Oral Histories

John (Jack) Felton

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

John (Jack) Felton Biography

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: 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: 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 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 u 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.