Thursday, May 20, 2010

50 years ago


The word instantly suggests someone who is your equal: In ability, qualifications, social status, age, background and so on. In Great Britain and Ireland, a peer is any member of the five degrees of nobility. (What are the degrees? See below).

In the profession of public relations, we thoroughly enjoy our peers. Why? There are multiple reasons:
  • We share common traits and similar daily challenges

  • We're equally motivated to represent clients and carry out campaigns

  • We constantly seek opportunities to meet, to share ideas or to commiserate

The last reason my father knew well. To Robert B. Wolcott Jr., the value of his peers was very clear. As the founder of his own public relations agency, "Bob" Wolcott had two peer groups: Fellow CEOs at the many companies he represented and fellow PR executives.

The first peer group was critical to his business. CEOs at major national and international firms like Voit Rubber, Westin Hotels, General Telephone, MGM, Sunkist, Bank of America and others had to believe that Bob was one of them. It was critically important for a "PR Man" (As they were known back then) to earn the trust of a CEO. Like now, public relations was under scrutiny for its value to a company. So, Bob had to demonstrate he was part of the CEO peer group. That meant Bob had to talk and act just like a CEO. He had to understand the complexities of running a company, from the outside forces that influenced corporate decision making to knowing who to trust as your lieutenants to making the right hires. That's why, for example, he joined the major business clubs, like Los Angeles' famed California Club. Within these walnut-walled, high ceiling halls, Fortune 500 executives mingled with business objectives in mind. It was a place to be seen, to interact among your peers, and to make deals happen. Bob also insisted that he had direct access to CEOs at his client companies. His advice and strategy must be shared with the most important decision maker - directly, at an executive-to-executive level. A direct meeting was the only way to clearly demonstrate his full value to a client company. It was a business rule that served him well - both in building a respectable client base for his company, and later in life when he was a solo practitioner and being hired directly by CEOs for his counsel.

The second peer group was equally important. More than a half-century ago, the top 100 public relations executives in the United States knew each other very well because they created a "club" called the PR Seminar. As a peer group, they sought a special type of annual gathering with the appropriate level of programing. If you are running a PR agency or a communications division at a major corporation, your issues are much different than, say, what is facing the account supervisor at an agency. World events, public policy and economic indicators were - and remain - more important to the executives and their daily decision-making.

Consider this entry in my father's journal about why he enjoyed the annual PR Seminar peer group meetings:

"...I've always labeled them as a 21/2-day brain stretcher. Why? The subject matter was rarely about public relations. The sessions were devoted to all sorts of corporate subjects, government activities and the like....we had speakers the likes of Don Rumsfield, Don Moynihan, Reg Jones - GE's CEO, famed NY Times Editor Scotty Reston and many more. I remember an engrossing 3-hour session led by Art Miller, the widely respected Harvard Law professor."

And another reason:

"Another major benefit was mixing with your peers. I can't tell you how many times I got calls from (peers) asking me about people, organizations, etc., in this area. I, in turn, could always call them. One time, a client was having difficulty getting to the right person at Kodak. So, I called Dave Metz, the SVP of PR, and he gave me the name and that immediately removed my client's roadblock problem."

Fifty years ago, Bob Wolcott created the Public Relations Society of America's "Counselors Academy" so executive members of PRSA had their own peer group. Back then, PRSA needed this "club" to compete with similar peer groups such as the PR Seminar, the Arthur Page Society, the National Investor Relations Institute and others.

Forming the Counselors Academy probably helped my father's path to becoming PRSA's president in 1966. Counselors was the first "special section" to be created within PRSA. Today, PRSA has 16 sections, covering various specialties and peer groups from Sports and Entertainment to Technology to Public Affairs. It was inevitable to see more sections. The public relations profession has grown in substantial numbers over the past 50 years, so it is only natural that we seek a way to remain within the "right sized" peer group that cater to our specialty(ies).

As they gather in North Carolina this week for the annual Counselors Academy conference, my colleagues will be seeking the same thing my father did 50 years ago. A once-a-year opportunity to exchange ideas among peers and an opportunity to "stretch one's brain" away from the daily grind of running an agency or division. Nestled within the dense Pisgah National Forest among the Appalachian hills, there will be CEOs of well known PR agencies, solo counselors, the heads of major PR departments within corporations - all networking and seeking knowledge to be better company executives and communication professionals. (Sadly, I couldn't make it).

As a relative newcomer to Counselors, I am just getting started with a new group. I know there is a lot to look forward to - from my peers. Already, I've made many new important friends across the country. I've called on them, and they've called on me. I've been encouraged to be more entrepreneurial. I've been exposed to all sort of new ways to think like an executive. Thanks, dad, for making this happen.

Trivia answer: Five degrees of nobility are: duke, marquis, earl, viscount and baron.


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