John “Jack” Felton is Advisor Emeritus of The Plank Center, having served on its inaugural board. Jack held leadership roles at three Fortune 500 companies before becoming Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Florida and president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations. He served as national president of PRSA — twice.
In this 2011 interview with Will Hodges, at the time an MA student at the University of Alabama, Jack talks about some of the highlights of his early career.
Q: Was there a tipping point early in your career that reassured you that you were in the right career field or made your career “take off”?
Felton: In 1952, with a brand new Master’s degree from Michigan, I joined the United States Air Force. After orientation, my first assignment was to the Public Information Office, Webb Air Force Base in Big Spring, Texas.
After a few weeks, I wrote home to say I liked what I was doing–writing news releases, stories and editorials for the base newspaper; speeches for the Commanding General; hosting a weekly talk show for local radio; planning civic events for area business leaders; and directing talent shows at the Officer’s Club.
This was when I saw the creativity and infinite variety a career in public relations offered.
Q: What was your most significant accomplishment on the job–the one major achievement of which you are most proud?
Felton: Using creativity, carefully researched tactics, we were able to prevent the takeover of our small company by a huge, billion dollar international firm. Years later, a principal of the big firm told me I was the “toughest Son of a B*–” he’d ever met.
Q: Conversely, can you describe a situation in which you didn’t succeed, or at least to the extent you hoped to? What did you take away from that experience?
Felton: My greatest failure finally ended up a success. Because we were not well known nationally, I wanted to make our annual report smell like the spices we sold. Tried for several years. Put spice oleoresins in the ink. Didn’t work! Tried spraying the smell on the cover with lacquers. Didn’t work! Nothing worked and I had just about given up until one day I was using an ink blotter. That was it! We used an uncoated, recycled paper for the financial section of the report. After the pages were printed, we sent them back through the printer and applied the scent. Success! That year the McCormick annual report smelled like cinnamon–and it has smelled like a spice every year since then.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the public relations industry today?
Felton: Creativity and ethics are the biggest challenges for public relations today. We must find new creative ways to stay in sync with all of the technical changes in communications. People are getting information so much faster and the ways they are getting it are changing even faster. Public relations has not kept up. Yesterday’s techniques won’t do. We must find better ways to at least match the pace.
Public relations must guard and protect our most cherished value and that is our role as truth tellers. We must guard the trust that comes from the integrity and ethics of what we believe, what we do, and what we say.
Q: All of us have role models, or those we look up to in life, for whatever reason. Describe one of the most important role models in your life, and explain why this person has been so important to you.
Felton: My role model is Arthur McQuiddy. He was a former city editor, fine writer and talented cartoonist. He expected excellent job performance and proved it by his own. You wanted to perform well for him. He had a great sense of humor and was generous in his praise, careful and kind with his criticism.
I never knew anyone who wouldn’t go back to work for him in a minute if they could. Even when you moved on to other opportunities, he always kept up with you, encouraged you and asked about your career and family. He was a teacher, an encourager and always your best friend.
Q: What’s your favorite time of day in the workplace — and why?
Felton: My favorite time of day was the hour and a half after others left for the day. No phones interrupted me and no one needed to see me. It was a time I could really concentrate and get work done. I also found the hour before the office opened offered the same creative “my time.”