Oral Histories

Peter Debreceny

Interview Segments on Topic: Trust/Credibility

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:   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.

Interviewer:   The United States is experiencing a crisis of trust in business. We’ve touched on this a little bit in a variety of different ways, but with everything that you’ve said, how are corporations going to handle the challenge? Are we starting to turn the corner yet or do we have a long way to go?

Debreceny:   I think we have a long way to go to rebuild trust in business, not just in the United States, but globally. The decline in trust has been ongoing. We’ve seen it spike a little bit in the last year or so with the financial meltdown, the recession or depression if you like. It’s high on people’s radar screen right now, but if you look at the trends, for example on the Edelman Trust Report, generally speaking, there’s been a continuous decline in trust in business over the last many decades. So what needs to happen to change that? Well, in part business needs to change. Business needs to earn trust. You don’t get it conferred on you by right, and you don’t get it conferred on you because you take out an ad. You get it conferred on you because you earn it. And you earn it every minute of every day, with everybody that you relate to, starting with your employees. Right now employees are the most important driver of trust in an organization because they are the people who are believed in and listened to by everybody, every other stakeholder group way more often and with much more credibility than the CEO and senior management. So start with the employees. Are you delivering on your promise to employees and are you treating them with respect and dignity, and are you listening to what they say and adjusting accordingly? Or are you deaf and in command and control mode, in which case you’ll never earn back the trust, because if that’s how you treat employees, who are your most important stakeholder group, how are you going to treat your customers and your suppliers?
So I think it comes back to how do companies behave?  There is an increasing power imbalance and what we know from the work that’s been done in the Business Roundtable, Institute (for Corporate) Ethics and the Arthur W. Page Society in the report (Public Trust in Business Report) that just recently came out, evening out that imbalance of power is a really important driver of trust and that’s got to come from how businesses behave and how they deliver on their commitments to society generally, and individual stakeholder groups in particular. Now the whole CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) movement, if it’s real, and inside a company, begins to do that. So once a company starts to think of themselves as having a long-term future in a sustainable way, then it begins to behave with all stakeholder groups differently. Marks and Spencer in the UK is a really good example of a company that says there is no Plan B. We have to be sustainable. That means we have to change the relationship that we have with customers and suppliers and every other aspect of the environment in which we operate in order to build a long-term future. In part, as companies begin to think that way, not be driven all the time just by the quarterly result, as important as that is. We must drive business outcomes as communicators. We’ve got to drive business outcomes not just communication outcomes. The communications really don’t matter if they’re not driving some sort of business outcome. We’ve got to help our companies to see things differently and then behave differently and then we’ll help rebuild the trust.

Interviewer:   Jack O’Dwyer wrote an article on Peter Sussman’s disapproval of what he claims is a cozy relationship between the press, the Page Society and the PR Seminar. Does the public relations industry foster inappropriate relationships with members of the media?

Debreceny:   Well, I think Jack O’Dwyer has a very cozy relationship with many of us in the PR industry and we all respect and like that relationship. He’s one of the industry’s characters and every industry needs some characters like Jack O’Dwyer. He’s always a good person to have a drink with at a function. No, I don’t think that the industry fosters an inappropriate relationship with the media at all and in fact, the relationship with the media now is incredibly professional. It used to be that PR people used to be able to wine and dine reporters and maybe influence what they wrote about or who they covered. Those days are pretty much gone. You can’t buy a reporter a cup of coffee any more.  So what is a reporter interested in, in a relationship with the public relations professional? I think they’re interested in a lot of things. Firstly, reporters have way too much to do and they’re way too underpaid. Right now they’re an industry that has no clear sense of its future, so they are in an incredibly difficult profession. The more that we can help them with that and the more that we can make their lives easier, the better. Second, we absolutely have to be truthful and honest in our dealings with the media, individually and collectively. So the relationship with a specific journalist is you have to give them a point of view. They’re interested in the point of view of you or the company that you work for or represent. You have to give them that point of view in an honest and truthful way. That’s what they’re after, nothing untoward about that.