Oral Histories

Peter Debreceny

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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.


Interviewer:   During those early years did you have a mentor or anyone who really influenced your life or your career?

Debreceny:   I’ve had several people in my career who have been great in terms of understanding where the organization that they were involved with was going and laying out a vision that people could really get engaged in. So I think one of the things that we do is we concentrate a lot on the facts, and the objectives, and the cold side of the business, if you like, and we miss the emotional side. Really what gets people excited and gets them to buy in is what is the vision? What is the unbelievably amazing thing that together we could do? I’ve had several people in my career that were really good at that and that I learned from a lot. In my first job in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, my boss there in that particular part of it, he was a visionary. The first company that I went to work for after I started my agency, I went because the owner of the company had an unbelievable idea and was committed to make it happen and was able to get people enthused and excited about it and it brought together an amazing collection of skills that created something out of nothing. In my investment banking career Michael Fay and David Richwhite, who were the individuals who owned the company; Michael in particular could take an idea and really make it come alive and talk about it in a way that everybody, you could get, and ultimately in our case, the country could get excited, enthused, and believe that something was possible now that you’ve made it possible. So yes, I think that’s right.

Now the interesting thing, I think, is that a gift that we can bring to the companies that we work for or consult to is often management doesn’t really know or describe clearly where they are going, what the strategy is. Sometimes that’s because what companies do today, is do what they did yesterday, but do it a little bit better. Often senior management doesn’t really know where do I want to be five years from now; that’s really different from where I am today. For those companies who do know that, it’s often wrapped up in a very esoteric, hard to understand strategy document that a McKinsey or a Bain has put together that really has no relevance to the person at the front or the coal face, if you like. So there are two things that we can do. Through the power of what we bring and the value that we add, we can force companies to know where B is. If we’re at A now, where is B, where are we going? Then we can explain that journey to everybody inside the organization and all it’s stakeholders, the customers and the suppliers, the regulators, and the investors. Why we are on this journey from A to B and what it really means to them in very tangible terms that resonate emotionally as well as intellectually. That’s something that only we can do because only the public relations people work across all stakeholder groups. Everybody else in the organization or consulting with the organization is in one little piece of it. We cover the whole thing.

Interviewer:   Let’s talk a minute about code of ethics. Are companies’ values different from a code of ethics? Do you see a difference between them? There is a little bit of discussion going on between corporate values and really identifying and describing those values and those who rely on a set code.

Debreceny:   Yes, well a code of ethics is worth about the value of the paper on which the code of ethics is printed. Even assuming that the code of ethics is being, that piece of paper is being put up on the wall, what really matters is behaviors – behaviors are driven by the DNA of your organization. So I’m sure Enron had a code of ethics, but it didn’t have behavior which corresponded to that code of ethics. Many companies and many organizations in all parts of the world have codes of ethics, which they don’t live by. Values more describe the DNA of the organization and the guiding principles that will drive behaviors. But even then not all companies that have a list of values live by those values. So the truly authentic companies are those that have values that everybody understands and lives by and that guide behavior and a code of ethics that are drawn from those values and correspond to them and that people follow because they want to follow it, and with the right prescriptions in place to make sure that you try and catch the odd number of people inside an organization that are not going to follow them. So if you look at the companies that we think about as really doing this stuff well, take Johnson and Johnson, they have a credo. It came out during the depression. It was written by Robert W. Johnson II during the depression. They live by their credo. They take business; that describes their values; they take business decisions by their credo. When Tylenol happened, their company took the business decision that they didn’t need to take, because it’s what the credo told them was their values and they were committed to living by their values. That’s a company that you think of as being truly authentic. But it’s authentic because it knows who it is and it behaves the same way. Here’s I think the thing about public relations: the term public relations and the description of the profession has become an ugly term. People use the term disparagingly and they talk about us in disparaging terms and why is that? It’s because we’ve allowed that to happen. Firstly, because we’ve allowed people to get away from the definition of what public relations was, your relationship with public, and equate it to publicity.

We should never have allowed that to happen. Then, inside the profession, if you can call it that, we’ve left people do their thing and we’ve let them get away with it and we haven’t called them on the carpet. We haven’t stood up for ourselves. So when people talk about PR equals spin equals lying, we almost never say: hang on a second; that’s not the profession that we belong to. So from that I think that as a profession, we need to stand up more for who we are and what we do and the value that we bring, and when you think about Arthur Page, he represented those sorts of values. We need to do a better job at that. But then each of us, as individuals, has to be really sure about what do I stand for? What’s my DNA, and do I behave every day, when there’s a grey area, do I make the right decision because it’s the right decision? If more of us were sure about that I think the reputation of the profession that we serve would be much higher than it is today. We have the opportunity to turn it around, but it requires each of us to take the challenge.