Oral Histories

John R. Budd, Jr.

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

John R. Budd, Jr. Biography

John Budd, a former Emhart executive, is founder and chairman of the Omega Group, a New York-based public relations “think tank.”  He began his career as the lowest paid writer at Carl Byoir and Associates, and 30 years later, in 1991, when he left the company, he was vice chairman.  Budd is founding fellow of PR’s College of Fellows and is a columnist and author of the invitation-only Observation newsletter. 

Budd has received PRSA’s Gold Anvil and 8 Silver Anvils.


Interviewer: Well since you mentioned Street Smart Public Relations, let’s talk about that for a minute. In that book you talked about the four R's of PR. Reading, Writing, Realism, and Results.

Budd: Okay I keep making them up: reading, writing, relevance I think I would say now.

Interviewer: Tell me about that. Before you had four. Reading, writing, realism, and results and now reading, writing, relevance. What has happened? Why has that changed?

Budd: Well no particular reason, just as I look at what is going on, I see different priorities. Reading I don’t think today that the people in the business read period, or read broadly enough. They’ll tell you they read the Wall Street Journal or Business Week and that’s not what it’s all about. When I have several times I’ve been engaged to help a client hire an agency or something like that. And we sit down and we talk and they come in with all their hyperbole and bluster. I just ask them. What do you read? It’s very revealing. What do you really read? And it’s so limited. Really. How can they assume any relevance to their counsel to business, basically what is the bottom of it, if they don’t get into the mentality, the rhythm, the worries of business people. Reading PR Week is not going to help you. Then I will also ask them, “Tell me when you failed? What? Failed. So what did you do about it?” Now at Carl Byoir that’s another thing I learned there. There was no such thing as failure. Obviously things didn’t always work but that meant that you had to work harder, what we called the second effort. I mean I have had such things happen at a press conference when the press bus drives up and nobody gets out. Well I’ll tell you, your career flashes before your eyes, but ten days later or two weeks later we had more publicity in a particular event through other means. Now in those days we had well I guess I was going to say we have had more media to deal with. We had things like the Western Newspaper Union but now you have the electronic versions so I guess it breaks even. Somebody said I can’t quote who. You have to have some failures in life to really achieve anything. I would add to that only if you look at failure as an opportunity and a beginning, not an end. So writing I have no patience for any account executive agency, or in the corporate world, who brings in a speech writer to write the boss’s speech. They do it for two reasons. They won’t admit it. One they consider it dangerous. They maybe can’t write well enough and they don’t want to expose their weakness. They want to have someone else to blame. But they don’t understand that if assuming you can write reasonably well, you get into the CEO or whoever, the boss’s head, in a way you could not ever otherwise. And then in the terms of the CEO and you are doing that for him or her, you become closer to their wife or husband because you are helping them in a moment which they are most uncomfortable. If it works, if you’ve done a good job. Boy, I had early in my career, I got into meetings that I had no right to be in only because he wanted me there because he knew I would have to write and he wanted me to know about it. So how they can give up such a golden opportunity to really establish their relationships with their boss I don’t know. Of course, they will tell you and I am sure you will hear it. How close they are to the CEO, because we have instant access. That’s a lot of baloney. There’s a difference I don’t deny that they see the CEO more regularly than we did in the early days or certainly I did when I was a staffer. But the difference between being called in to report, being called in to get an assignment, versus coming in to chat to ask advice before something is done not what you are going to do afterwards. So access has to be really examined. So the reading, the writing, and if you don’t do anything that relates to whatever this company is counting on you is not relevant. Why the hell are you doing it? One of the chairmen I worked for said I am not real sure what he is doing but I know he has a reason. I’m serious. So that’s how Street Smart worked out.

Interviewer: You mentioned, let’s talk about your personal philosophy and what you believe are necessary characteristics and qualities for the PR professional. Now, let’s start with descriptors that I have found either before your name or following your name or from individuals who were writing about you. Whatever and some of them mentioned and there are some other ones. Curmudgeon.

Budd: Oh yeah, do you realize that Bill Buckley who was a curmudgeon. There’s a book out, World Class Curmudgeons. A little, small little book. Among those listed is Buckley, George Will, and so on, so I consider, as a matter of fact, one of the books I am going to write one of these days I got halfway done, Curmudgeonly Speaking it is going to be called and I am going to try to change the definition of curmudgeon. You can’t change definitions very easily. The definition in all the dictionaries is along the lines of what you’re talking about, irritating contrarian and so forth, doesn’t like anybody. Curmudgeons can’t stand hypocrisy. Curmudgeons want to know why. They are not satisfied with conventional wisdom. I think of curmudgeons in the context of all the positive things not the negative. Yeah I think of all curmudgeon contrary to iconoclast.

Interviewer: You also wrote an article, I think you spent a lot of time talking about the word ‘why’. The power of why? Yes.

Budd: Why am I doing this? Why am I doing it today? Why can’t I do it better? It’s a very personal thing. If you adopt the philosophy of that and apply it to yourself silently, you will do a lot better. Years and years ago IBM had a slogan called Think. Do you remember that? Okay, the psychology of that always fascinated me because it created. They hoped it created. I think it did the perception that their people were more intellectual than the competitors. They had a magazine and they had placards all over the place. I have tried unsuccessfully to get a couple of clients to adopt “why” in the same context. And then just think about it, ‘”why” spread throughout an agency. The immersion in that three letter word could be extraordinary.

Interviewer: All right so let’s

Budd: Why am I here?

Interviewer: Why

Budd: I may die soon, l hope not.

Interviewer: So you mentioned that you were an enemy of the status quo and a pronounced foe of conventional wisdom, you’ve also been described as PR’s devil’s advocate, so…

Budd: Well look. I know sooner or later we’re going to get to communications but public relations, in my estimation, is a very flexible discipline because it addresses, and should address at least, a lot of intangible factors which are subjective. You can’t set down formulas. There’s nothing pro forma about a good all around public relations practice. First of all it’s not a profession. You know it can never be a profession until there are standards of entry and discipline for violations, of which we have none. Anybody can call themselves, so I, there’s too much self worth promotion among the practitioners. They are not professionals. But you can have principles and standards of performance but not formulas. I don’t think. That’s one of the things that always attracted me to it because every client and every situation is different just like the fingerprints of people are different. And you build up a storehouse of experiences but then you tailor them to what is going on. You don’t just change the name and a release and put a client’s name in, but they do. The young people who are now older and getting a pass in terms of influential involvement I think.

Interviewer: Well, what can you do about that?

Budd: I mean promoting a nudist colony is not exactly what I call public relations. You read, if you read PR Week, which I look at only to keep a finger on trends, it is all job changes, client acquisitions. It’s the philosophy currently, that lateral movement enhances a career. I don’t agree to that unless if the lateral move involves different responsibilities. There’s something to be said for that. But it doesn’t usually. The weakness of it is lack of stability. You can get bored in this business believe me. You have to fight that. I have been bored many times. Part of the reason I’ve written so many books and articles is out of boredom. You know you can’t be on all cylinders all the time.

Budd: No, keep going maybe we should talk about my new book coming out in the fall.

Interviewer: Wow.

Budd: Communications is a process but it tends to diminish public relations. You can be very successful in counseling without actually doing communications as it is defined now, just talking to somebody and say don’t do this. How do you measure advice given and taken to eliminate a problem that does not arise? Where as, if you hadn’t given advice it would be all sorts of difficulty That’s public relations. It may not involve communication. Don’t fire people before Thanksgiving or Christmas, while you, the CEO get a $15 million bonus or whatever. Harold Bursen believes it too, he said the adoption of communications as a synonym for public relations started the business on a slippery slope and I agree totally. If you go through the Page (Society) directory, you will find few titles that use the word public relations. These people who are the so called elite of the field these days; go to watering holes like Boca Raton or Vail and listen to gurus talk about things that they have no involvement in. It is like fantasy baseball. It really is. It is their way of, of reinforcing their sense of self-worth. But then they go back to their day job and are pushing vitamins or something like that. They are not counseling. And the so-called PR Seminar, drop the word PR, because it was irrelevant. PR Week is not really, it should be Communications Week but there is a publication like that. I think it has two disadvantages. One subtle and one very profound. It encourages senior corporate officers to think of the process as implementation of the public relations process. They don’t make any distinction in their mind between public relations and communications. To them, its’ all the same thing, media work, whatever it is. They never think of it, or rarely think of it, in terms of advice and counsel. The PR people, or the communicators as they call themselves, are called in after the fact, not before the fact. Everybody communicates. There’s no question about that. That broad application of the term public relations just diminishes what public relations is, and as far as the practitioners are concerned, they love the cache of public relations but they call themselves communicators. Just look at their titles. It’s where they get their kicks, I guess. I don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s what this book covers; the past, present, and what I foresee as the future of public relations. The world is so complex. We just read about it every day that CEOs are going to need somebody at their side, who can see the world through a different prism than the customary disciplines in a business. I mean the legal and the accounting, operational, the marketing people think in the terms of their own discipline, and they could be very excellent at it, but they do not go beyond it. Somebody has to sit there and say if you do it that way Chief, you’re going to create more problems than you solve. Why? Well because, so that’s one thing. The president of the United States has, I guess always have had, personal advisors to the president for foreign affairs or whatever their title. There is going to be a need, and it will be fulfilled not by PR people, a personal advisor to the president in public diplomacy, personal advisor to the chief executive on a public policy, is going to come from liberal arts graduates. Maybe they can’t sit down and write a white paper. Maybe they can’t write a big speech. They are going to hire the communicators to do that. But they’re going to sit there and ideally they should have no administrative duties, because that gets in the way. They should just be thinkers. Leonardo DeVinci supported himself and was successful, not as an inventor or a painter, he was a counselor. Princes paid him handsomely just to sit and talk to them. There’s a book out, it’s not just out, it’s been out for a long time, called How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci. And I read it and it lead me to write a book about how to change your job into a career. The author of the How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci identified 12 attributes of DaVinci’s personality, three of which apply particularly to public relations, and one was curiosity which is defined in many ways you know, anti-status quo but why why why? The second was the use of the right brain. And the third was the ability to see an obscure event or read about an obscure event and start to think of it in terms of another obscure event and all of a sudden a pattern emerges. And people don’t like that because you are seeing problems they don’t see. Or they ignore them. Or worse they deny they are ignoring them. There was a professor at the University of California years and years ago who wrote a paper on this, which I treasured. He likened the development of a public opinion to a biological process, awareness so on. So I really do believe that and it’s not going to be to the current generation of CEOs, because they are still wedded. And it’s not going to be the one immediately following them because they are coming out of the B school, who are still teaching models, and case histories, and formulas. I don’t care if they say that we’re not put social responsibility in there and all that sort of thing. They are not touching, really, roots of what I am talking about. Down the road, and I’ll probably not be here to see it, is going to be a class of young people coming out of the business schools who are not wedded to that quantitative mentality. And they are going to be liberal arts people. They are not going to be journalists, they are not going to be technological people who are whizzes with email and face book and all that stuff. They are going to be, they are going to be entrepreneurial, mentally, and they are going to be intellectual and they are going to see problems where others don’t see it. And they are going to have really good advice and they are going to be free to do that. If I were starting a company or if someone asked me, I would put a sociologist somewhere at the top and certainly if I had a decent public relations operation which would be [inaudible] it would have a sociologist. Good friend of mine is a tenured sociologist at Williams College. He’s a little different from most in that he has tramped plant floors more than you could realize. He wrote two books. One was Image Makers and the other was called Moral Mazes. And he studied why employees hear different messages than the brass were sending them. If you think about it, it’s a very profound thought, you’re going to need people like that. He and I collaborated; at least we have lunch, and blow our brains out equally. And that stuff fascinates me , I mean, how do you do that? Now look what we’re going through, with Mark Penn. The tragedy is that corporate clients with Burson-Marsteller will not see the relevance of the hypocrisy that it represents. It’s not that he double-talked and embarrassed Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t know, he had no moral background. He doesn’t realize the conflict of interest. He doesn’t realize what it will do to the reputation, integrity, and honesty, and truth for Burson-Marsteller, and nor does, I read in the paper before I came here this morning. Martin Sorrell sees nothing wrong with it. I mean he’s not going to change his policy. She said the world is too complex where you have these things happen. He made a mistake. That’s true. He’s going to continue to build Burson-Marsteller. Martin Sorrell is looking at it as money. He’s not looking at it as the reputation of Burson-Marsteller, I mean here’s a guy. First of all, its’ very unpleasant if you read the papers. He’s disdainful of any opinion other than his own. He is arrogant and smug whatever what else. Hillary’s campaign hates him. The media hates him. And I can’t believe the people at Burson-Marsteller love him, but I don’t know but he was permitted to maintain his own polling company, in addition to being CEO of Burson-Marsteller. It would be interesting to see how much business he funneled from Burson-Marsteller. Where did the $13 million he got from Hillary go? Did any of it go to Burson-Marsteller or is it all to him. Where, how much is he make in this holding company and where does that go and how much is he making at Burson-Marsteller? And Martin Sorrell, who is a very bright guy and certainly made his critics into fans what he’s done with WPP, that company , that holding company. But he reveals his misunderstanding of what public relations is all about when he is dismissive of the enormity of what is represented in not only Penn’s actions but Penn’s atitude. How can the PR business survive if it doesn’t stand up for principles? You talk about the Page Principles. You have Fleishman-Hillard, a couple of years ago where their highly touted head of their Los Angeles office, who was then a local figure of some political importance, was accused and indicted and is now in prison for kiting the bills to one of the city’s agencies and in the process of the accusations and trials and all that sort if thing, you heard nothing from Fleishman-Hillard. They distanced themselves from it. Why didn’t they stand up? Why didn’t John Graham say God damn it. That’s terrible. If they had treated a client’s crises communication the way they handled their own they would have deserved to be fired. What about Ketchum, another big, once proud company, accused of money laundering. That’s what they did. You know. Why are they silent? You talk about being a profession. How can they be professional when they can’t even stand up and talk about it? You won’t hear a peep from any PR people about Mark Penn. That is what annoys me and irritates me. Now, the last eight or nine or ten years I have been well removed from function and activities of public relations. I am working much more with corporate side. I am on the advisory board of the National Association of Corporate Directors. I am a director of the New York chapter of Corporate Directors. And I am looked upon as sort of the director of special programs meaning that I conceive of the luncheon program that isn’t the usual boilerplate that all the governance people do these days. A man by the name of John Bogel who made a very solid reputation in the mutual fund business wrote a book about the The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism, a very thoughtful man. He’s older of course, so he speaks up and we had a session on that. To me, that’s fascinating, maybe to others it’s pretty boring. But, that’s why I write this newsletter, that’s another thing I started, it’s bi-monthly…