Oral Histories

John M. Reed

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

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:  Over your experience, over the years can you identify a time when you came upon unethical persuasion, and how did you handle that and how did you confront it and how did you resolve it?

Reed:  Well the CPSUB, that is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Bolshevik, the original revolutionary group who, by the way, had an apologist by the name of John Reed who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World. I’ve been trying to live that down. He was from Oregon. It’s a boring book. Beatty was the fellow’s name. Beatty something William, Warren Beatty played him, played John Reed in the movies. Terrible! The, the early pronouncements of the Communist Party which sought global domination and the conquest of all countries and sent it out that that was what they would do, had parties in every country and would take them over, were flawed right from the beginning, because they said things that weren’t true. I read the early manifestos, the Communist Manifesto and when What is to be Done? one of the great textbooks of communism and realized that they were bound to fail but were time because they weren’t telling the truth.  And that impressed me very much and made me realize that I wasn’t just telling the truth because it was nice or the right thing to do, but because it was a winning, a winning ticket. It was the way to win the war, a way to win the world, a way to win men’s hearts. The truth shall make you free. And that, that experience in the Far East of seeing and reading and dealing with what the various Communist elements were using to persuade people in different countries to accept and to undertake the Communist regime taught me a lot about the truth. And that applies in commercial public relations as much as it does political public relations. When the, when the Communists were in the early days after WWII were really pushing and when Mao Tse Tung was consolidating his power, the Russians supplied textbooks to Japanese students in Japan at university level. Books about geography. Well the Committee for Free Asia guy and an academic pal discovered these geography books, which had the maps in the wrong place. That the lines were not drawn honestly. So they said I was on a visit and we had already done a project with collecting garden seeds for vegetables for the Philippines called Seeds for Democracy and we on the tabletop in a restaurant had sketched out books for Asian students project. We would get the geography classes of university students in the United States to donate their used textbooks and we’d take care of shipping them out and getting them into the hands of university students in Japan, knowing that if they were published in the United States that the lines would be correct for where the countries were and the descriptions of the countries would be accurate and truthful. And the Communists-supplied textbooks for geography be thrown out in the trash. And we did that. And it happened. This was profound. No one heard about it. No publicity was made about it. But tens of thousands of university students got the straight truth on where the Soviet Union ended and where whatever it was began, and American university students participated and supported that. I liked that.

Interviewer:  So did Arthur Page. That was one of his principles. Tell the truth.

Reed: Absolutely. It works. I mean, never mind whether you think it’s moral or not. And I do think it’s moral. It works. That taught me, those kinds of things taught me a lot that is, was later applicable to working for commercial clients.

Interviewer:  Is there anything else you want to share with the next generation of PR professionals?

Reed:  Well get to see it and do it up close because the books are too tightly structured. And therefore boring, you know. And I don’t want to criticize people and so on and so forth but you know as revered as Cutlip and Center are and I know both of them. Scott Cutlip and Allen Center. It’s really dull and furthermore it doesn’t really reflect the excitement that goes on among the real practitioners. I would have paid for my jobs. I had so much fun. As it turns out I got more and more money. I really did. And, and I didn’t think about that particularly. My father died when I was very young as a boy. And I said to him shortly before he died. It was one of the few things I remember. Daddy what shall I be when I grow up? All boys ask their parents this. And girls too I’m sure. And he said I don’t care what you are. Be the best at what ever it is you do, be the best. I don’t care whether you are a street sweeper or president. Be the best. That’s one of the few things I remember about him. The other thing I remember about my father is he sent me a postcard. We’re in boarding school in Leonardtown, Maryland. He was an international union organizer for the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). And he was picked by the first woman cabinet member Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under Roosevelt to be a delegate to go to a World Congress of the International Labor Organization to be held in Lima, Peru. And one day I got a postcard at Leonard Hall in Leonardtown, Maryland from Lima, Peru. Well I couldn’t believe it. I mean it had a postage stamp on it. I had never seen a piece of mail from anywhere in the world. Had a postage stamp. Had a picture of the Andes Mountains. Holy cow, I rushed to the geography book and the dictionary to find out where is this place. Where is my father? He was in Lima, Peru. Of course I called it ‘lima’ as in lima beans. And so I started pestering my the brothers who were teachers where is this? Where is my father? It was signed Daddy. I was what ten something. Well I was set on fire that he would go to. I looked on the map. Outside the United States down in South America on the Pacific coast in this place called Peru. Holy cow. That set me, you know, and then he said whatever it is you do, be the best and then you know it just sort of came. I wished I had my father for many, many more years but for the bit, the few years we did have him, I’m grateful. Because he said go do it. I think that public relations has a great capacity to do good. I think we can persuade people to donate to the Red Cross. If we can persuade people to cross at the corner not in the middle of the street. And we can persuade people to give up smoking cigarettes. Fat chance! And so on. But we have a responsibility as well as that right to do that. And our responsibility is to persuade people to do the right thing. To do it for the right reason and do it in the right way. And that gives a morality to public relations that, that people don’t think about very often. It’s a very moral kind of thing that we do. And I like that. You know you do well by doing good. And for me the the specialty that I was sort of pushed into was international - doing it some place else. Wonderful. I had a great time. I consider myself a very lucky guy. Really.

Interviewer:  I feel pretty lucky just to have you share some of your experiences with us. This has been wonderful. This will become part of the permanent collection at the Page Center. Any other thoughts?

Reed:  No, the only thing we really didn’t touch on I suppose are what we unfinistic refer to in textbooks as case studies. Everybody is interested in case studies.

Interviewer:  They are rather large here.

Reed: Big thing is case studies. I think that’s a bit formal. I like to think of it as problem solved. What is it you needed to get done and how did you do it? And did it work? And I love to hear other PR people when I’m with them tell me about how they solved a particular problem. You know and how it worked or how they approached a particular problem. And when I think back in the long career in this field, I think always about those Bayanihans solutions to problems and how wonderful it can be. And although we’ve used and I have used press releases and all the paraphernalia of standard PR all over the place. It’s the creative things outside that, that have had the best influences. You know

Interviewer:  The actions.

Reed:  The actions and the ideas. That’s really exciting to me. You know you changed the color of this or the shape of that or whatever and it will have a profound influence. That’s, that’s terrific.

Interviewer:  Well I want to thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.

Reed: Thank you for coming. Thank you for coming.