Oral Histories

Peter Debreceny

Interview Segments on Topic: Selecting a PR Career

Peter Debreceny Biography

Peter Debreceny, a consultant with the Chicago-based strategy execution firm Gagen MacDonald, and former vice president of the Corporate Relations Department of Allstate Insurance Company, has more than 30 years experience in public relations and integrated communications. Debreceny has had a distinguished career in both corporate and agency life and has practiced in New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

Debreceny joined Gagen MacDonald in 2007, specializing in change management, corporate reputation and social responsibility strategies. In addition to leading several of the firm's client engagements, he started its social media and CSR practices.

Previously, Debreceny was vice president of Corporate Relations at the Allstate Insurance Company where he was responsible for internal and external communications and where he won a Silver Anvil award for his pioneering work in stakeholder engagement and corporate reputation management.

Earlier in his career, he led communications for New Zealand's first two America's Cup yachting challenges in Perth, Australia and in San Diego, for which he also won a Silver Anvil. He also led the communications campaign for New Zealand's first successful environmental campaign and was a senior member of the group that organized the New Zealand entry at the 1988 World Expo in Brisbane, Australia.

Debreceny is a 2009 inductee to the PR News Hall of Fame. He has served as a trustee of the Institute for Public Relations and was chair and co-chair of the Institute from 2004 to 2008. He is chair of the Commission on Global Public Relations Research and a trustee of the Center for Global Public Relations at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He was recently awarded the 2010 Distinguished Service Award by the Arthur W. Page Society.

Transcript

Interviewer:   Well it’s September 12th, 2009, and we’re in Chicago, Illinois right at the beginning of the Page Society Fall Conference. I’m sitting with Peter Debreceny and I think we’d like to start talking probably about your early career and let’s talk about its development following your graduation from college and through your current work as a consultant for Gagen MacDonald. How did you land here? You began with a degree in Political Science and Public Administration. Tell us how you got here.

Debreceny:   OK. Well, my first job out of college, while I was still in college, actually, I was working for the equivalent of the New Zealand State Department, so the Administrator of Foreign Affairs in New Zealand, which is where I’m from.  I was helping oversees students who had come to the country under scholarship from Asia and Africa with their adjustment to the society, with their academic training, I was their sort of case officer, if you like, while they were in the country. It was a great job and I met a lot of really interesting people from different parts of the world. Pretty quickly a job became available in the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, which at the time was the only radio and television broadcaster in the country and it was at the height of the Vietnam War, or actually early I guess, in the Vietnam War. There were a lot of protests. A friend of mine who worked for the broadcasting had organized a conference. The government, which owned the broadcasting system at the time, wasn’t very happy about the fact that he had done this. They were in favor of the war and he was opposed. So he lost his job and he said why don’t you apply for my job? So I was one of the applicants and I was lucky enough to get the job.

So I moved from being in foreign affairs with the state department equivalent officer to being a broadcast journalist. I did first radio then television current affairs; a program a bit like All Things Considered in the afternoons. We did a half hour show every evening, which was a live show on usually, the political topics and the economic topics of the day, both in New Zealand and around the world and we would interview people. So Marvin Kalb, who was a very well known CBS reporter at the time, was our person in the U.S. and we would call him in the evening in our time and get his sense of what was going on in the U.S., for example, people like that. And then in television, a program like 60 Minutes, but again live current affairs programs that was on three times a week where I was one of the on-air talents, telling film stories and in-studio interviews. So I did that for a while and then I decided to move into PR, which was like a lot of folks in my generation. You were a journalist one day and you were a PR person the next. So one day I went from receiving press releases and the next day I was writing them and sending them out.

So I started an agency in New Zealand. I went to work for a client eventually. While I was at that firm I was running marketing and public relations for this particular building company, spent a couple of years in the U.S. early in my career in Ohio as the U.S. representative of the company around the export of its technology to the United States, then went back to an advertising agency in New Zealand where I ran the public relations division inside an advertising agency. So I got a very early taste of what integrated communications was all about. We had what even today would be regarded as a very modern approach, in terms of no matter what the business issues that the client or prospective client had, we would approach it from an integrated, holistic communications point of view. Again, I went to work for a client, this time a very prominent New Zealand investment bank and spent some time. We ended up sponsoring several New Zealand America’s Cup Challenges, so I spent some time in Australia involved with the total marketing and sponsorship around the first New Zealand America’s Cup Challenge and then in the U.S. in San Diego for the second Challenge, as well as running the marketing around the financial part of what the bank was doing also the sporting part. It was our money that everybody was using so we thought we’d run it as well.

I stayed on in the U.S. as a consultant, so I’ve lived in all different parts of the country. I got head hunted back to New Zealand to run an agency, then to Australia for Edelman, and Edelman brought me to Chicago. When I was at Edelman in Chicago, I was hired by Allstate as Vice President of Corporate Relations at Allstate and I was there for nine years; retired a couple of years ago and since then, after a little bit of an interregnum, started doing some consulting work with Maril MacDonald and bit by bit have gotten busier and busier and now I’m back full-time being a consultant with Gagen MacDonald.  So, a pretty checkered career. I think the great thing, when I look back, about my career is that I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in this profession in different countries, New Zealand, Australia, and here in the U.S. Half of it has been inside corporate environments and half inside agency environments. I’ve had the good fortune, particularly because I started in New Zealand really early in the profession’s history in that country. So you don’t specialize, or you didn’t then, and still not so much because it’s a very small market. So I got to do everything; sports sponsorship, arts sponsorship, fast moving consumer goods, mergers and acquisitions and basic relations, annual reports, corporate communications, writing. I used to take the press releases down to the paper in the middle of the night so I actually handed it to the reporter who then walked down to get the story linotyped, so I feel really pleased that I’ve been able to get that eclectic mix of what this business is about, because what you learn in one part of it I think you can really apply to different parts of it and my sense is that in the U.S. maybe we specialize too quickly. You come out of school and you maybe get a year under your belt in an agency sometimes even just as an intern and then suddenly now I’m in health care and I’m going to be in health care forever; I think it’s too quick.

Interviewer:   Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about that I haven’t covered or that you haven’t covered? This will be on our Web site. There will be future generations who may take a listen and a look-see.

Debreceny:   OK. This is the most amazing time to be starting up in this profession, right now. This profession is in a state of complete revolution and we don’t really see where the revolution is going to take us. If you think about some of the things in the Authentic Enterprise:  globalization; new stakeholder groups being a part in ways that they never have before; the impact of technology—a billion cell phones sold a year—still in today’s climate, most of them now with cameras and now increasingly video cameras and data links. So each year there are a billion new publisher television stations being created, and radio stations and newspapers being created. So the impact on what we do is clear, we are no longer in control if we ever were, of the message. I don’t think we ever were, but we like to think that we were, not any more. So this revolution is happening where we are even more important than we’ve ever been in terms of the contribution that the profession can make to society and to the businesses and organizations that we serve or work for. There’s a whole new world of the profession just waiting to be built and if you’re starting in the profession today, because all of the ground rules are gone, and the environment in which we’ve been operating since Arthur Page’s time is shifting underneath our feet. So we can create a new vision of the profession and a new way that we work, and a new ability to deliver value, and the people coming into the profession now are the people that are going to do that. So us old fogeys, our day is gone. It’s the revolution that’s happening now that the new people can come into. The interesting thing about it is, if you look at the principles, the Arthur Page principles, which the Society and its founders, many of whom are very much associated with the (Page) Center, that they codified twenty-six years ago when the organization began, the sayings of Arthur Page into the Page principles. So there are ideas that he had that are sixty years old or longer; eighty years old. They’re more valid, and more true, and more relevant today than they ever were. And you can think about what’s happening in this unknown and unchartered territory that we’re all in, if you look at the Page principles and if you follow the Page principles, you’ve got a guiding compass to go by. They are really powerful and really relevant and I’m just fascinated by the way that these ideas that he had back then, every day, and every week, and every year get more powerful and more relevant than before.

Interviewer:   Thank you. This was wonderful.

Debreceny:   Thank you very much.