Plank Legends & Leaders: John Reed


With 50 years of successful public relations experience, John Reed had a distinguished career in public relations. Former Chairman of Consultants in Public Relations and the Senior Advisor to BBA Communications, Reed counseled corporations and other organizations on the international view, teaching international public relations. Reed established worldwide PR programs for Olin Corporation, Deere and Company, and Control Date Corporation.

He founded Consultants in Public Relations SA in 1970, which is a worldwide network of public relations agencies serving major multinationals, public relations agencies, governments, associations, and cultural organizations He was an adjunct professor at American University and was the editor of the International Public Relations Review. Reed’s dedication to his career and love of public relations did not go unnoticed.

He received the first PRSA Atlas Award for Lifetime Achievement in International PR and the Gold Anvil Award of the Public Relations Society of America.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> To me it means setting a good example. And teaching by setting a good example. I found in the army the guy who could do it was the guy I’d follow.

Not the guy that told me to do it. I think that being successful is a leadership quality and someone who’s really successful at any profession whether it’s legal or PR Is giving a leadership quality. One of the reasons that they have medical students study surgeons and stand by them during operations is they can see how it’s done.

And that’s a form of leadership. In PR for me, I’ve had the privilege and the job of training people in a lot of countries because my field is international. And in every case, I have found that giving examples and showing and doing Is the best way to teach and that’s what is leadership is then I see it as a form of teaching.

What are the three or four most important characteristics or qualities of excellent leaders in public relations?

>> All the ones I have known, and I’ve known a lot of them. They’ve been characterized by two things, hard work I mean it’s pretty corny to say, but the good performance in PR, hard workers and like it and enjoy their work, and luck. Luck is that intangible that helps a lot.

I’ve known some well-trained PR people who’ve failed because they had some bad luck. Fate. Kismet, whatever you want to call it. So, good training plus good luck.

As a recognized leader in the field, what factors most contributed to your personal success? 

>> If my employers and clients had known how I feel about my work. They wouldn’t have paid me a dime. I’d have paid them.

Because the one characteristic of my career in public relations is I love it. I got up every day and thought, boy what can I do now? Who can I persuade? How am I going to fix that? How do you do that? I mean, I feel like I’ve had a free ride.

Actually, of course, the fact of the matter is I’m quite comfortable and I’m retired and I don’t have to worry. So, you can do that, you can actually retire comfortably after a career in PR. But that’s never been my aim, I just love it, I like it, I’m enthusiastic about it.

I’ve never lost the enthusiasm for it. Students who told me in the classroom, well, you really like this stuff, don’t you? I said, yeah. And if you don’t, better get another trade.

What’s the most powerful learning experience you encountered with respect to leadership in the field?

>> I thought a lot about that question. And after over half a century at it, it’s really hard to segregate and when I remember having sort of moments of oh that’s what happened, that’s how that worked. And or didn’t work. And moments like that are many.

In Korea, the problem was there was virtually no media. The newspaper had been Japanese, the Koreans didn’t want to read Japanese anymore they wanted it to be Korean. Otherwise, it was a nascent situation and not a lot in the way of newspapers.

There was no TV. Radios were not all that plentiful. And the question was how to reach and persuade, IE, do PR with, the Korean population. We studied the Korean people a while. And I had learned the language at the time I was there before, right after World War II in 45-46 which was Japanese, but they didn’t want to speak Japanese anymore they wanted to speak Korean. That’s a tough language. Easy to write hard to deal with, but the easy to write part meant something written in hangul in that language in World War. But the social structure of the Koreans in the villages that there was a chap called the yangban and he was the elder of the village, and he was given respect and was due respect.

And he was not elected, he was just sort of, everybody knew who it was going to be. And the Japanese had done a few things very well in Korea. One of which is to set up a mail system, a postage system. And so, I went to my boss in Seoul.

Why don’t we mail a newspaper to the yangban in every village? Every yangban can read and write, they’re very literate people. He would have the obligation then to read that to the villagers. Who better to carry your message? And so we created a newspaper. Got the pointy heads out of the way and made it simple and mailed it to Korean villages.

The post office was glad to have the business, the mail men were glad to deliver it. The yangban was glad to receive it because that made him important. These people were dirt poor at that time and the villages were glad to have a source of news. That was a great learning experience for me.

The learning experience was don’t be seduced into thinking there’s only one way based on your experience at home to reach people. There are a lot of different ways and find a way that gets your message delivered properly. I thought about that a lot.

Do the requirements of PR leadership vary by type of organization, i.e., corporate vs. agency vs. nonprofit?

>> What’s different in terms of leadership skills, I think, or the values is that we are affected by our publics. Many professions and many callings are not public responsive, or public affected the way we are. We really have to bend and move according to what is the values of the public who they’re trying to persuade.

We don’t have to get them or have those values necessarily ourselves, but we have to empathize with them in order to persuade people. I don’t have to become a Muslim to try to persuade Muslims, but I got to understand how Muslims think, or I don’t have to become a woman to persuade women.

What I have to understand, so we really have to understand the audiences’ values.

Name one individual whom you believe to be the most outstanding leader in the field today. What makes this individual such an outstanding leader? 


The first name that comes to mind is a man who died not long ago, name Jack Acuda Vejac, who was French. Acuda Vejac he and his wife fled Paris when the Germans invaded in World War II and fled south to Spain where they were put in a camp.

Eventually got loose and- Through the Underground Railway boats they got to England. Where Acuda Vejac joined the exiled government of- Of the President and became his spokesman. Apparently, on the basis that Jack was superb in English, and not a lot of French people are. They rather think everyone should speak French.

Acuda Vejac stayed with the President, landed with him, marched with him down the and all the rest. And then, realized he wanted to be in PR, came to the States and work for PR, a couple of PR agencies to learn how to do it. And then, went back to Paris and opened his own agency.

It became the leading agency in Paris. Coop as we called him and I became friends, good friends over many years. And I just admired him from a distance the way he was honest, straightforward and terribly insightful on how to persuade the French to do whatever it was that came down the road.

I mean he got the French to eat hamburgers Big Macs. And he had the French do a lot of things that you would think were contrary to French, right? But he was good. He was just plain good at his work. I view the really outstanding PR man of history as a young Italian named Antonio Pigafetta.

P-i-g-a-f-e-t-t-a. Pigafetta is a young Italian who have a good family, but his parents die and his uncle got him a visit to the Vatican to go to the Pope and say, give me a job. He was a cleverer student and a good writer. So, the Pope said, well go with the delegation I’m sending to Spain.

That made him International right off, I liked him from the beginning. He went to Spain and he was in the, he was secretary to the archbishop who was the papal nuncio to Spain. And when one day, they called, the nuncio called him in and said I’ve got a letter here.

There’s a guy named Columbus, a guy named Magellan, I should say, Magellan. Who’s going to make a trip he claims, maybe around the world and we ought to have somebody on that trip. Sort of like a spy and somebody to keep to make a recording of it. So Pigafetta said I’m your guy, I really liked him again because he was adventurous.

He goes to down to Southern Spain, near Seville, Valladolid in fact, and joins. And Magellan says I don’t need anybody from the church following me around the world. And Pigafetta said that yeah, I’ve got a piece of paper over here, that says you’re going to have to take me.

And besides, he said, I’m pretty clever I’ll keep the log and write you a good story about the trip. Says Magellan, good idea. So, he was hired on as the log keeper and he sailed off with the five ships that left Spain. And they sailed across the Atlantic, and they went down the coast of Brazil, and they went along the coast of Argentina, and everywhere they went Pigafetta got off the boat and he wrote down words of the local vocabulary.

Everybody else was looking for fruit to eat, and nuts and then animals to eat, and fresh water. Pigafetta was looking for the languages. Finally, of course, one ship sank, another was deserted, and three got around the bottom of South America, and sailed off across the endless Pacific, and didn’t do too well.

Two of them made it. And they landed in the Philippines, what later became the Philippines the Island of Cebu, and the Island of Cebu Magellan Got off the boat tried to mediate a quarrel between two local chiefs. One of them named Lapu-lapu with Pigafetta standing beside him, and Magellan was killed.

The others hustled back on the ship and sailed off and continued and eventually completed the trip around the bottom of Africa and up. Took almost three years. And when they landed in Spain they all went to church to give thanks, and then they went up to their respective homes and so on.

Pigafetta went up to the the bishop that had sent him in the first place and made a report. They were thrilled. And the bishop said you better go up to Germany where they can print books, and you better write a book about this. This is exciting. So Pigafetta first sent out a kind of press release of the day, a short account, and then he wrote the book with the cooperation of, I won’t mention all the people.

But anyway he got it published, which was the first notice to the world that the world is round. This was the first ship that had gone around the world, and he was one who announced it to the world. That’s a big press release. It took a book. And then he went to Rome, to Italy, and after some months he got bored and went to the Pope and said, I need another job.

I like this guy. Pope said, well I got trouble down in the Mediterranean. They had people hiding down there having trouble with the pirates and with Arabs. Killing them, does that sound familiar? And for, what is the name of the island? Not Malta, but I forgot the name of the island.

Anyway, Pigafetta went down there to do PR for the order of monks that was trying to hold the island, and there he was killed. Pigafetta’s life is an outstanding example for me of international PR because he published in his book these glossaries of languages. The first time Europeans had ever seen or, if you’re going to try and do PR, you better have the words to do it with.

He made the words. He understood that. He had a terrific sense of it, and so he’s my personal international PR hero. The differences are the nature of the organization. Corporations are structural, and they involve large departments, usually, and levels of management. And agencies are independent and deal with clients within organizations, but don’t have to be going up and down the list.

You have to really know what makes people tick and you have like that. You have to like what’s different or what’s the same about people and what makes them tick because you’re trying to alter their behavior. Public relations is concerned with altering the behavior by altering the thinking to start with.

Vote Democratic, or vote Republican. Eat vanilla ice cream and not chocolate, and so on and so forth. And so you need that kind of study and curiosity. Learn languages. One isn’t enough. Even if you only work in English, learn languages. Our language, English, is derivative from other languages, from German, from Latin, and from French, and so forth.

Study languages. All of the work of PR, virtually all of the work of PR, is done in language. Don’t limit the teaching to mechanics. Don’t limit it to how to indent the page for a press release. Don’t limit it to formalities or little formalities of how to take a poll and so on, but get broader.

And thus, you’ll interest the students more, and it’s the interested students that’ll have the best chances in the field. And the ones who become excited about it, gee, I want to do that, are the ones that are energized by the teacher. I don’t think it can be taught. I think it’s inherent.

There are many kinds of leaders, people who lead by example and those who lead by by power. But I think innately, leaders rise like cream in a bottle of milk to the top, and I don’t think that can be taught. Practice, practice, practice. You get to be a leader in an organization by practice, by serving on a committee, and become the vice-chairman of the committee, and then becoming the chairman of the committee.

That’s a terrific way to learn how to lead, and that applies in PR, for sure. I’ve seen young people go in and graduate, dismiss themselves or separate themselves from from the organizations. But those who go in and take an active part and move up into committees and so forth de facto become leaders.

And I think that’s terrific. Any biography of someone who’s successful that you admire. I think that the biographies are the best resource materials. There are biographies of charlatans, like Ed Bernays, to name a few, and there are biographies of serious people, autobiographies. And I think they are very helpful.

Tom Martin has a new one out. He was president of the Arthur Page Society. But biography. Don’t think of a diploma as the end of learning, because in PR you’ve got to keep learning. I mean it’s not like the times table. Three times one is always going to be three, but in PR, society changes, people change, conditions change.

So when you get your degree, whether it’s a bachelor’s degree or a master’s or even a Ph.D., keep studying. Keep that curiosity and that interest in learning. That’s the best advice I can give. I give that advice all the time. Find ways to hone your skills further and further.

This is not a skill set that you have in PR that’s in the box and there it is. You have to keep sharpening it and keep sharpening it because we’re working in society and society goes like this. Society really changes, and when you live as long as I have, you know how far it’s changed.

What’s on the radio today as far different from what was on the radio when I was a boy. And yet it’s a radio, and so I have to be up to date on what are the mores and the current cultural trends that shape the audiences I have to persuade as a professional.

Recorded: November 2005

More from John Reed: