Oral Histories

John M. Reed

Interview Segments on Topic: Selecting a PR Career

John M. Reed Biography

John Reed, a pioneer in the development of international public relations, began his career following military duty in Korea and Japan and work with the United States Information Service, USIS, (known domestically as USIA).  His initial position in international PR occurred in 1960, when he joined the reorganized Olin Mathieson Corporation.  After a variety of similar positions with other international companies, he opened Consultants in Public Relations, SA, (CPRSA) in Geneva.  His first client was Johnson and Johnson.  After several years, he joined Control Data Corporation as vice president of public relations, but also continued his consultancy in Switzerland.  Reed’s career has spanned a wide variety of influence in public relations, covering international work in government, industry, consultancy and teaching.  Reed, a recipient of multiple awards and honors throughout his lifetime, continues to travel the world extensively.


Interviewer:  What I hope to accomplish this afternoon is to give you the opportunity to share how and where you lived your life and who and what influenced you. How you see the current state and the future of international public relations. So let’s go back to your military career. After you completed your work in Korea and Japan you continued to work in the international realm. Can you talk a little bit about that.

Reed:  My goodness. Well, I because of my age I turned 18 in 1945, and I went a little in the Army a little ahead of that and so because Harry Truman dropped the atom bomb, I was spared the labor of landing in Japan to invade a Japanese resigned as it were and I was sent instead of Korea which at that time was called Chosun to help take the surrender of Japanese, send them home, and bring the Koreans back to Korea.  My job as it turned out was to be a sort of PR man for the ruling general in Pusan. And he gave me a lot of leeway. I was 18. And he said “Well go do that, and then go do this.”  And he his encouragement really got me sort of started in the notion and on the road to how do you persuade people to do something. The first task was to persuade sailors, civilian sailors on shipping on ships calling it Pusan Harbor not to patronize bad bars. Not to go and drink local bad whisky. And so I had tried to devise ways of persuading these active young men to stay away from bad bars… and bar girls.  And it was a wonderful exercise in trying to solve a PR problem.  I used to go out to ships when they pulled into the harbor and go out on the lighter and make a little speech about now don’t go here and don’t go there.  Didn’t work.  So I brought a bottle of local whisky out with me and said here I’ll save you a lot of trouble. Have a drink. this is what they serve in the local bar. So I said to the colonel, “We’ve got to find another place for these fellows to go where they won’t get sick.” Good idea says he. “Go do it.”  Biggest free space at the time was the ground floor of the railway station hotel. And I said, “Can we take this and we’ll make it into a dance hall?” And he said “good idea.” “Go ahead and do it.” And so we discovered that there was a Korean orchestra, dance orchestra, stuck in China. The Japanese had brought the orchestra down to play for the Japanese troops who were occupying the coast of China. This gets to be very international. And so I was sent down to bring them home to Pusan. Put them to work in the lobby dance hall of the station Railroad Station Hotel. And the colonel arranged for an ample supply of low alcohol by volume beer to be available. And we found willing partners amongst the wives and children of the orchestra players and their friends and their friends friends so we had a swell dance hall that was safe. The lesson that taught me was it wasn’t the press release that did the trick as very often in the world of PR, but some action, some creative way of solving a problem. So I didn’t start out with the notion of press releases and interviews, but rather with some sort of action. Subsequent to the action, of course, we did a lot of publicity about the club, so that American boys living in this remote part of Korea in the southern coast would use the facility. Hence, stay out of trouble. I don’t know if that answers anything or?

Interviewer:  Well it definitely does.

Reed:  It’s what happened.

Interviewer:  Right, I’ve heard this before with the military experience.

Reed:  It solved the problem. By having the dance hall, we also had an alternative for the boys not going to the local bars so that when I went out to visit the ships that sailed into port, I could say here’s the address where you can go and have a safe drink and meet girls.

Interviewer:  Now this was about…

Reed:  1945, 1945-46.

Interviewer:  Okay, I know that in, I think in 1960, you ended up back in the States at Olin Mathieson. What happened between that and 1960?

Reed:  Well I came back to, after being in Asia for a couple of years, I came back to the United States, looked around trying to find a job, trying to decide what I was going to do. I lived in New York and I lived in Washington. Returned to Washington which has always been my real hometown. My brother never left. And I went to work on, I had worked as a copy boy on a newspaper. I looked around at what I could be doing and through a friend, I discovered that the newly formed United States Information Agency which was a successor of the war time office of what was it called. Stop. Yeah just a second. What the heck was it called? The, not OSS.

Interviewer:  Was it the USIA?

Reed:  I’m sorry, I beg your pardon. Okay they were creating a successor to the office of war information from WWII and they called it USIS or USIA and they housed it in the State Department, like for some strange reason.  And we were recruiting people to staff the overseas branches.  At that time, nobody wanted to go.  No Americans wanted to go to Korea.  No Americans spoke Korean. The Koreans had been speaking Japanese for 50 years. Nobody had been to Korea.  And I volunteered and I got a job.  It was the lowest ranking job in the Embassy staff. It was a FS-13.  I was so low I wasn’t entitled to a wife.  But I surprised by bringing one with me.  And I went back to Korea in 1949 as a lowly functionary clerk really of the US Information Agency branch in Seoul, Korea. In the meantime, Korea had been divided in half; the Communist taking over the North and an independent free government being set up in the South under Dr. Sigmund Rhee. The propaganda war on both sides had begun. The psychological warfare was in full bloom. And the only kind of people that US Information Agency could recruit at that time were academics who really wanted to go abroad to be able to complete their thesis. And I had a very good boss named Jim Stewart. He was a missionary brat born in Japan, raised in China, spoke the languages. And he gave me my head and when I thought of something to do, he’d say go do it. So that’s how I really got started, by practical work in Korea. It quickly became obvious to me that Koreans didn’t speak English or even Korean much at that time. They were reverting to Korean. And that fascinated me, the whole notion of cultures enclosed by a language fascinated me. And I realized, how gradually, how important it was to get inside the linguistic cocoon in order to be in a place where you could persuade people to do something or persuade them not to do something. Or persuade them to let you do something. And those really are the three things toward which PR is directed. What was the question?

Interviewer:  Well we’re in the 50s now was there some time you spent in the Philippines?

Reed:  Yes, well what happened was while living and working in Korea, a war began. The North invaded on June 25, 1950. I was living in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, which is only a few miles from the border where the tanks came over in the middle of the night and we were in deep doodoo. And so we had to flee. Cargo planes were flown in to Kimpo Air Field and we were rushed out to board those planes and fly to Japan to safety.  Shortly after that, the Americans committed troops to the defense of South Korea.  To me, one of the great proofs of the efficacy of public relations is that during the initial stages when the North Koreans occupied all of South Korea except for one beachhead around the city of Pusan, there were no defections, the South Koreans stayed loyal to the West, to America. Why do they do that? Well I think part of the reason is because we had a good information program. We had exposed America, the United States as a model to follow for the South Koreans. And they had had a free election. And we promoted the use of the Korean language. One of the most interesting things to me personally was I noticed that the American Embassy in 1949 early 50 had brought over some intelligent people, scholarly people, to write a newspaper and to produce a daily newspaper. And I noticed that after they produced the paper, and it was printed, piles of them were still stacked up around the Embassy.  I don’t usually talk this much. Piles of these papers were stacked up and they weren’t being delivered. And there were various distribution systems to the Embassy, the Embassy tried to establish for the newspapers. And my boss, Jim Stewart said “John why don’t you figure out how to get these things out to the people who should read them?” So, I went out to the villages in Korea. And I discovered that every village had a senior man, sort of as the unofficial local mayor or [inaudible]. He was called the Yong Bon and he wore a funny hat. And he was distinguished and deferred to. And he was wise. And he had a name and he had an address and so I started collecting the names and addresses of the Yong Bons of the villages of Korea. And then put other people to work doing it. And back at the Embassy in Seoul, we started addressing the newspapers to the Yong Bon and mailing them to them.  One thing the Japanese were very good at in the occupation of Korea was roads and telegraphs and mail service and schools. The mail worked fine. So we mailed them. The Koreans loved it. They got a piece of mail. So the Yong Bon would read the newspaper giving credence to the propaganda we were issuing. This had a powerful effect.

This simple device of sending the newspapers, which otherwise were useless, direct to the Yong Bons with their name and address gave dignity to the recipient. He would read the paper to the local people. The paper was in Korean not in Japanese or English. We built up an enormous amount of support and good will in South Korea, by the simplest and most inexpensive of all possible projects. I liked that. I thought, hot dog! Now I’m learning something about public relations. Excuse me. It’s a true story. Well we got kicked out of Korea by the fate of the war going down to the Pusan beachhead, Pusan Perimeter, as it was called.

I was transferred from Tokoyo to Manila to help develop and build and operate a printing plant that would produce propaganda or PR materials for Southeast Asia for US Information Agency. The State Department did not like the notion of getting into practical business things. They liked diplomacy, flowery notes, cocktail sipping, la de dah.  But a printing plant? Good God!  Greasy messy!  But that printing plant ran for 30 years after it was set up to produce PR materials from surrender leaflets to prayers in the initial stages in the war in Vietnam. And the production of that printing plant was also used in the Philippines and got people interested in and connected with learning local languages because they had to be printed in languages appropriate to the Philippines and to Indonesia and to Indochina and to Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, and that helped to develop American scholarly interest and broaden American interest in those languages and therefore those peoples. So I worked there for quite a while and traveled into other parts of Asia seeing what kind of printed materials would be useful in promoting democracy and fighting Communism. It was practical PR. I should have paid them for the job. It was so much fun and I learned so much.