A University of Michigan graduate and former Public Information Officer with the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command, John W. Felton has had a distinguished career in public relations. After the Air Force, Felton joined Interstate Brands Corporation as Director of Public Relations and Public Affairs in 1969, where he was responsible for the promotion of the Charlie Brown specials, among others.
He then joined the ranks of the McCormick Spice, where he and his staff were responsible for public relations activities at 85 locations around the world. He was also the Freedom Forum Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. And for ten years served as President and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, headquartered at the university.
He is a Past President of the Public Relations Society of America. Felton has also been recognized for his professional writings that include two books and eight plays, several of which have received awards. His dedication to his career and love of public relations has not gone unrecognized. He has been awarded the Outstanding Professional of the Year by PRNews and was named the recipient of the Gold Anvil, PRSA’s highest award.
His most recent honors include the 1999 David Ferguson Award for Outstanding Contributions to PR education and the Alexander Hamilton Medal from the Institute for Public Relations in 2004.
Define what leadership in PR means to you.
>> Well, leadership in public relations is not that different than leadership in other fields. I think Dwight Eisenhower did a good job before the D-Day in trying to get his generals together. And he walked into the room and shocked everybody by pulling a string up a long table. And they looked at him, wondered what he was doing. He went to the end and tried to push the string. You see, a string doesn’t push. You’ve got to lead and you’ve got to pull. And I think leadership is developing the right kind of pulls of talents from people. You pull, if you can, the best talent you can and make that work.
What are the characteristics needed in to be an excellent leader in PR?
>> I think truths would have to be number one. Integrity, you have to be trusted. And if you’re trusted by the CEO, by the financial officer, and the other people, and by the employees, then you have a much better chance of getting your communications through.
I think you also have to be someone who keeps digging. Perseverance is part of the job, too. I think a lot of PR people give up too easily when someone says no. And I think sometimes you need to come back again and say, but what about, or how about, and keep trying.
Persevering is really, I think, a part of what we do. And the other thing is a sense of responsibility. You’re in charge of projecting the image of an organization. And you have a responsibility that you better feel you carry, and feel it’s really an important part of your job.
As a leader in the field, what factors most contributed to your success?
>> I got in the field after thinking I was going to be a television producer and write and produce television shows. The Korean War was on. I was assigned to a general and they said, “Lieutenant, I understand you can write.” And I said, “Yes sir, but what?” Because I wasn’t sure where he was going.
And he said, “Well you see these stack of OERs? And I said, yes sir. He said, those are officer’s effectiveness reports. He says, “I have the best dog-gon officers in the air force. But I can’t get them promoted because the reporting officers can’t describe their performance well enough to get the promotion.”
He said, “Here’s what I want you to do. First assignment, take these reports, go back to the reporting officer. Write what the officer really wants to say about that particular pilot. And get him to sign it, agree to it, and then bring it back to me and let’s see what happens.”
I said, “Yes sir.” So, I did just that, brought them back. And about three weeks later, the sergeants came to my office and said, “Lieutenant, the General wants to see you in his office right this very minute.” And I thought, uh-oh, what’s happened? And I walked in and they were all sitting at his desk.
And I didn’t know the General, at the time, had a great sense of humor. And as a brand-new second lieutenant, why he was teasing a little bit. He said, “Lieutenant, you see these,” with a real serious look in his face. And I said, “Yes.” He said “I want you to know everyone you rewrote got promoted. You now have a job and you’re going to write anything I want you to write. Do you understand that?” And I said, “Yes sir.” And so, I got into the PR field through that kind of writing. And then working with a general, at that level, was the best executive experience you could ever have. Because he really knew how to be a leader. He knew how to be effective. He knew when to give the orders and how. And I would say for someone to have that kind of experience would be a tremendous benefit in starting a career.
What’s the most powerful learning experience you’ve encountered with respect to leadership in the field?
>> When we had a president at PRSA who was in office, and he misbehaved in the stock market. And I suddenly, because he resigned, had to take over the presidency of PRSA. And we were suddenly thrust into that kind of a situation where you have to clean up a pretty unhappy mess. And you have to try to get communications back on track. It’s a very difficult time.
And that’s when you really know where your friends are. And who will come in and give you a hand and say, “Jack, I think you’re doing a great job, how about trying this and that?” And that’s when you really know whether you have friends in a profession or not, is when you get into that kind of situation.
Is there any historical figure that you believe best exemplifies leadership in the field?
>> I don’t think many people think of Lincoln as a public relations person. But I do because, I guess, just a recent Harvard Business Review quotes Lincoln as saying, “Character is the tree. Reputation is the shadow.” Now that’s pretty perceptive for someone in that period of our history. And it shows how strategic he was in planning things like the Emancipation Proclamation.
And my other hero is the former Treasurer of the United States, in his early days, Hamilton, who wrote so many of the Federalist Papers. And he did what some historians call the best PR in the history of the world when he wrote strategic messages to each of the states as they met to vote.
And those messages were all tailored to the particular interests of that group. And written to persuade them to vote in favor of the kind of government we have. And he wrote those along with Madison, and it became a historic class of tailoring the message to the right audience, at the right time, to get the response you want.
Do you think leadership skills in PR are different in any way from those of other professions?
>> I’d like to believe, and I’m not sure it’s true, but I’d like to believe we, in some ways, carry more responsibility for being the truth carriers in organizations. Lawyers and accountants can get away sometimes with saying, well we disclosed. It was in footnote J on page 37 of the annual report two years ago.
Well, to me, that’s not complete disclosure. We all know the annual report, maybe, the shareholder looks at it eight, ten minutes, and very rarely reads footnote J. And yet to the lawyer, he, for legal reasons, has to disclose properly on paper to the accountant, he’ll say, well, we disclosed properly. Yet we didn’t get the message to the person that was supposed to get the message. And we didn’t make an effort to tailor the message to them so they could understand it.
Do the requirements of PR leadership vary by type of organization?
>> I think truth and trust and responsibility are still the things that are hallmarks of people who perform well and who succeed in the field.
What can a new professional just entering the field do to help develop their skills as leaders in?
>> I think volunteering for charitable organizations. I think volunteering for a cause you really believe in puts you in the right kind of a framework. If you really believe in Boys and Girls Club or helping children with disabilities, or whatever your cause is, I think work to where your heart is. And I think then the other things are going to naturally follow. Because you’re going to be truthful. You’re going to be dedicated. You’re going to take responsibility for what goes on.
What can college educators do to help develop leadership skills in their students?
>> I think they really need to do what a lot of them have been doing. Finding the right kind of internship that’s right for that student. We can say, well let’s just give them internships. Well, as you know, there are all kinds of internships. There are internships where you really get hands on experience, and really get your hands dirty, or clean, or washed in the field. And I think we need to put them in more real life situations. And sometimes they’re hard to find. They’re very hard to find. And I think part of the job of the educator is to sell the really good organizations on the idea of their responsibility to train future leaders. And get them to take interns in positions that they maybe didn’t think they wanted to do.
Can leadership skills be taught or are is it inherited?
>> I think it’s both. I think it can be taught. I learned from the General. I think there’s an inherent feel that people have certain charisma that attract other people. And I think the leaders also have that kind of an aura about them. People like to be with people who are successful.
And I think you want to be with someone who you think and believe you can follow and you’re going to get somewhere by doing it.
Can you give a concrete example of leadership in practice?
>> I think Betsy Plank in selling the concepts, and I tried to help her. We were at the stage, at PRSA, where only three courses were required for someone to say on a diploma that they had a professional training in Public Relations.
And we thought that needs to be jumped up to at least five or more. And we worked very hard. Now a lot of the people at the assembly weren’t going to vote for it because they thought if we make the requirement five courses in public relations, they’d lose their job.
Or the school would lose its ability to be accredited because they didn’t think they could sell their dean on the importance of five courses. Well, Betsy and I lost the vote the first time it went to the Assembly. And we did some research and investigation to find out why and found out that’s why.
And we came back to it at the next assembly, and I said, Betsy, get your boa, we’re going to sell this one this time. And by golly, Betsy sold that. And it changed the profession because suddenly five courses became six courses and seven courses. And the deans of the journalism schools discovered that that’s right.
That it takes more than just three courses to turn someone into someone who has real qualifications for public relations. So, I think that was a turning point for the whole profession.
What are the crucial issues facing the industry today?
>> I think we’re back to that very critical issue of truth. That’s how ENRON got in trouble, that’s how many companies and organizations got in trouble.
They don’t tell the truth to the shareholders and to their employees. And I found through all kinds of experiences that you’re always better off if you tell the truth. Now sure, there are ways, to tell the truth and there are ways to inoculate the audience as some people call it by telling them ahead of time what they’re going to tell them and everything else.
But I think if you basically tell the truth as you best can, you’re going to succeed.
What’s your best advice about a career in PR to student’s preparing to students who are just entering the work world?
>> Well, after teaching writing at the University of Florida for ten years, I’ll tell you I think writing is the essence. And you need to be able to write all kinds of things, and you need to explore different kinds of writing.
But you also need to follow up your writing of speeches by working with the man who’s going to give the speech, or the lady that’s going to give the speech. Too many times a great speech is written, but whoever is going to give it never practices it and doesn’t read it out loud until they get in front of a podium.
And then they sound like, the cat saw the dog and you know it’s not their speech. So, I used to make a pact with people I was writing speeches for. I did a lot of speech writing. I used to say, look, I’ll write the speech and I’m going to make it sound as much like you as I possibly can, but I need to hear you read me that copy back to make sure what I’ve written sounds like you and the way it sounds when you say it. And by simply doing that, I never said I was going to rehearse, that would have insulted them, but I said, let’s try it.
And then I would change words as we went along every once in a while, I’d say well, let’s change that word, I think you should say this there. So, I tailored the speeches to fit the person like a good tailor can tailor a suit of clothes. It has to fit, and it has to fit properly.
It has to drape just right and has to be appropriate for the setting. And if you can learn to write speeches like that and train the speaker so that he or she could become even more effective at the podium, you don’t have to worry about a job. Somebody once said to one of my bosses, what’s Jack do for you?
And he said, well, number one, he makes the corporation look good. Number two, he makes me look good when I do speeches. And the third thing, he writes the best damn no letters of anybody I’ve ever seen. So, I think writing skills is crucial. That’s why for my contribution, I went back to teaching.
I loved working with the students and helping them hone their skills in writing.
If you were hiring an entry level professional, what factors would most influence your decision making?
>> I’d want to find out something about how dedicated they were. And I would get to that by asking them what kinds of things they had done in high school and young adults that really sort of turned them on.
And I want to see some kind of a spark of dedication with somebody I’m hiring. I think that and I also then will say well okay because of that, what did you do, What did you accomplish. And I would tie responsibility on to that sort of a person who comes with a commitment.
If they’re going to do something, they really are going to do it.
Recorded: March 2007
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