PR Legend: Jack Felton*


This post is part of The Plank Center’s Legacies from Legends in PR Series that was begun in recognition of the 40th Anniversary of the Public Relations Student Society of America in 2007.Felton Ph

President and CEO Emeritus, Institute for Public Relations. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan, Felton has held leadership roles at three Fortune 500 companies. Served as national president of PRSA–twice.  Later, was Distinguished Visiting Professor at University of Florida and president and CEO of the Institute of Public Relations. Authored two books, eight published plays and is currently writing a musical for his grandchildren called, “Why Daniel Wouldn’t Join the Lions’ Club.”

A reporter asked my boss Harry Wells: “As a mechanical engineer, how did you get to be the president and later, chairman of the board of a big Fortune 500 company like McCormick Spice with operations in 85 countries?”

Harry smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said: “I simply tried to do every job they gave me, better than anyone had ever done it before, and one day they asked me to be president.”

That “be the best” attitude is a formula for success in public relations or any career. Learning how to ask the right questions also is critical for success in public relations. I don’t mean just asking the typical journalism questions of Who? What? How? When? Where? and Why? I mean other questions specific for public relations, such as:

  • How might we do…whatever we need to do?
  • What do we need to know?
  • What if…something goes wrong?
  • Is it the right thing to do?
  • Will what we do make a difference?
  • And always the final question: Did I do my best?

The “how might we?” question brings much more creativity and imagination than asking “what can we do?” According to psychologists, the word “can” limits discussion while “might” opens almost limitless possibilities.

“Might” led us to ask if we could make the annual report for McCormick Spice Company smell like a spice. It took us three years to find a way, but when we did we had the first annual report that really smelled! The wide publicity we received helped the investment community understand which of several companies named McCormick we were. Some 30 years later, investment firms and reporters still have contests trying to guess which spice the report will smell like each year.

“What do we need to know?” is a basic research question. What data on this subject is already available, and what new research do we need before we attempt this project?

Asking “what if” prompts consideration of what do we do if it rains out an outdoor event?  What if the honored speaker or guest doesn’t arrive or get there on time? “What if” is one of the backup questions smart planners always ask.

“Is what we are doing the right thing to do?” is a question about ethics. It involves not doing bad things for good reasons, or doing good things for bad reasons. It asks if what you plan to do is appropriate, fair, legal and uses good moral judgment.

The “make a difference” question tests if a project or event will serve a useful purpose, fill a special need or benefit the buyer or the community.

The last question, “Did I/we do our best?” asks how our performance measured up against our stated objectives and professional standards.

Using these basic questions can help ensure your future success in public relations.

What will the future be? No one knows. However, we do know it will be filled with many unexpected changes. What won’t change in public relations? These values:

  • The value of telling the truth. Truth is always wise and in style:
  • The need for creativity and imagination; both are always in demand;
  • Persistence–keep on trying new things;
  • Ethics–it builds trust and keeps good reputations;
  • Stewardship–maintaining good relationships is critical; and finally,
  • A keen sense of humor because from my experience in the business of public relations, you never know what’s gonna’ happen next!

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Published: 2007
*Deceased (1929-2013)

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