Oral Histories

Don Wright

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Don Wright Biography

Don Wright is the Harold Burson Professor and Chair in Public Relations at Boston University. His areas of specialization include crisis management, employee communications/internal relations, reputation management and social responsibility. Professor Wright has worked full-time in corporate, agency and university public relations, and has been a corporate communications consultant for three decades.


INTERVIEWER: Turning to public relations more generally than the educational aspect of it, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing public relations executives today and how can these be met?

WRIGHT: I think there are several things that we should talk about in this area, and I’d like to do it in the spirit of the idea that challenges also can be opportunities. I think the fact that public relations now is much more strategic communication. The chief public relations officer at the most successful company has the same status in the organization as the attorney has when you’re dealing with questions that relate to the law. The communication officer deals with those situations in what I like to call the arena of public opinion. I don’t think there is a court of public opinion, because I believe the court, as in a legal court, has both sides of the story to be told. In public opinion, often, if you get your side of the story out there first, that is the side of the story that is believed. So, I think given that perspective, we could list some things here relative to the challenges and clearly the pressures of the 24-7 news environment.

It used to be, if you had some bad news, you could announce it on Friday afternoon and it would sort of go away. That doesn’t happen anymore. You can’t ask a question of this nature and not have an answer that deals with something about the economy, because the economy is impacted so much by organizations today, and not just housing issues, but we have wage and salary issues, we have people out of work. We also have Americans who are now taking on jobs — and there are some very major companies in the United States who have gone to the workforce and said look, we can keep these jobs in the U.S., but they’re only going to pay $15 an hour, we can no longer pay you $35. At first unions and workers and everybody said well, we don’t want those jobs. Well, now we do because you know, $15 an hour isn’t much, but it’s better than minimum wage or nothing, and the company can very well go elsewhere in the world and have those products made, so you have the economy as an issue. I think you have globalization. I think as public relations has moved away from the publicity press ‘agentry’ function and moved much more into working with companies counseling them with what to do and how to do it. Then I think a challenge for public relations is a reality that the tenure of CEOs is much, much shorter than it used to be. In some cases only 2-3 years. I think the average is somewhere in the 3-4 year range for Fortune 200 companies, and if you are the public relations officer and you were working very closely with the CEO, when there’s a CEO change, then the new CEO might wish to bring in another chief public relations officer so I think that those are issues as well.