to stay on; then, his replacement wanted me to stay on. Periodically, the head of the office would be on leave and I would be manager in the interim. I added it up once, and I was in charge of the office for an aggregate of five years before they gave it to me on a permanent basis about four years ago. I don't believe they didn't give the job and the title to me right away because they felt a woman couldn't manage. I believe it simply never occurred to them because I was a woman.
Now I'm on leave from the PRSA. I expect to return soon and groom my successor. I plan to retire in two or three more years. I've worked a long time.
What sort of people would you like to see entering the PR field?
I want them to be curious. I want them to be investigative. I want them to be alert to the world around them. I want them to be willing to learn to write properly and to communicate well with both the spoken word and with audio-visuals. Audio-visuals are increasingly important. Students studying public relations in college have access to marvelous studios these days and they come out knowing more about audio-visuals than some people who have been in the field for twenty years. The point I'm making is that students should take advantage of that while they can, and learn to write and use audio-visuals while they're in school.
One of the greatest problems we have are public relations students who try to convince themselves that they're really not going to be writing very much and that they can sort of slide through that English. They can't. It's the basis of everything. Every film starts out as words on a piece of paper-a script. Everything depends on words written on paper and the people who can put words together well and make them come alive and persuasive are the ones who will be successful.
I'd also like to see young people coming in who are interested in bringing people together-conciliation. It doesn't make any difference what side of the fence they're on. If they started out with a pro-business basis they will begin to see the logic of those on the other side. There's no way you could be a good persuader unless you can carry two opposing thoughts in your mind at the same time and still function. That, I think, is an important quality in public relations.
It really doesn't make any difference if a person is an extrovert or introvert. I've known fine public relations people who are introverted. They don't particularly like those cocktail parties. They like to investigate the world through reading and through one-to-one interviews, and that's all right, too. I would say that anyone who thinks that public relations are a breeze ought not to go into it because it's hard work. Along the line you might have a chance to meet some celebrities and some very interesting people. You will also meet some that are real pains in the neck.
Should tomorrow's PR person have a degree in public relations?
Yes, I would say so, if it's available. PRSA has student societies on some campuses throughout the country. PR courses are available in schools of journalism. They're also available in schools of communications, which involve the studies in journalism as well as advertising. Yes, definitely, be educated. The pioneers in the field who started out in the thirties or forties had no way to get educated; they had to use the skills they had and learn by doing. But today we've got 3,000 students in our PRSA student society and about 600 a year are coming into our profession.
What really is waiting out there for college graduates?
The field of public relations has grown steadily. When I came to PRSA they had in the neighborhood of about 2,200 members. That was 1957. Today, there are 9,000 members. That mirrors the growth of the field and I believe that between now and the year 2000 the field is going to expand greatly. For one thing, all the government rules and regulations make it necessary for almost every organization to communicate with the public. Government relations are a very important part of public relations. Companies have to spend more time becoming aware of the community they're in and the people they deal with in that community. I see no signs that this is going to diminish I see every sign that it's going to increase.
Let's take financial public relations. When I was starting out, financial PR people were putting out an annual report and an occasional pep talk. Now anyone in financial public relations must know all of the SEC [Securities Exchange Commission] regulations, know how to comply, know what you can do and what you can't do, particularly with respect to mergers and things like that. It's a highly specialized field and people who are in it command top salaries.
Management used to believe it should do its job and never be seen or heard. Today you can't do that, and one of the greatest areas of job opportunities is in speech writing. Speech writing is a very specialized talent and again, good speech writers are very hard to find. They also command top salaries. This is going to increase, since corporate people have decided that the only way they're going to get their story across is to tell it through its highest source, the chief executive officer. And this is true, not only of corporations, but all organizations.
What about women in PR?
Women have always been in public relations-they've never been excluded. One of the first woman executives I knew was a woman who ran her own counseling firm. That was in 1945 and in that same year a woman was in charge of public relations for the New York Port Authority. Because her first name was Lee, a lot of people thought she was a man. Women have always been in the field. Within the last fifteen years, the percentage of women in public relations has gone from about 9 percent to close to 30 percent. By the year 2000, it will probably be 50 percent. In the PRSA student societies, the majority of members are young women.
Is that good for public relations?
I think it's very good. For one thing this isn't a field where you have to overcome the traditional physical barriers. Even though you need physical stamina to handle the work, you're not out driving a truck or operating a jack hammer. That good old thing that they call feminine intuition is very, very helpful in public relations. As little girls we learn very early how to please people, not just men, but how to please our families and get the right kind of reaction from other people. Well, when we become adults, we're a lot more sensitive to what will persuade and what won't.
As far as your career is concerned, is there anything you would have done differently?
That's always a fun exercise. I don't think so. I'll tell you why. I've always been a believer that everyone should make their own decisions. Never put a guilt trip on anyone else. I think everybody at least once every three or four years, should stop and say, "Okay, am I still happy? Is this what I'm going to keep on doing? Do I want to change?" Well, I've done that and I've always decided that I wanted to stay as I was.
Daniel Hirshfield, Assistant Director of Corporate Communications, Union Carbide Corporation, was recruited into business public relations from Washington, D.C., where he was a highly successful speech writer.
What is your title and function here?
We are all part of the Public Affairs Group. I am in the Corporate Communications Department which is part of Public Affairs. My responsibilities specifically are to two programs. One is Executive Communications, which is largely writing speeches and articles for our senior executives and the other is the Issues Program. This is a program that was created two years ago to put special emphasis on strategic issues that affect Union Carbide, such as energy, health and safety, environment, and trade. The people who work with me full time in this program are experts. Their job is to use all the communication tools available to this company to help our public image in relation to energy, health, safety, environment, and trade. The goal is not just to have the company well thought of generally, but to have us well enough regarded in terms of our performance in the energy field, for example, so that when we go to the Department of Energy on a business matter, they will have a higher opinion of us than of our competitors, or at least as good a one. The program spans the entire spectrum of public relations, from talking with our stockholders and employees and the press, to advertising, to executive speeches, and so on. It's like a mini-department, with the rest of the group and outside agencies. Because our charter from the corporation is to get the maximum favorable reaction to the corporation's name in those areas I mentioned, we use whatever tools we have available: speeches, testimonies, brochures, booklets, company magazines.
How long have you been at Union Carbide?
About three and one-half years, this is a very long time for public relations. One of the phenomena in PR work is the rapid turnover. I think we have situations in which there must be a high degree of interpersonal relationships to make our programs work and be successful. When new people come into an organization, those relationships are subtly changed and shifted. This puts a strain on public relations people and often there is a turnover. The same person who couldn't do anything right at the ABC Oil Company will be golden boy at DEF Oil Company, doing exactly the same thing. It's only because they had a change at ABC Company and the interpersonal chemistry didn't work out. It's not as true with marketing, it's not as true with finance, it's not as true with legal, and it's not as true with production. There you have more tangible results-did you make your production target, your sales target, and so on? Here it is getting inside the heads of people and it's hard to measure.
What is the general salary range in PR for a person coming into the field with a master's degree?
I would say the low teens, $12,000-$ 13,000. This varies very much by geography, however. Salaries are highest in New York, Boston, or Chicago. There are some PR people who make six figures. Most people I know don't, but they're moderately prosperous. They are not all that different from dentists or independent lawyers, as opposed to lawyers in a large firm. They definitely earn less than doctors and definitely are paid more than teachers. I don't know how much more specific I can get. There are some solo practitioners, people who are freelance speech writers and publicity experts who can make a quarter of a million dollars, but they are rare exceptions. Most people earn around $40,000 in mid career, and some people at the top earn $50,000-$60,000.
How and when did you get into public relations?
I have a Ph.D. in American history and my thesis had to do with the New Deal. I was interested in politics-not running for office, but the workings of politics. I became involved with the Ripon Society [the Liberal Republicans] and through them I was recruited in 1969 to work in the Nixon Administration. I wound up in HEW working on certain reform bills in which the President was interested. These included such things as welfare reform, mediclaim reform, medicare reform, national health insurance, and so on. A large part of my responsibility was to help sell the program to the Congress and to various groups who saw their interests at stake. After a while I was asked to write speeches at the White House, and I did so. From there I was again recruited by HEW to write speeches for Elliott Richardson, who was the Secretary, and from there I was recruited by private business as a speech writer. That was my entree. Since then my work has broadened to include all areas of PR.
When did you consciously decide on a career in public relations?
When I went to graduate school, I had no intention of winding up in a private corporation as a public relations executive. When I went to Washington, I intended to stay for only a short while and return home to teach. However, at each turning of the road, if you will, there were several options and I took what I thought was the best one. I have not regretted my choices. I was in high visibility areas, doing interesting things. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that someone else should try to enter PR by getting involved in local political campaigns because it may not work for them. They may not have the stomach for it, yet if they do it is a way to get involved; especially if your candidate has some intelligence and is interested in things of some substance. You can help translate that interest into powerful communication tools that can be used to advance the cause of politicians and their interests. Once you get into the swing of things, opportunities appear and you have to go after them. You can pick where you are going to stand in the forest: You can stand at the crossroads, or you can stand behind a tree.
What are some of the difficulties of PR work?
It is important to remember that each organization has its own personality and that no matter how clearly you see what needs to be done, if that organization is unwilling or unable to accept your plan, the constant advocacy of it as an objective will at first be ignored, then seen as a disruption, and finally as unsatisfactory and intolerable. In such cases, what I think I would counsel is to ask yourself what is the organization willing to do, what does it think it wants to do, and then take that assignment or objective and blend it gradually with what you know has to be done, step by step. Use the substance of what you are working on to educate the organization to the needs that it really has. It will take longer, it's less direct, it's more inefficient, but it works. You don't get fired and the organization doesn't get uptight.
Another problem is that people in an organization sacrifice their own point of view. I am not saying that they are coerced into it, but they make a trade-off I think they don't have to make; they just stop thinking. They say, "I am getting paid, they are telling me what to do, and I am just doing it the best I know how. I am going to stop thinking how to do it differently or better. I am just going to take orders as they come from the chain of command." They are not serving themselves or the organization that way. They stop thinking. I don't know why, except it seems easier.
What are the needs of the organization generally at this time?
I think all institutions in our society and public-opinion research bears me out, have undergone an amazing erosion in public confidence in the last ten years. There are all kinds of theories as to why this is true. The fact remains that corporations, professions, governments, all groups, even Ralph Nader's, have undergone a decline of approximately 20 to 40 percent in public satisfaction with the job they are doing. Since the actual job they are doing now is not materially different from what they were doing in the sixties, something else has to have changed.
We can try to remedy this by doing the job the public expects us to do better, and I would say that this would be a first step. But obviously there are other dimensions to the problem, and I think these are almost as important as the actual job that is being done. You can say that a car costs you the same number of months of work to buy as it did in I960, so why is everybody angry with car companies saying their product is too expensive? Aside from the general malaise of inflation, I think it is partly that public expectations are not being satisfied. We were given a set of promises that things were going to get better. Not that cars would stay the same in price, even in inflation-adjusted dollars, but that they would be cheaper, that we would live better, that we would have more money to buy things, more services, schooling, better housing, that our kids would have a better life. These promises were widely broadcast in the sixties. Today, going into the eighties, we find we're in a different world. Now we must use communication resources to explain why these expectations can't be met and why we're doing a good job with what we are actually delivering. I think the American Federation of State, Local, and Municipal Employees, with their ads on the radio and in magazines, recognize this. They have people like a dietician or sanitation truck driver saying in their own voices that this is what I do and isn't it worth your tax dollars, doesn't it make your life a little bit better, and your children's life a little bit better? That message is very important. They are spending millions of dollars on that campaign and so are other nonprofit institutions. Colleges have to do this, as well as companies. Anyone who relies on the continuing good will of the consumer or voter has to do it.
In what ways can the corporation respond to the crisis of confidence?
Well, this is where public relations get interesting. Increasingly, public relations people, whether they work for companies or as members of agencies retained by companies, are asking very hard questions. I'll give you a simple case in point.
There is a great deal of concern in our society about the dangers of working in a job where you can be poisoned by the product you are making, and where twenty years later you can have cancer or liver damage or your kids are born deformed. Well, workers still have to work. They are going to their jobs today thinking, "The company wouldn't expose me to that kind of risk. They don't want to say, "I could be dying, I could be killing myself." So when a company comes to a PR person saying, "We have a terrible image because of what some people say is happening to the workers at the plant," the first thing to say is, "What are you really doing? What tests have you done on that stuff you are making? Are you giving your workers physical examinations and are you telling them what you know about the dangers? If you don't have such a program, the first order of business is to get one going. When you've got one going you can then go to the workers and say we've done this and that for your good, and we want you to know as much as we know. We will be the first to give you information not the union, not the government, not the newspapers. We will tell you first. We will tell you what we are doing to protect you, we will keep you informed from now on, and we will also tell the newspapers at the same time." People react positively to a program like that. They will believe the company is a good one-a good place to work-and its product a good product to buy.
What the public relations person does nowadays is represent the corporation or the client to the world in the most favorable light that is ethically possible. But he is also increasingly becoming a representative of the public inside the corporation. What he says is "Look, this is what the public thinks of us, and if we don't start changing our ways or changing our words they are going to continue to think this way. Negative things will result."
What are the implications of this for future relations between American businesses and their publics?
I think that if American industry, American corporations, begin to communicate in a consistent way, there will be less negative public reactions to business pursuing its own legitimate interests. If we are successful as corporations in persuading the public that we are legitimate actors in our society and have a legitimate role in solving the major problems of our society-energy, environment, equal opportunity, job creation, social welfare problems-we will be perceived positively. It's up to us to convince them. There are people on the other side, and they are not all radicals who are saying corporations should be nationalized. If we convince the public that we really are valid participants in society and not just out to make money, then as the society grows and changes and new challenges come up, they will look to us for part of the answers and not see us as part of the problem. That will mean a continued franchise to stay in business.
Do companies have to be part of the solution to world problems?
Yes, before people will allow them to participate, they will have to be perceived not as obstructionist, selfish, narrow, or greedy, but as responsible citizens. If society in the future is not going to be government controlled, we have to retain our franchise and that franchise is based on public trust.
What sort of person do you look for in hiring?
We look for people who can grow, who can develop as our programs develop, and who can grow in a personal capacity to handle the work. We look for people who are self-motivated to succeed and excel. We look for people who take seriously what we are asking them to do, believe in and understand the importance of what they are doing, and not just see it as a job that pays the rent. It's very hard to find such people. In the last three years, we have hired one person from government, one person from another corporation, one person from a public relations agency.
How did you find them?
We found one person by asking friends and colleagues if they knew of anyone, the second we hired through a search group, and the third we hired because we knew the person directly from our work with the public relations agency.
There's a lot of talk now in PR about people having degrees in public relations. How do you feel about that?
I don't know a single person who has a formal undergraduate or graduate degree in public relations, who is by virtue of that degree a better public relations person than someone like myself who learned on the job but who brought to it a certain amount of acuity, intelligence, abilities in human relationships, and acquired skills. The skills that are required are not that different from normal linguistic skills, but they are very rare. We are not a society that produces good communicators. Many, many Ph.D.s write to me and the letters are not even grammatical. It's that simple. They are full of misspellings. So my advice would be to go to work on a campus newspaper, or get a job in an agency or in a corporation that has to do with communications, and learn to write. Learn to deal with people, learn to analyze and how to persuade. I see people every week who have been to the right schools, had the right training experiences, but they haven't learned anything. If you are going to be the link between the real world outside and the institution you're working for and advising, you need to be sensitive to the real world and to the institution and be able to juggle the two realities in your head and make things happen.
Where do you see yourself going from here?
I'll have several choices, as I think anyone in my position would have. One is to remain either in this company or in a similar position in another company. Another choice is to join one of the agencies, whose business it is to provide on a fee or service basis, the same skills I am providing on a salary basis. The third option, which is a very real possibility in this business, is to establish my own firm. There are great risks, but there are also potentially great rewards to a public relations person who decides to go out and hang up the shingle and scramble for clients.
Are you leaning toward any one of these options?
No, I am going slow, as Jerry Brown says. Right now I am very happy here, and the company has been doing excellent things to enhance its image. They have also been very receptive to responsible advice that my colleagues and I have provided. That's an optimum situation to be in. So I am not at all unhappy-quite the opposite.