John (Jack) Felton
John (Jack) Felton was vice-president of corporate communications at McCormick Spice Company in Baltimore MD from 1977 to 1994. Following his retirement from McCormick, Felton became The Institute for Public Relations (IPR) chief executive. Prior to his corporate career, he served as a first lieutenant with the U.S.A.F. Strategic Air Command during the Korean War.
Felton joined the University of Florida faculty in 1993 as the Freedom Forum Distinguished Visiting Professor. He is a former two-term president of PRSA and winner of its highest award, the Gold Anvil, in 1992. In 2002, Felton received the Arthur W. Page Society’s Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his contributions to strengthening the role of public relations.
Interviewer: Welcome, very nice to have you with us Mr. Felton.
Felton: Thank you very much. Call me Jack.
Interviewer: All right Jack, why don’t we start with the early years? Go back as far as graduation from the University of Michigan, which was in 1951, and you got a master’s in ’52 and then you entered the Air Force and became a First Lieutenant of the Air Force Strategic Air Command during the Korean War. Now talk about your career path then and how you transitioned from the Korean War and the military to public relations with US Steel and Interstate Finance.
Felton: I’d be happy to. If you go back to that time period the Korean War is on. So I finished a master’s needed to do military service. Went into the Air Force and waited to go through OCS. And when I finished OCS, they assigned me to Strategic Air Command, which was the most active exciting part of the Air Force anyway. And we were stationed in Spokane, Washington. I was sitting in my office, brand new on base and the master sergeant came down and said “Lieutenant, the General wants to see you right away.” And I thought I am going to get cabbed the first day I am here so I made sure my uniform looked at least a little better pressed and walked in and saluted and sat down. He said, “Sit down lieutenant. I’ve got a problem.” And I thought you called me in to tell me you had a problem. He said “I have the best officers in the Air Force. The most talented bombers. The most talented of all the talent.” And he said, “I can’t get them promoted because they are not very good at writing reports of how they performed.” And he said, “See these?” And I said, “yes.” He said those are officer effectiveness reports. And I said, “Yes I know about those.” And he said, “Well I want you to take these. Go back to the reporting officer. And sit down with him. Interview him and find out what he really wants to say about the candidate. And then write it in English, good grammar, spelling.” He said, “I understand you can write. “ And I said, “Well yes, but I don’t think I’ve done many officers’ effectiveness reports.” “Well try.” So I did that and got to meet a lot of people on the base because when you are working for the General right away you get through open doors. Took them back to him and said “Sir I think these are good. And these are what the officers want to say.” And he I didn’t know he had a sense of humor but he kind of grinned when he said, “We’ll see, lieutenant.” About three weeks later the master sergeant said “Lieutenant the General wants to see you in his office right this very minute.” And I thought ooh, ooh. So I got there, and the General again—grim faced—said, “Sit down lieutenant.” He said, “I want to tell you something.” He said, “Every single report you rewrote got promoted. You now have a permanent job with me and you are going to write any GD thing I want you to write. Do you understand?” And I said, “Yes sir.” So I started the Air Force career in a wonderful position. I’ve been lucky to be at the right place, right time most of my career and I wrote his speeches. Even did his correspondence and when you have a chance that soon in your career to work with a top leader you learn things that you couldn’t. It would take me years in a corporation to learn. When I got out of the Air Force it was ’57. And jobs were easy to come by so I was interviewing cross-country coming back from the assignment in Spokane. And picked up some interesting leads and had some good offers. My parents were hoping that I would stay on the east coast. And by this time we had a little one-year old grandson, and they would like to see him more often. So I interviewed in Pittsburgh with U.S. Steel on a Friday and they said “Can you be in New York on Tuesday morning. We want you to meet the people at the headquarters staff.” And I said sure I’d be glad to. So I went back to, my home was Roanoke, and then flew up on Monday to New York. And the biggest show on Broadway at that time was My Fair Lady. You couldn’t get tickets. Sold out six months, people paying all kinds of dollars to get them. And so I thought well, I want to see My Fair Lady so I am standing in line. It says sold out six months standing room only but there was a young lawyer in back of me. I said, “You want to see this show?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Let’s do what my father’s done in New York lots of time. Let’s watch the doorman because the doorman would open the limousines for people who often had tickets. And often got them at the last moment.” So I walked over and talked to him and said, “Do you have tickets?” And he said, “Have a couple.” And he said, “So what do you want for them?” And he said, “$75 bucks.” And that’s a lot for a Broadway show. Broadway show was $10.80. And so I thought well, that’s too much. And but we watched him. He didn’t sell any tickets. Lights flashed for everybody to be inside. I walked over to him. I told the young lawyer, I said, “Got a $20 bill to see the show.” Walked over handed him a $20 bill. We sat sixth row center—critic seats—for My Fair Lady. Next morning I am down at 71 Broadway to interview for U.S. Steel, and they are making small talk. Well when did you get to town Jack? Last night. What did you do? Saw a show. Well what show did you see? And I said, “My Fair Lady.” And they said, “you didn’t even know you were coming to New York until Friday. How did you get a ticket?” And I told them the story. Interview was very brief. They thought, I think they thought some dumb kid from Virginia can walk into new York and, you know operate that way. And then they said would I mind starting in San Francisco so that’s the beginning. It’s a crazy way to get a job interview but go to a Broadway show.
Interviewer: After US Steel [inaudible]
Felton: Interstate Brands, I was hired away from US Steel because I’d been doing a lot of product publicity for US Steel and loved that part of it. In those days a lot of public relations was doing product publicity, and the CEO of Interstate Brands which is Wonder Bread, Dolly Madison Cake had just gotten the contract from King Features for the Peanuts characters for the Charlie Brown show on television and so they needed someone that could do that kind of background and if you recall at Michigan, Michigan was one of the few schools in the early days that recognized television was going to be part of journalism and we had the Detroit station right on campus. So as students we got to do shows on television that a lot of people wouldn’t have gotten to do any place else. So that was intriguing because it was an opportunity. It was great fun and you know you can, Charlie Brown and Lucy you can do all kinds of things with and Snoopy can dream he’s anything so you can imagine what you can do with speeches and presentations if you can use the Peanuts characters.
Interviewer: Well let’s move on to McCormick.
Felton: All right.
Interviewer: Now you began there in 1977. You retired in ’95.
Interviewer: How did you bridge the cultural gap that existed with each international acquisition, so that any action you recommended resonated with that specific target audience?
Felton: That’s a good point. I think a lot of companies make the mistake of thinking because this is the way we do it at McCormick it’s the best way to do it anywhere. And we easily could have made a mistake because we for years had bought spices and dealt with spice dealers all around, you know, and we ended up with 85 locations around the world. So we were in many cultures and many things. The smart thing they did, and it’s because they had a strong feel that the person on the job knows the best how to do the job, so we always kept a native of that culture in the lead position at every one of our subsidiaries overseas. The number two-guy was someone from McCormick well trained in our policies, on ethics, on our financial policies, how we do business, so we had a strong number two-person who took care of all the McCormick interest but by having the leader from that culture in that lead position we never missed a holiday and we didn’t mess up on cultural things that can be so awkward, particularly when you are dealing with food because that’s a very cultural sensitive area and we didn’t want to stub our toes with the wrong spice at the wrong time.
Interviewer: You mentioned your ethics policy at McCormick. Now I know they had a pretty extensive business ethics policy. It’s 13 pages in length. I don’t know if it was that long when you were there. But was it in place when you were there and did you ever take it down off the shelf when you were in a time of crisis?
Felton: It was off the shelf all the time because the founder of the company had a very strong beginning, that if someone was going to eat something we were manufacturing, we had to be very sure that it was the best quality we could offer. It was clean. It was packaged properly. It was sold properly. That it was off the shelf when it should be. And we were careful to be sure that we labeled things clearly and properly so it was easy for the consumer to understand. We had people who weren’t used to reading labels, recipes, read the recipes and the labels to make sure they made sense and we had the same thing when we put the label into foreign languages and we had a trouble with Canada and their French and France and their French. And we had to be very careful that we sent French Canadian French because they got very insulted. They don’t like the Parisian French and the Parisian French think the Canadian French is archaic, and so we always had to be careful we were communicating in the right language culturally, which I think makes a big difference. Some companies don’t do that. The ethics policy was part of, at the end of an annual report. I had a page and I thought why don’t we just state what we believe. And we’d always had a very, very strong belief in the person on the job sometimes is best able to say how to do that job if we’ll just ask him. You know we come in and say we think we’re leaders and we say now here’s how to do this. Well sometimes we come in and give them guidelines and say here’s what I think we’re going to be operating with. And this is the parameter of what we can do. The job is your responsibility. Now if you have a problem, come see me. If you have need some help come see me even if this is just an easy question come see me but I want you to see what you think is the best way. It turns people on like you can’t believe and they just do splendid, if you let them have the chance to bring their own creativity to the job. They do things you never expected people to do.
Interviewer: A sense of ownership. What was your greatest challenge as vice president in corporate communications at McCormick?
Felton: The first one was a built-in assumption by the leadership of McCormick that because they were the leading Baltimore firm, they gave the most to the community. They were the big company in town. They thought everybody knew who they were. And we were, we’re the largest spice industry. But I had to try to help them understand that, with the financial community particularly, there are other McCormicks. There’s a McCormick’s place in Chicago. There was a McCormick place up in New England somewhere up around here I think near Cape Cod where they went bankrupt, and it was the McCormick name again. And I would get calls hey did your company just go bankrupt. I said no, no, no that’s a builder. And I even found a little firm down in Arkansas that made bourbon, and I actually bought some and sent it to some of our leaders saying “What do you think of this, is this is a new acquisition.” And it was so bad they sent it back to me. But I thought, we’ve got to find a way for people to understand that McCormick is the McCormick spice firm. And I kept hearing in Baltimore you know you can tell people that work at McCormick and Company. They are around spices so much they smell like vanilla and cinnamon and the spices. And I thought we got to capture that some way. I thought well let’s make the annual report smell. So I didn’t ask anybody if we could do it and we tried and we put the oleoresin, each spice and herb has an oil. And that’s where the flavor is and so we tried that on the slick pages of the annual report. It wouldn’t dry and I didn’t’ think the financials would like figures that ran all over the page. And then we tried it on the cover in a lacquer. I think we sprayed it on. And that was great too except that when it dried, you didn’t get the smell. And we had just about given up on trying to find a way and one day i was using some really dark black ink and we were doing certificates and I was signing them and somebody brought me a blotter and I thought that’s it. So we took uncoated paper that was recycled and used that for the financial pages. And after we printed them, we ran them through the printing press one more time with this oleo-resin that looks like honey. It absorbs into the paper. And then the rest of the annual report was slick paper good for photographs and so on. And so I took the first copy into the chairman Harry, and I said Harry here’s the first copy of the annual report. What do you think? He said, “It smells like cinnamon.” I said, “yeah it’s supposed to.” He said “What?” I said “Yeah.” So he called me the next morning. He said, “Jack, I took that annul report home. Left it in the limousine. When I got in this morning the whole car smelled like cinnamon.” I said, “That’s the point.” “That’s the point.” And so we got tremendous press about an annual report that smells, really smells the headlines were in Business Week and all kinds of places and a friend at Hallmark called and said “Jack, an annual report that smells like spices was just terrific. What a great idea for a spice company.” He said “I left mine on the coffee table, and the dog ate it.” He said, “Will it hurt the dog?” And I said, “no it won’t hurt the dog.” Matter of fact, spices are used often in zoos and with animals that don’t eat proper things. And spices are used to get them to eat good nutritious food so it won’t hurt the dog at all. And a guy from Merrill Lynch called and said Felton you son of a gun. I said what have I done. He said I can’t get anything done today. And I said “Why what’s the problem?” “Everybody is sniffing your GD annual report.” So, and every year since then the annual report smelled like a different spice. And at last count we had about 152 spices in the spice line. So we won’t run out soon. And it’s fun. The Baltimore Sun runs a pocket change poll and they put money in their from the pocket as to which one can name which spice it is and we take the first annual report when they come out down to them and they all see whoever gets the right smell for the right spice gets the little pocket of change but still gets some great attention. It was fun. But that was a challenge and we had it that way.
Interviewer: What was your greatest accomplishment?
Felton: Well I think the first answer would be hiring some very, very talented people who had great creativity. I had a lovely staff. And again giving them the guidelines and turning them lose and saying come on let’s see what we can do with this together. Within the guidelines of proper procedures and everything we have to do and one of them came in one day and said “Jack, what about a TV show for McCormick?” This was long before anyone was using videotape in the company. And I said “Well that sounds great. But it’s so expensive. How are we going to do it?” He says “I have a young friend who wants to get started in making video films and he said he’s willing to do it for you know peanuts, just to get started.” And I said “Okay let’s you know write the show. Let’s get a wrap and do what we call it McCormick News Wrap.” And we used two employees, very attractive young people and they told you the latest news like a newscast. And we used slides since our people travel all over the world. We have beautiful slides of everywhere. So we could tell them everywhere new things were happening throughout the company and we discovered that a 12-minute video like that was wonderful to send to all of our managers to let everybody know what was happening and we would include the CEO and a number of officers and they loved it. And the first time we showed it to people, again I hadn’t said can we do this. They said “Jack this is great.” And the CEO loved the idea. But they couldn’t believe that we had brought it in under such a nice budget. I said, “Well it’s not going to stay this kind of a cost. Because as we expand it, it’s going to be more.” But I know that if I had gone to them and said, “Hey I want to start doing a TV show about McCormick” they probably would have said we don’t have money for that Jack. We’ve got other kind of communications but by doing it showing them the effectiveness of it then I could get away with it so I was a bit of a rascal sometimes. I seemed to get away with it lots of times. The other big challenge was a takeover attempt by a very wealthy, very huge pharmaceutical firm named Sandoz. And they came after us in a cheating sort of nasty way buying stock as much as they could before they had to expose and we finally caught them in the act and then began to do some investigation. Found out that they had bought King Ferry Seeds and you couldn’t find seeds on the shelf anymore. They weren’t good at marketing in America. And they had bought Ovaltine. Do you remember Ovaltine when you were a child? They you couldn’t no one had ever heard of Ovaltine the current generation because it had disappeared also. So we knew we were dealing with someone who wanted us for money and the investment kind of things rather than for anything good for our employees or for the company. So we were engaged in a knock down drag out pretty tough fight. And in one of the sessions we’ve been sitting around with the outside advisors we brought in from New York the lawyers and investment bankers and they had been for days telling us what we couldn’t’ do. And we’d say well how about this. No you can’t do that. You can’t do. And finally I went to Harry, the CEO, and said Harry you know I am tired of hearing what we can’t do. I need some quotes for the Wall Street journal. I’ve got some friends. We have to get some statements out. And I said we just can’t sit around day after day with these high price talents telling us what we can’t do. And if it’s okay with you tomorrow because you can’t very well do it. I am going to stand up right in the middle of the meeting and say hey wait a minute. I want to know what we can do. And he said “Great Jack, do it.” And I went to the treasurer and did the same thing. He was all right. So that next day we went in. They were doing the same thing. And the chairman is sitting at the one end of the table. The treasurer at the other and I am in the middle. And they start no we can’t do that. Can’t do that. You know and I am putting gloves on underneath the table and they didn’t know. And they think they’ve convinced us of something and I stand up and throw the gloves down on the table and say, “look gentlemen, I am ready to fight and we’ve got to get something going here and I have to have a quote for the Wall Street Journal.” And that did it and we got started, and when my friend at the Wall Street Journal said, “well, Jack what do you think Sandoz is going to do when you folks tell them no? That you just don’t want any part of this.” And I said, “Well why don’t’ you ask them?” So he did and the Swiss had a spokesman named Dr. Denot. And Dr. Denot did what typical Swiss-German type people did. Sort of braced himself and said, “Well we’ll take them over anyway!” And that just blew the whole thing wide open. Even the Sandoz people in the states said, “Jack we apologize. That’s not the way.” The mess the whole thing, but it did reveal their… so we tried to embarrass them as much as we could with finding out they were moving inventories from different country to country and in Europe to avoid taxes and that they polluted some rivers in Switzerland and done some really bad stuff and finally had to have a meeting with them. And so they announced from New York they were going to fly to New York and come down by train, Amtrak to Baltimore. And I went into Harry and I said, “Harry I have an idea.” And he said, “What?” And I said, “Why don’t we pick them up in your limousine?” And Harry said, “I am not going to put those [inaudible] in my limousine.” And I said, “Wait a minute Harry. Let’s talk a minute.” I said “We cant’ tape record in Maryland. It’s illegal to tape record conversations. But I said if we had a Swiss German driver he might be able to listen to some of their strategies because they’ve been playing so many dirty games with us. We might as well see what good information we can get. And that’s certainly legitimate. They are in our car and if they are not smart enough not to talk in our car, that’s their problem.” And he said, “That’s a good idea. I’ll do it.” And then I said, “Also the firm, the PR firm that’s handling them in New York has announced an article in the Baltimore Press to tell them that they are going to have a big press conference right after the meeting at our headquarters.” And Harry looked at me kind of funny and I said, “Well see they didn’t bother to call us to see if we had a joint. They didn’t even do the courtesy to have a joint thing. I said, “Harry why don’t we instead of having the meeting you are going to be driving them.” “Instead of having the meeting at corporate headquarters, why don’t we drive them down to the McCormick property’s headquarters. It says McCormick Properties. They have a very nice boardroom. Why don’t’ we have the meeting there?” And we did. And we had practiced with Harry saying no, no, a thousand times no, in Swiss-German. And they came out very unhappy. And looked around and there was no press. And they sort of grumbled and got back in the car and got back in the limousine. And meanwhile the Press the Baltimore Press was up at our normal headquarters and that’s why you have to be very careful a good lesson don’t assume without checking what’s going to happen; and we fortunately were able to keep them from making all kinds of promises that we knew they probably wouldn’t keep to our employees and the Baltimore Press when they said, “Well Jack why didn’t you tell us?” I said, “They called you. I didn’t call a press conference. It was not my responsibility to tell you where they were having their press conference. If they are not smart enough to tell you where they are having their press conference, that’s their problem.” And we won. We ended up they backed away completely and we bought back the stock. But it was a very tough, tough time and at the end of it I said, “Harry, you know it had some moments. And it had some moments of fun when we could outwit them and out-do them,” but I said, “let’s—don’t do this one again.”
Interviewer: The Swiss-German driver—was he or she able to obtain any information?
Felton: No, no they talked small talk about Baltimore and, and going back the conversation was all about how mad they were that the press didn’t show up. They couldn’t imagine they were giving the poor press guy from New York a bad time about. “I thought you said you were going to have the Baltimore Press? I didn’t see any press there.” And giving hell, which I laughed over.
Interviewer: Who had the most significant influence on your career?
Felton: I think Art McQuaide, who was my first real boss at US Steel. And we were in Salt Lake City and having grown up in Virginia and being very much an Easterner, I got off the plane in a Brooks Brothers suit with a vest and a striped tie and a hat in those days, and the first thing he said to me. “Jack, off with the vest, off with the Brooks Brothers suit. You are in the cowboy west. You’ve got to learn to dress the way we dress out here.” Which I thought, that’s strange. You know it’s still the same corporation. But I learned from him so many things about how to do product publicity, how to deal with people and communities. And in Salt Lake, I was a minor minority for the first time because it’s all 68 percent LDS (Latter Day Saints) Mormon church. I am a whisky-drinking Presbyterian. And so I would say, “look, I am a whisky-drinking Presbyterian. If that’s a problem, it’s your problem, not mine.” But we had a wonderful relationship and great cooperation with all kinds of things. And it was a new experience and completely new environment for me. And he led me through that and then stayed with me my whole career. I could call him and say, Uncle Art what’s this? And we were just in Las Vegas three weeks ago celebrating his 90th birthday. And he has a ranch in New Mexico and his daughter had his 90th birthday party in Las Vegas because it’s easy for people to get to. And he thought it was just going to be a small group and when all of us descended, and he had a wonderful time. It was a great time. But he was the real great influence about do things right. Check. Be sure. Check. Don’t assume, and all the things you really need to know when you are young in the career. But he was a terrific guy. Great sense of humor too. Great sense of humor.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about consumerism.
Felton: All right.
Interviewer: It came out of the conflict of the 1960s first as an advertising term but now as a legitimate concept that, but now it’s a legitimate concept that public relation practitioners deal with every day. It’s been ten years since you wrote the chapter on consumer affairs and consumerism for Lesley’s Handbook on PR and Communications.
Felton: It’s more like 30 years.
Interviewer: Is it 30, oh.
Felton: It’s more like 30 years. Consumer things have changed so much, so much speed in communication. The consumer, I think, knows more and has access to more information than ever before. And I think we have to be very careful now that we speeded up communications to make sure the message is right. Because when it goes so fast and you are doing so many things you don’t have the time to double check and do some of the kinds of things we normally used to do when we had deadlines on newspaper or deadlines or a television or radio show. Now since everything and I think consumers are more skeptical. They’ve been fooled. They’ve been scammed and spammed and all kinds of things, and I think we have to be very careful how we tailor messages for them so that they are tailored just for the consumer we want to do. At McCormick we used to try to work on several levels. We worked on the mother who stayed at home and cooked meals that took a long time, and used spices a different way. And then we developed all kinds of recipes and ideas for working mothers because they have less time. And then we began developing things for the older group of people who want the gourmet kind of food and will spend that kind of time with it. And you develop different messages very carefully because there’s a big difference between a stay at home mother, working mother, working father, or stay at home father and how we approach the selling of spices. It’s different audiences. And I think too many times we think, you know one message suits all and we used to do that lots of times but we can’t do that anymore. I think we have to be very careful to watch the integrity of all suppliers, to make sure that they follow the same guidelines you do, because in the spice business you are preparing things people are going to eat. And you have to be very careful about how it’s packaged, how it’s stored, how it’s transported, how it gets to the shelf and what part of the shelf I it’s on even. So it’s a tougher role, I think. But we came through that consumerism period I think pretty well. For a while we were over regulating everything to the point that it was getting pretty ridiculous. But I think we’ve gotten through that and I helped form the first consumer affairs committee for PRSA because I thought we ought to get all these people there involved with this. It’s evolved into what is now the corporate section but for the early days we were with consumer people trying to get people to tell the truth on labels.
Interviewer: What do you think about the recent college graduates. Are they prepared for informed ethical decision making? Or do they need some more training?
Felton: I think any of the sequences the students take in college in the field of public relations needs to have a very strong ethics course. And it needs to be taught by someone who has some pretty hard and fast ground rules about what’s allowable and what isn’t. We take great care and teach them PR and the law, so they don’t get in trouble with that part of PR. And we teach them very carefully about how to do financial reporting, because we don’t want them to get into trouble for doing that. But we lack, I think lots of times the ethic question of, is this the right thing to do? Is this the right way to do it. Am I doing something good for bad reasons? Or am I doing something bad for good reasons and I think we need to sort that out. I don’t think children today get the same kind of parental teaching that maybe some of us got and I think parents are busy and they assume the schools are going to teach good behavior and how to behave and sometimes that doesn’t happen. And so I think any course at any college that has a curriculum for public relations needs to have a very, very strong [course] that everyone has to take. And I think by having the students have that kind of a focus we say to them look it’s important in PR that we tell the truth. That we act it out. That we do the Arthur Page Principles because that’s what it’s about. And the minute you lose the trust you know you’ve just forgotten. And with consumers with your shareholders with your employees if you lose the trust you’ve just lost the battle practically. It’s so hard to get it back. And I think one way to do that and enforce that idea of keeping the trust is to say look here’s what ethical behavior looks like. And you present them with some problems. Here’s the problem. Would we do this? Would we do that? Which is the right way to go here and it gets some interesting discussions in the classroom. Because someone will say but we can’t make this big of a profit that way. Well I said is bigger profit more important than keeping a loyal customer. No. So I feel very strongly that. And one nice thing I think we’re seeing a lot more people do what I did. Go back and teach. I felt I was giving back. I’ve had such good training and such good mentors that I thought the least I can do is go back. I was offered a semester as a, I love the title, Distinguished Visiting Professor. Oh boy for a semester at Florida. And I liked it so much and the students seemed to enjoy me so much that I stayed on for ten years. I turned around I couldn’t’ believe I had been there ten years but you learn from the students and we’re getting such bright well-trained young people now. And Betsy Plank and others have worked so hard to get the young people trained and I think we’ve got good programs in place at many, many schools. So I think we’re going to have better PR people as a result. But I think it’s good for old timers who can go back and say that theory is right but here’s the way you put it and if you do it this way the CEOs going to cut your ears off but if you do it this way you can you can get it through and you can win and I think that’s what we need to go back and do and say. The theory is right but here’s how we make it work.
Interviewer: Let’s talk a moment about counseling. The aim of the Arthur W. Page Center and the Page Society is to help individuals become counselors to leadership. How can individuals best prepare themselves for this role?
Felton: I think you have to have had some experience some good counseling yourself and recognize what someone did for you so that you can take that same kind of care to someone else. I think we need to let students and people know we believe in them. That we think they have strong abilities and that we are fair with them in saying, “I think you are wonderful this way but how about you better do a little bit better on writing a news release, you might do better in doing a speech if we did it this way.” And I think we have to assume that responsibility in trying to make students even better by working with them not a pal but being someone they are comfortable to come back with and say what am I going to do here. And you can help them. You want them to ask the question and not be scared or worried about. Again I think we need to be open and available and with a sense of humor. You know you can do so much more if you can laugh together even if it’s a problem, if you can make it enjoyable for everybody and fun to be around., Fun to work with.
Interviewer: In 1985 you were asked about the value of licensing public relations practitioners. Now PSRA’s opinion at that time was really negative but Ed Bernays fully supported that idea. So is it time now in 2008 to revisit this discussion on the value of licensing PR practitioners and do you think it will make a difference in the perception of the profession by the average American citizen?
Felton: I think we tried hard with the—the accredited thing that PSRA has and we found that a lot of people don’t care enough or haven’t cared enough to even go through taking those tests. We tried to make it a requirement and that didn’t work. I don’t think licensing is necessarily the best way for us to go. You know you go to a doctor’s office and he has a license. You go to a lawyer’s office they have a license or she has a license. But you don’t go back to them because they have a license on the wall. You go back because you have a one on one relationship with them. In this business everything is relationships, relationships with your wife, your employee your children your comrades and your friends. And I think just getting a license is not going to make the profession better. The only thing it might do is help us kick a few people out that shouldn’t be in the profession. But I think we can expose enough of those by exposing their misbehavior, enough to maybe get rid of them. Make them uncomfortable enough. But I think licensing isn’t going to do the trick nearly as well as building a relationship with people. I like to go to a doctor that I trust. That I believe in. That’s going to tell me the truth. I want to go to a lawyer that’s going to tell me what I should do and how to do it properly. I don’t want to go to them because they have a license. And I don’t think people are going to go to PR counselors or to teachers. I used to love the open door policy. My students would come in and they’d talk about all kinds of personal problems and everything which I was glad they did you know and I could help them if they wanted to get into law school or they wanted to do some special grad work, and I was glad to help and talk with them about. I was glad they came to ask because I think they thought I would play fair and tell the truth and work with them and help them. And that’s what this business is about. I think you earn your reputation and that’s in the corporation I used to say we’re just a little communications department in the middle of a big huge corporation. We’re here to help everybody that has any kind of a communication problem. Come in, we’ll do what we can to help you. And one day a guy came in and he said, “Jack I am in the lowest level of marketing and sales in McCormick. We sell the spices to the people that make sausages and things like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with them health wise but it just doesn’t have to be top quality gourmet.” But he said, “It’s the tough part of the business.” He said, “I don’t have a budget and I need to have a sales meeting” and I said, “Well what are we doing?” He said, “well you are already helping us with some advertising one of your staff people are doing an ad for us. It’s called new direction in flavor.” And I said, “Okay let me see what we can do about it.” So I called in the young lady that did my creative advertising. And we started kicking around ideas and I said” New directions in flavor.” I said “Diane, call the Maryland Highway Commission and see if we can’t borrow some of their road signs.” Detour, stop, red light, soft shoulder, yield, all those kinds of signs. See if we can borrow some of their signs and we’ll use those to decorate the big ballroom where they are going to have the meeting. We won’t have to pay any money for them. And we hung it up with a little kind of wire that you use in fishing that’s clear plastic. When you walked in that room. She was a good enough saleslady that they gave her every new sign they had, including the actual traffic signs that blinked on and off, red and green, so the room looked marvelous by the time it got decorated. And he came back afterwards and he said it was the greatest sales meeting he’d ever had. And so I sent him a bill for $36. For the little things we hang. He said, “Jack I told you I didn’t have any money.” He was teasing. Later on he became president of the company. And guess what kind of relationship we had all through. So, you need to remember the little guys and the little people that really need some help and not be such a think you are such a big corporate executive that you don’t have time to help people with their problems but you can imagine what fun we had when he was president.
Interviewer: We’re back to challenges and accomplishments again. At IPR [Institute for Public Relations], what do you think was your greatest accomplishment?
Felton: Again I think hiring the right people. Michelle Hinson was marvelous and when I talked with her I knew she was bright and talented and could do things. And so the two of us started out with a grand total of $18,000 and we are now raising almost $1 million in research. And then the next thing was to pick my successor. And I think Frank Oviatt has been marvelous. And he and Michelle have just taken it to all kinds of new things. We now have things we are doing in Europe and we have cooperation with all of the PR agencies and I think great respect for the kind of research that’s being done. It was needed, so badly needed and but by having the right people and turning them loose with guidelines. You see what happens and they’ve just done very, very well. So I am very proud of what the literature that’s been produced. We used to say you couldn’t measure public relations. People don’t say that anymore because the measurement commission proved the way that we can measure what we do and show the CEO our effectiveness. And that all came out of the getting the right people together and saying, “Hey, let’s have at it. What can we do here?” And I think we’re now on a program to build a library of essential information which will be free to everybody in the profession and that essential library is going to be wonderful for people to plug in on all kinds of different categories of public relations because each of us has almost a unique kind of public relations we do depending on the company or organization we work for but we have some essential knowledge, and if we can all get that same track and I think professors at schools like Penn State and Florida are going to be able to use that as a wonderful library too and the fact that it’s available free. I think that’s just a wonderful asset for the Institute so I am very proud of what has happened there and what Michelle and Frank Oviatt and the Board of Directors have done. It’s terrific.
Interviewer: Well, what about challenge? Did you have a particular challenge at the Institute for Public Relations?
Felton: Well first of all with $12,000 the challenge was you know can we keep it going on enough until we can get. And by getting people to come to Florida we started doing some symposia on different topics, and we did one on international public relations. We did one on terror but we were talking about the kind of terror where someone would put some type of a liquid in the water supply and we did one on in Rome do we do PR as the Romans do or do we do it you know which is a big ethic problem and then we did one on measurement. So those began to get a reputation for us. People came to the campus at Florida and participated. And those were some of the first papers that we did. And they began to get the news out that we were or what we were about what we were trying to do and just built, built, built, and soon we were what we are today and going for new things in Europe right now.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about an article that you wrote in 1995. It’s called A Generation of Attitudes and the importance of messages to a receiver’s attitude. And you had talked about it with McCormick walking into that room realizing looking at those individuals and realizing the attitude that they had. It was so different from where you were at the time. So, it’s 2008 now and of course the attitudes are constantly changing so do the same problems that you faced at McCormick in the ‘70s, that disconnect, is that still is that still something that current communicators need to be aware of and work through?
Felton: We still have lots of disconnects and I think because we can communicate so many more and different ways we have even more disconnects that we have to try to put together. That study comes form a research paper that says by the time we’re 21 we’ve pretty well formed our a list of what we believe ethically, what our religion is going to be, what our attitude about work, what our political ideas are going to be. And that’s pretty well formed. And this study takes the proposition that these attitudes stay pretty consistent through the years. Some of them, but some of them don’t. And if you look at where we started in say the ‘50s where the employee said hey, give me a job. I’ll work anywhere. I’ll do anything you want me to do. To today where we’ve gone through the various “me” generations and the Xs and the Ys and all of those to now the employee is saying hey you want me to work for you then you better be loyal to me. You better you know do something for me and what’s in it for me. And then we get to hey, “if you say that’s true, prove it with how you act.” And so we’re a lot more demanding I think. And I think younger generations they expect more of the company. I think we’re looking at a time when they are worried about what their financial situation is going to be with companies. What kind of retirement plans and those kind of things much more than we used to We used to think hey if you went to work for a big company you knew they were going to take care of you and take care of your health care and your financial benefits and all that kind of stuff, and nowadays they have to ask those questions and we have to make sure we can make the kind of connections that and we have to understand that generation by generation we keep some attitudes but some other attitudes change and we’re not the same people we were in the ‘50s or the ‘60s and I think that study, which I’d love to do a new update version of it to see really where we are today because we have about run through the XYZ part .We’re text, text. I think we’re in the text thing where everybody is text messaging to everybody. And I think that’s a problem too because when we do messages so fast without thinking about it carefully, we sometimes send the very wrong message that we don’t intend to and I think there’s a danger in that speed up of things. We rip off a quick answer and it’s hard to know how it’s received because it might be the right answer but the way it was done and the tone of it is terrible. And sends the wrong message. So I think we have to watch those attitudes carefully.
Interviewer: You’ve received many awards and honors. Can you identify one that is particularly important to you and kind of explain why it is so important?
Felton: I think the Arthur Page Award is the pinnacle award. I’ve had others as you know. The Arthur Page [award] is given to you by your peers in recognition of something they think you’ve done that’s been innovative or new or different or made a difference in the profession. I think when you get an Arthur Page Award you have to say, “Wow. That’s really something special to be proud of.”
Interviewer: The Hamilton Award?
Felton: No, Hamilton Award is the Institute’s award for achievement, and then the Arthur Page gives one for achievement too. For career achievement and that’s I think. They have an honor roll of people and then they have one for achievement. And I got the one, happy to get the one for achievement. I think the top award is Arthur Page.
Interviewer: Is there anything else that you ‘d like to talk about. Anything else you’d like to share for the next generation or?
Felton: One little bit, last bit of advice. Be careful how creative you are and some of the creative ideas you do. We were sitting at U.S. Steel one day, and we had a new kind of steel we had to promote called Corten and it was called Corten because it has a lot of copper in it. And it was designed for use in high bridges and high buildings that you can’t paint very often. The copper in it the steel forms a patina on the outside a rusty looking sort of paints itself. But we were faced with how are we going to get people to understand rusty steel is strong. So smart aleck said, “Well, why don’t we get a big animal like an elephant to stand on it?” So guess who inherited that job. And I called Sarasota and said hey you got a circus elephant? We need an elephant to stand on a, put four barrels down and put steel plate on it and have an elephant stand on it. Didn’t have anything; I thought uh oh. So then I thought Hollywood. Got a person in Hollywood who had a trick small elephant that could stand on one foot. I thought that would be even more spectacular to have an elephant standing on one foot on the Corten to show how strong it was. So we sent the steel plate to LA. Hired the photographer. Had all the things ready. Got out there. Here’s the elephant. And everything else. We got it all set up. Got the elephant up on there. Elephant stands up but they forgot to tell me that when this elephant stands up this elephant wets. So, suddenly we have a situation in the photograph that was not quite what we wanted. So we had to clean the steel off again. Get the elephant back up and the one of the pictures in my in my den is me running like hell away from the elephant because we got him up ready to get the photograph. We did it a number of times but we finally got the photograph. And it turned out to be one that got picked up as a publicity thing everywhere, using the ad campaign, used for all of the marketing of the Corten. It was a huge success. But getting that photograph was not quite what we expected, but it was kind of fun.
Interviewer: I want to thank you very much for taking your time from your busy schedule. You could be playing golf or something right now. We appreciate your sharing your thoughts.
Felton: Well you are very kind and I’ve always had fun telling my stories and thank you for asking.