John R. Budd, Jr.
John Budd, a former Emhart executive, is founder and chairman of the Omega Group, a New York-based public relations “think tank.” He began his career as the lowest paid writer at Carl Byoir and Associates, and 30 years later, in 1991, when he left the company, he was vice chairman. Budd is founding fellow of PR’s College of Fellows and is a columnist and author of the invitation-only Observation newsletter.
Budd has received PRSA’s Gold Anvil and 8 Silver Anvils.
Interviewer: Well, good morning Mr. Budd.
Budd: Good morning.
Interviewer: It is April 9 and it’s around 9:30 in the morning, April 9, 2008 and we are sitting at Porter Novelli in New York City. And Mr. Budd has agreed to spend a little time with us and talk about his history and his thoughts on public relations. So let’s start at the beginning and take a look at how you selected a career in public relations. You started at Carl Byoir but I think there were some things that happened before that. Can you talk about any previous experience that may have influenced your career path? And then while at Byoir, did you face any challenges during the transitions that you made from staff writer vice chair. I know you left Byoir you left and went to Emhart. Tell us a little bit about that whole time of your life.
Budd: Well when you look back you put things in a different focus than when you are doing and you can see what you were doing that you didn’t see when you were doing it. So I guess I was inevitably headed where I went, in college. I went to Hofstra. It was a college now it’s a university. I majored in political science and sociology minored in history and then came in contact with an academic powerbroker of a type I’m sure you’re familiar with. I am sure you are familiar with Joseph Rouceck. The head of the department of sociology. I am essentially an introvert. You may not believe that but I am. So the first two years at, Hofstra was a small school at that time. It was very uneventful but I liked sociology and Rouchek had a habit of singling out somebody in class who was getting an A and making he or her, him or her his protégé, really his lackey. And he picked me. He gave me no benefits really, because I still had to participate in class but he pushed me into things I wouldn’t normally have done on my own initiative. He wanted me to be editor of the newspaper so he could get publicity. He wanted me to be president of the international club because he thought it would be good for him, and so on and so forth. I found I didn’t object to all of that. I kind of liked doing different things. So I guess I was finding out that I had a little entrepreneurship in myself that I didn’t recognize. So then I went out. My first job was something called Northeast Airlines. Little feeder line from New England to the Cape and so on. It didn’t amount to much. We were just really goodwill ambassadors going around calling on people to remind them of Northeast. They didn’t give two hoots about Northeast except they wanted to get to Cape Cod in the summer and they couldn’t get flights so they were nice to me. I got bored with that and I answered an ad in the paper for a publicity job. It was then called the Museum of Science and Industry, which was at 30 Rockefeller Plaza right in the heart of that building and it had been, the Museum of Science and Industry, it had been popular at one time but at that time it stagnated. They had scientific displays and it was really pretty awful so the trustees hired an unemployed 20th Century Fox producer to come in and do things. He created events, like an exhibition of Jo Davidson sculpture. But his big moneymaker was photographic exhibitions and I was hired to publicize that and also create things within. Make things happen. I got the idea one time to bring in a car so that models could pose in it for the photographers, the amateurs and another friend of mine was doing freelance publicity for something called the Barbizon School of Models. So we worked out a deal that he would make these girls available if we gave them the photographs because they all needed portfolios. Well the only car I could get into the museum was a car called the Willys. It was like small Chryslers these days. And I found out that the agency handling Willys was called Byoir. I just called and this young guy showed up who was sort of a staffer on the account and his name was Joe Connolly. And he was like I was. He was a bachelor. Same age. We immediately liked each other and he was an organizer, an operator, as we would say. He said, I’ll have to get you into Carl Byoir. We want to work together. We’ll just call Mark. He said it was public relations. What the hell is that? Don’t worry. So we spent the morning talking about how I could finesse my way in. But that’s how I got in. I had no idea what public relations was. All I knew was that it was more free-wheeling than any other job. See I turned down my father who wanted me to go into the family publishing business. But his specialty was income tariffs, custom duties, and he started with a 25-cent magazine sort of like a Zagat’s survey but half the size, and built it up into a 400 or 500 page a huge book. The state department bought about a thousand each year. Then he had a monthly magazine called Import and Export Bulletin and then he had another one called Air Transportation. But it was all too boring to me. So I had to do it on my own in a different way. I suppose I disappointed him. I was assigned to the Hallmark account which wasn’t’ called Hallmark at that time. It was called Hall Brothers, because the founders of Hallmark were the three Halls. And I was the youngest and certainly the cheapest person ever hired by Byoir at that time, I think I got $50 a week, and Byoir was with Hill and Knowlton as the two top PR firms in that particular area. We’re going back a long time, sixty years. They never took an account less than one year. You paid a fee, which was handsome in those days, and all that entitled you to as a client, is access to the top brass of Byoir. If you called once or a hundred times it was still them. Then if you wanted Carl Byoir to do anything, you created a staff, and a staff would be just an account executive and a secretary, which the client paid for or in some cases 10, 15, people. Honeywell had about 25. So I was a staff writer really a staff publicist at Hallmark . At one point in time I complained about the difficulty of getting credit for Hallmark in stories. You have to write such and such according to so and so at Hall Brothers makers of Hallmark cards and it was much too long for the media, so I got them to approve or through the account executive, not me. I got them to approve our use of the word Hallmark and not Hall Brothers and of course that is what it is today. And that was a lot of fun because I dealt mostly at Christmas time because that meant I dealt with Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali. People like that because they were the links to publicity. You have to they were we didn’t do hard news, it was soft news. I remember being invited up to Dali’s apartment. He thought I was an access to J. C. Hall and he wanted to sell Hall another painting and he was trying to use me as a lever. But I remember Grandma Moses, she was a willy-old gal. Handled by a real canny Austrian agent. We’d go up to her house and in the living room along the wall are all these pieces of plywood with green and white, grass and sky. She was a one-woman production machine. And this Austrian, who was her agent would really tell us that stuff. And she was great and she was in Eagle Bridge, New York, and across the way in Vermont was Norman Rockwell. And our access to or my access to him was at Christmas time. Hall, who always had an eye for quality, had the rights to their paintings for Christmas cards. That was fun, so that was my early career. After that, I worked on Honeywell, which was then called, if you can believe it, Minneapolis Heat Regulator Company. But the product was Honeywell so in the course of the evolution they changed their name to Honeywell and I guess I did publicity work, maybe half a dozen years or more, and enjoyed it, but I was totally intimidated when I got in the environment found out who I was with. I was surrounded by former editors, anchors, magazine writers, byline authors. I said dear God they are going to get me sooner or later. And they’d call me upstairs and say young man we are sorry but we may not stay. So every Friday and I remember this vividly and it has a bearing on the rest of my life, so every Friday I didn’t get a call, I said I got another week. Well what that did, I was not a good writer, believe me, absolutely not. Byoir had at that time and I don’t think it’s ever been duplicated even today an editor who was a former newsman came from Indiana and he had absolute power to reject. Well every story had to go through him. Couldn’t do it today because the paper is too big. He had the absolute power to reject anything for lack of news, lack of interest, poor spelling, poor writing, whatever and there was no appeal and the worst thing you could say to him was well that’s the way the client wants it and then you were dead in the water. Because I thought I was in there on a pass, I wrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote little stories, long stories and he took a shine to me I guess, because I showed so much eagerness, and so he helped me. But going beyond what is asked became a habit. And that’s really what I’ve done ever since. You know, I’m accused of being against the status quo, which I am. Conventional wisdom, which I am and what I like then about the business and I was happy as a clam doing publicity. I loved the contest with the editors, who in those days really had it in for PR people because they thought we got more money than they did which was true. Not me but the senior people and it was sort of like selling out. And what you had to do was to give them something that was more interesting and better or as well written as they would do it, to substitute for what they had written, and for which they are getting paid. So it was a daily contest and it wasn’t a boring minute. I enjoyed it immensely and as I look back, I probably had more fun and more enjoyment and satisfaction in those days doing just plain publicity. And I publicized over my somewhat long career greeting cards, Bibles, rivets, warplanes, thermostats, I mean the most prosaic products you can think of. But I did it and we did it successfully and I enjoyed it. So then I go to Byoir. Over the time I’ve won, we had an internal competition on writing awards. I made a good point to win as many as I could. I kind of liked that because I was competing against really good people who probably didn’t pay much attention to it but I did. Finally I became an accounts supervisor. We were very thin on titles, none of this global baloney. And I had staff under me who were writers and then became a senior what they called a senior counselor. And Byoir changed over the years from a meritocracy to a bureaucracy and I didn’t like that and I didn’t agree with the then chief executive and I had been dealing with a small company in Connecticut called Emhart. Basically what I was doing was just going up there maybe a couple; times a year to help them with their annual report, quarter reports and do an occasional analyst meeting. Emhart itself became a white knight for a huge English company called British United. British United was a goliath that covered the world with every kind of conceivable machinery to make shoes. But they had been accused and indicted for monopoly and in the process of adjusting to that they made a lot of foolish and ill thought out acquisitions and became virtually bankrupt in the United States although there were profitable abroad and they were attacked by an unwholesome raider and they turned to Emhart which they had known about was sort of their kind of people. So Emhart bought them. Now Emhart, yet a British United, called then USM, was two-thirds larger than Emhart but Emhart bought them. And in the process I said to the then chairman of Emhart who I said I was seeing occasionally, your life is going to change, you no longer can get by with this ad hoc PR operation, you are going to have to more. You are going to be asked questions when you don’t want to be asked. You are a big company now. You are multinational. You have problems. Half of your shareholders are abroad who are bilingual. Your people only read the Hartford Current. Half your employees are abroad. So he said well what do I do about it? Well I said you can do several things. You can hire a PR person full time, which I was now. You can promote someone from within, which you can’t, because you don’t have anybody. Or maybe I might do it. He said I was waiting for you to say that. So, I as I said, I got bored, my wife said it’s a bad, bad, bad decision. You are too inpatient to get along on the corporate world and in a couple of cases she was right. But, so I created whatever constituted public relations there. They, they didn’t know what it was, anymore than most CEOs do today. So I wrote my own job description. And I knew the people pretty well. They were a bunch of penny pinching Yankees so my job description, which they thought was admirable, was Mr. Budd will conduct public relations and do such other duties as requested by the chairman. Now that may not mean much to you but what it did was give me total elbowroom. I did interpret what I was doing anyway I damn pleased because I had no restrictions. And it worked. It was a very small staff. Created newspaper, which I insist was not a house organ because we never interviewed the CEO. We didn’t make any pleas. We talked to him on a story. It was run by a former newsman; we had editorial cartoons, outside photographers. It was in English, even although we had 30 linemen abroad. It had high credibility. I have since told the younger colleagues that it was a lever that I used to open up the company because they understood the newspaper. They understand public relations. So I said we’ve got to put it in the newspaper. They reluctantly agreed. Something they would have never done if I said it would be public relations process. They never understood that. Let me see what happened then next. It well I was kicked out at 65 because the senior officers have to retire at that age, came back briefly to the PR business, but after 11 years. I felt like Rip Van Winkle. They hadn’t improved just gotten bigger, but they were still doing the same damn things so I endured that for a while, then I decided that I didn’t like it. I created my own little operation based on three premises. One I thought overhead was penalizing public relations. They charged too damn much. Two I felt their arrogance in thinking that they had a solution to every problem was wrong, I think of a good public relations executive as a quarterback. He’s not the whole damn team. And also they were all so terribly left-brain oriented no right-brain, so that’s what I did. But I like it. And I have been doing it ever since.
Interviewer: And this is the Omega group?
Budd: A virtual agency. I brought one of the pieces of stationery that I had in those days. It’s here somewhere. These people, I knew them all, and what we had, the relationship we had was philosophical, not legal. They were all active in the specialties that you see. The agreement was that any time that I had need for their kind of expertise and if they were available they would work them with me under the umbrella of Omega. And what it did, it gave me as an individual an enormous range of capabilities.
Interviewer: This is an interdisciplinary team approach?
Interviewer: Can I tape this?
Budd: Of course, of course. Some of these people are dead now. That was the concept and it worked reasonably well, not perfectly. Reasonably well. I think if I had to do it over again I would not have made it so voluntary. I would have tied a little more conscientiously by giving them a modest fee, or something. But I didn’t want to get involved in that. As I said I know them all. Knew them all and it was a relief. At one point, you can have this. I summarized. I wanted to see what I was doing. I summarized the work from when we started in 1990, and this is an accounting in 2003. This is not typed very well but that’s all right. Because the copy, in that period in 1990 to 2003, ten of these people were engaged 21 times in projects. So to that degree it worked. What those projects were is all in here. I don’t know what you do with written material. You may have that. Then I also created at that time an imprint service, which is Turtle (Publishing Company). The reason for Turtle, when I left Byoir, I was determined not to have a going away party, I was mad, but I had my own. What I created it was the ‘Select Order of the Turtle’. A turtle does not move until he sticks his neck out. Obvious right? So I selected in my judgment a dozen people who I had worked with, some at Byoir some not, as initial honorees and we gave them a little ceramic turtle on a mahogany base. And over the years I’ve honored people just maybe they don’t think it’s an honor, we give wonderful certificates, you know, on parchment, all that baloney. I remember I gave one to David Ogilvy because I’ve always admired him. Oh he said that’s wonderful. I’ll put it in my loo. I guess that’s where he hung all those awards. So that was fun. And I have used. Then I used as an imprint service because before my first book I had outlined a book on credibility. I had written a sample chapter. I had a complete marketing plan because I knew it was a niche book. All my books are niche books. I knew exactly who to go after and I was working with an editor at McGraw-Hill who was younger than I. Almost everybody I worked with was younger than I this is a long time ago. And she kept finessing me and rewriting it and I said she doesn’t know what the hell this is all about. So I got tired. So I decided I’d do it myself. I had a good friend who was the editor of a very successful weekly up in Connecticut but more importantly he had two big offset presses. I had good friend who is in that list there who was a wonderful graphics man. So I put together a little cottage industry and I rewrote. I wrote the book. And I found out it was easy when I didn’t have to worry about anybody looking at it editing it but myself and that was Street Smart in Public Relations. And I promoted the hell out of it. Sent out fortune cookies appropriately with, and I also sent out to “a select list,” a velvet pouch with six pebbles in it and a ping-pong ball. And a little daguerreo that said throw the ping-pong ball in the water and nothing much happens. Throw the pebbles and see the waves. I built it on that and the proceeds from that book have subsequently underwritten some of the others. And all I ever look for in the various books that I’ve done, here’s some of them, is break even. Because I like to write now and so just keep proliferating. I have one. I don’t have all that I should have because I had a huge inventory at home in Connecticut and the house burned to the ground. So did all my records, and all my inventory. That was several years ago. If we had been at home and not in our New York apartment, I wouldn’t be talking to you. When I say to the ground. I mean flat. Flat. It was a ten-room house on 15 acres. Any rate, what’s your next question?
Interviewer: Well since you mentioned Street Smart Public Relations, let’s talk about that for a minute. In that book you talked about the four R's of PR. Reading, Writing, Realism, and Results.
Budd: Okay I keep making them up: reading, writing, relevance I think I would say now.
Interviewer: Tell me about that. Before you had four. Reading, writing, realism, and results and now reading, writing, relevance. What has happened? Why has that changed?
Budd: Well no particular reason, just as I look at what is going on, I see different priorities. Reading I don’t think today that the people in the business read period, or read broadly enough. They’ll tell you they read the Wall Street Journal or Business Week and that’s not what it’s all about. When I have several times I’ve been engaged to help a client hire an agency or something like that. And we sit down and we talk and they come in with all their hyperbole and bluster. I just ask them. What do you read? It’s very revealing. What do you really read? And it’s so limited. Really. How can they assume any relevance to their counsel to business, basically what is the bottom of it, if they don’t get into the mentality, the rhythm, the worries of business people. Reading PR Week is not going to help you. Then I will also ask them, “Tell me when you failed? What? Failed. So what did you do about it?” Now at Carl Byoir that’s another thing I learned there. There was no such thing as failure. Obviously things didn’t always work but that meant that you had to work harder, what we called the second effort. I mean I have had such things happen at a press conference when the press bus drives up and nobody gets out. Well I’ll tell you, your career flashes before your eyes, but ten days later or two weeks later we had more publicity in a particular event through other means. Now in those days we had well I guess I was going to say we have had more media to deal with. We had things like the Western Newspaper Union but now you have the electronic versions so I guess it breaks even. Somebody said I can’t quote who. You have to have some failures in life to really achieve anything. I would add to that only if you look at failure as an opportunity and a beginning, not an end. So writing I have no patience for any account executive agency, or in the corporate world, who brings in a speech writer to write the boss’s speech. They do it for two reasons. They won’t admit it. One they consider it dangerous. They maybe can’t write well enough and they don’t want to expose their weakness. They want to have someone else to blame. But they don’t understand that if assuming you can write reasonably well, you get into the CEO or whoever, the boss’s head, in a way you could not ever otherwise. And then in the terms of the CEO and you are doing that for him or her, you become closer to their wife or husband because you are helping them in a moment which they are most uncomfortable. If it works, if you’ve done a good job. Boy, I had early in my career, I got into meetings that I had no right to be in only because he wanted me there because he knew I would have to write and he wanted me to know about it. So how they can give up such a golden opportunity to really establish their relationships with their boss I don’t know. Of course, they will tell you and I am sure you will hear it. How close they are to the CEO, because we have instant access. That’s a lot of baloney. There’s a difference I don’t deny that they see the CEO more regularly than we did in the early days or certainly I did when I was a staffer. But the difference between being called in to report, being called in to get an assignment, versus coming in to chat to ask advice before something is done not what you are going to do afterwards. So access has to be really examined. So the reading, the writing, and if you don’t do anything that relates to whatever this company is counting on you is not relevant. Why the hell are you doing it? One of the chairmen I worked for said I am not real sure what he is doing but I know he has a reason. I’m serious. So that’s how Street Smart worked out.
Interviewer: You mentioned, let’s talk about your personal philosophy and what you believe are necessary characteristics and qualities for the PR professional. Now, let’s start with descriptors that I have found either before your name or following your name or from individuals who were writing about you. Whatever and some of them mentioned and there are some other ones. Curmudgeon.
Budd: Oh yeah, do you realize that Bill Buckley who was a curmudgeon. There’s a book out, World Class Curmudgeons. A little, small little book. Among those listed is Buckley, George Will, and so on, so I consider, as a matter of fact, one of the books I am going to write one of these days I got halfway done, Curmudgeonly Speaking it is going to be called and I am going to try to change the definition of curmudgeon. You can’t change definitions very easily. The definition in all the dictionaries is along the lines of what you’re talking about, irritating contrarian and so forth, doesn’t like anybody. Curmudgeons can’t stand hypocrisy. Curmudgeons want to know why. They are not satisfied with conventional wisdom. I think of curmudgeons in the context of all the positive things not the negative. Yeah I think of all curmudgeon contrary to iconoclast.
Interviewer: You also wrote an article, I think you spent a lot of time talking about the word ‘why’. The power of why? Yes?
Budd: Why am I doing this? Why am I doing it today? Why can’t I do it better? It’s a very personal thing. If you adopt the philosophy of that and apply it to yourself silently, you will do a lot better. Years and years ago IBM had a slogan called Think. Do you remember that? Okay, the psychology of that always fascinated me because it created. They hoped it created. I think it did the perception that their people were more intellectual than the competitors. They had a magazine and they had placards all over the place. I have tried unsuccessfully to get a couple of clients to adopt “why” in the same context. And then just think about it, ‘”why” spread throughout an agency. The immersion in that three letter word could be extraordinary.
Interviewer: All right so let’s
Budd: Why am I here?
Budd: I may die soon, l hope not.
Interviewer: So you mentioned that you were an enemy of the status quo and a pronounced foe of conventional wisdom, you’ve also been described as PR’s devil’s advocate, so…
Budd: Well look. I know sooner or later we’re going to get to communications but public relations, in my estimation, is a very flexible discipline because it addresses, and should address at least, a lot of intangible factors which are subjective. You can’t set down formulas. There’s nothing pro forma about a good all around public relations practice. First of all it’s not a profession. You know it can never be a profession until there are standards of entry and discipline for violations, of which we have none. Anybody can call themselves, so I, there’s too much self worth promotion among the practitioners. They are not professionals. But you can have principles and standards of performance but not formulas. I don’t think. That’s one of the things that always attracted me to it because every client and every situation is different just like the fingerprints of people are different. And you build up a storehouse of experiences but then you tailor them to what is going on. You don’t just change the name and a release and put a client’s name in, but they do. The young people who are now older and getting a pass in terms of influential involvement I think.
Interviewer: Well, what can you do about that?
Budd: I mean promoting a nudist colony is not exactly what I call public relations. You read, if you read PR Week, which I look at only to keep a finger on trends, it is all job changes, client acquisitions. It’s the philosophy currently, that lateral movement enhances a career. I don’t agree to that unless if the lateral move involves different responsibilities. There’s something to be said for that. But it doesn’t usually. The weakness of it is lack of stability. You can get bored in this business believe me. You have to fight that. I have been bored many times. Part of the reason I’ve written so many books and articles is out of boredom. You know you can’t be on all cylinders all the time.
Interviewer: You mentioned earlier, it might have been before we started rolling the camera, the relevance of liberal studies, the arts, social sciences…
Budd: Oh, well I mean as an academic you’d understand that. What liberal arts brings to you is curiosity, examples from history. It really makes your right brain work. The left-brain orientation is part of the problem chief executives have these days. Their entire career, if you think about it, has been measured quantitatively, in college marks, in business school marks, then they start a professional career in business and return on investment, profit margin, whatever it might be. It’s all marks. Then they become a CEO and they find out, much to their horror or dismay, that their performance is also being measured by non-measurable financial factors, integrity, trust, credibility. What is this stuff? They are very uncomfortable with it. Because everything they’ve done in the past has been concrete in one way or another. But now they are being. I mean there have been CEOs who have been discharged for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to do the business side. I can mention several. Carla Fiorina, at Hewlett Packard, an arrogant female that one of the first things she did in this sort of family oriented company is take down the portrait of the founder David Packard and put her own up. She got fired. They don’t say it that way, but she did. She made speeches about herself. Some of the policies that she started are being executed, so from a business point of view she was on the mark. On the cultural traditional point of view, the board should never have brought in a person like that who was so antithesis of the culture of Hewlett Packard. Then you have a guy like Bob Nardelli of Home Depot who grew up under Jack Welch, which is supposed to be anointing as sainthood. What people don’t remember was that Jack Welch served in General Electric for 20 years, which is extraordinary. But in 20 years you can change your reputation. And at least half of that he was on his Jack the Knife, very negative. So Nardelli shows his disdain for the shareholders by telling the board you don’t have to come to the annual meeting. The few that did show up, when they asked a question, he said no next question. Ask the next question whatever. He got fired. He should never have been in a public company. He was not a nice person. Now some of the policies that he instituted are going on. Then you have a guy like Stanley O’Neal of Merrill Lynch. Now I don’t want to say I’m a whiz at sociology or psychology, but when you have a CEO who belongs to four country clubs, is an avid golfer who prefers to play alone just like bowling alone. You have to say to yourself. Wait a minute. Something is missing here. It was a manifestation of his insecurity. He picked subordinates who were subordinate. He didn’t pick talent. He didn’t pick the people who would challenge him. Now he is out. But there were clues. James Damon over Bear Sterns was an avid bridge player who denied that he put bridge before the company. Where was he when they had a major crisis? He was off at a bridge tournament. These little clues reveal that these people don’t understand the power of perceptions.
Interviewer: Now, you have said perceptions not facts set the public agenda.
Budd: What you believe to be true is what you think is true and it is true to you. I mean a good [inaudible] get into the subject of broader reading. I am a fan of Dan Yankelovich because I think he is a very, very savvy sociologist. He’s written a number of books and made a number of speeches and all of which are totally relevant to us, in the so called PR person. He had a book on dialogue and you know to oversimplify what he said, dialogue is an exchange between people, as we’re doing. A lot of the communication that we’re making comes from the body language, facial expressions, whatever. I bet you I can name about ten books, and you can poll the senior people in public relations, and they haven’t read them. That’s what I mean by not reading. There’s a lot of junk out there. Professors who have never met a payroll have all the answers. Or the CEO who writes books about how to run a company, which he didn’t do himself, or he has a ghost writer for him. But there are books out there that are a very interesting. For example there’s a not too deep a book by a guy named Gary Hamel who makes a small fortune consulting and writing. It’s called the Future of the Corporation, no the Future of Management. Now what he says and what I liked about it he doesn’t give you a solution, he only raises the problem. Now most writers, academics and consultants always have a magic answer, but he makes a very persuasive case that the management model that we are now operating under totally incapable of addressing the complexities of a global business environment. He gives case after case of why that’s true. If you read it you have to be brain dead not to challenge what you are doing yourself. I’ve recommended it to several CEOs. But they don’t read much either. The trick to getting a CEO to read something is get his secretary to put it in his bag when he goes on a trip. I’ve often said I’ve been married 13 times because I work with, or for directly, 13 CEOs. And people I work on most with are their secretaries because they can make or break you.
Interviewer: What do you think of the value of, for these individuals you must mentioned, corporations may have a value statement, a mission statement, a code of ethics, how valuable is that to management and CEOs…
Budd: Not very, it’s, it’s attitude over aptitude any time. Part of the public relations problem is that they offer solutions that are superficial. I’m particularly concerned about selling reputation. You don’t sell and you don’t manufacture reputation, you earn it. Now there’s nothing wrong with a company hiring a public relations firm to improve their reputation if the firm starts out by finding what’s wrong with it and getting management to agree to change their conduct. That’s why I say attitude over aptitude. When they get public approval for media attention or for ethical guidelines for any of that stuff, without actually committing themselves, I mean the CEOs, without actually committing themselves to that they think the job is done. It’s, these are the things that you have to think about. Any one of those items can make or break a reputation. I don’t care how clever a writer you are, or how media savvy you are, you can’t do It unless the product is there and the product is the people. You are going to ask me something I am most proud of when I left Emhart. The then chairman asked me to come to a board meeting and he said you know John is leaving and so forth. If any of you have anything to say to him, do it now. They went around like usual stuff. Except the pervious CEO and chairman who had stepped down, although staying on the board, said, “Well ,what I always remember was John taught me the importance of credibility.” That was my weapon against the lawyers, although you can’t use it too often. The other thing I think of with some pride is the creation of a credibility index, which when Ray Gaulke was president of PRSA. It was my idea. We got a grant from the PRSA Foundation and a grant from Rockefeller, I think the sum total was about $200,000, to create, do research and create a Credibility Index. One of the people on that list that Ron Hinckley, who is a superb opinion analyst, was really the person who made the idea come to fruition. But we had an academic, we had four universities involved, several academic experts, and it was done so well that it was accepted by the opinion peers. What it proved, in essence, was that people give their trust to executives depending on the issue. In some cases they may believe the foreman in the plant more than they believe the CEO or the mayor more than the Congressman, and so on and so forth. So the idea of any, any universal way of getting, building trust is not really logical, you have to tailor it to the issue and so forth and too often in the PR field, when things really get tough, they turn to the CEO and think he’s going to solve everything. Get him on the stump. Get him out there, he may be the worst person in the world; there may be others who have more credibility with the shareholders or the employee or who or whatever it is. I was very disappointed. They never pursued it further and let it die. They did the one thing and that’s it. They did a modest follow-up on investor relations, but other than that it’s never been done again. There is one agency who has, I think they call Reputation Barometer. It was a total steal, but they don’t raise answers. They only raise questions and that’s no damn good. I don’t think, so let them stew.
Budd: No, keep going maybe we should talk about my new book coming out in the fall.
Budd: Communications is a process but it tends to diminish public relations. You can be very successful in counseling without actually doing communications as it is defined now, just talking to somebody and say don’t do this. How do you measure advice given and taken to eliminate a problem that does not arise? Where as, if you hadn’t given advice it would be all sorts of difficulty That’s public relations. It may not involve communication. Don’t fire people before Thanksgiving or Christmas, while you, the CEO get a $15 million bonus or whatever. Harold Bursen believes it too, he said the adoption of communications as a synonym for public relations started the business on a slippery slope and I agree totally. If you go through the Page (Society) directory, you will find few titles that use the word public relations. These people who are the so called elite of the field these days; go to watering holes like Boca Raton or Vail and listen to gurus talk about things that they have no involvement in. It is like fantasy baseball. It really is. It is their way of, of reinforcing their sense of self-worth. But then they go back to their day job and are pushing vitamins or something like that. They are not counseling. And the so-called PR Seminar, drop the word PR, because it was irrelevant. PR Week is not really, it should be Communications Week but there is a publication like that. I think it has two disadvantages. One subtle and one very profound. It encourages senior corporate officers to think of the process as implementation of the public relations process. They don’t make any distinction in their mind between public relations and communications. To them, its’ all the same thing, media work, whatever it is. They never think of it, or rarely think of it, in terms of advice and counsel. The PR people, or the communicators as they call themselves, are called in after the fact, not before the fact. Everybody communicates. There’s no question about that. That broad application of the term public relations just diminishes what public relations is, and as far as the practitioners are concerned, they love the cache of public relations but they call themselves communicators. Just look at their titles. It’s where they get their kicks, I guess. I don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s what this book covers; the past, present, and what I foresee as the future of public relations. The world is so complex. We just read about it every day that CEOs are going to need somebody at their side, who can see the world through a different prism than the customary disciplines in a business. I mean the legal and the accounting, operational, the marketing people think in the terms of their own discipline, and they could be very excellent at it, but they do not go beyond it. Somebody has to sit there and say if you do it that way Chief, you’re going to create more problems than you solve. Why? Well because, so that’s one thing. The president of the United States has, I guess always have had, personal advisors to the president for foreign affairs or whatever their title. There is going to be a need, and it will be fulfilled not by PR people, a personal advisor to the president in public diplomacy, personal advisor to the chief executive on a public policy, is going to come from liberal arts graduates. Maybe they can’t sit down and write a white paper. Maybe they can’t write a big speech. They are going to hire the communicators to do that. But they’re going to sit there and ideally they should have no administrative duties, because that gets in the way. They should just be thinkers. Leonardo DeVinci supported himself and was successful, not as an inventor or a painter, he was a counselor. Princes paid him handsomely just to sit and talk to them. There’s a book out, it’s not just out, it’s been out for a long time, called How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci. And I read it and it lead me to write a book about how to change your job into a career. The author of the How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci identified 12 attributes of DaVinci’s personality, three of which apply particularly to public relations, and one was curiosity which is defined in many ways you know, anti-status quo but why why why? The second was the use of the right brain. And the third was the ability to see an obscure event or read about an obscure event and start to think of it in terms of another obscure event and all of a sudden a pattern emerges. And people don’t like that because you are seeing problems they don’t see. Or they ignore them. Or worse they deny they are ignoring them. There was a professor at the University of California years and years ago who wrote a paper on this, which I treasured. He likened the development of a public opinion to a biological process, awareness so on. So I really do believe that and it’s not going to be to the current generation of CEOs, because they are still wedded. And it’s not going to be the one immediately following them because they are coming out of the B school, who are still teaching models, and case histories, and formulas. I don’t care if they say that we’re not put social responsibility in there and all that sort of thing. They are not touching, really, roots of what I am talking about. Down the road, and I’ll probably not be here to see it, is going to be a class of young people coming out of the business schools who are not wedded to that quantitative mentality. And they are going to be liberal arts people. They are not going to be journalists, they are not going to be technological people who are whizzes with email and face book and all that stuff. They are going to be, they are going to be entrepreneurial, mentally, and they are going to be intellectual and they are going to see problems where others don’t see it. And they are going to have really good advice and they are going to be free to do that. If I were starting a company or if someone asked me, I would put a sociologist somewhere at the top and certainly if I had a decent public relations operation which would be [inaudible] it would have a sociologist. Good friend of mine is a tenured sociologist at Williams College. He’s a little different from most in that he has tramped plant floors more than you could realize. He wrote two books. One was Image Makers and the other was called Moral Mazes. And he studied why employees hear different messages than the brass were sending them. If you think about it, it’s a very profound thought, you’re going to need people like that. He and I collaborated; at least we have lunch, and blow our brains out equally. And that stuff fascinates me , I mean, how do you do that? Now look what we’re going through, with Mark Penn. The tragedy is that corporate clients with Burson-Marsteller will not see the relevance of the hypocrisy that it represents. It’s not that he double-talked and embarrassed Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t know, he had no moral background. He doesn’t realize the conflict of interest. He doesn’t realize what it will do to the reputation, integrity, and honesty, and truth for Burson-Marsteller, and nor does, I read in the paper before I came here this morning. Martin Sorrell sees nothing wrong with it. I mean he’s not going to change his policy. She said the world is too complex where you have these things happen. He made a mistake. That’s true. He’s going to continue to build Burson-Marsteller. Martin Sorrell is looking at it as money. He’s not looking at it as the reputation of Burson-Marsteller, I mean here’s a guy. First of all, its’ very unpleasant if you read the papers. He’s disdainful of any opinion other than his own. He is arrogant and smug whatever what else. Hillary’s campaign hates him. The media hates him. And I can’t believe the people at Burson-Marsteller love him, but I don’t know but he was permitted to maintain his own polling company, in addition to being CEO of Burson-Marsteller. It would be interesting to see how much business he funneled from Burson-Marsteller. Where did the $13 million he got from Hillary go? Did any of it go to Burson-Marsteller or is it all to him. Where, how much is he make in this holding company and where does that go and how much is he making at Burson-Marsteller? And Martin Sorrell, who is a very bright guy and certainly made his critics into fans what he’s done with WPP, that company , that holding company. But he reveals his misunderstanding of what public relations is all about when he is dismissive of the enormity of what is represented in not only Penn’s actions but Penn’s atitude. How can the PR business survive if it doesn’t stand up for principles? You talk about the Page Principles. You have Fleishman-Hillard, a couple of years ago where their highly touted head of their Los Angeles office, who was then a local figure of some political importance, was accused and indicted and is now in prison for kiting the bills to one of the city’s agencies and in the process of the accusations and trials and all that sort if thing, you heard nothing from Fleishman-Hillard. They distanced themselves from it. Why didn’t they stand up? Why didn’t John Graham say God damn it. That’s terrible. If they had treated a client’s crises communication the way they handled their own they would have deserved to be fired. What about Ketchum, another big, once proud company, accused of money laundering. That’s what they did. You know. Why are they silent? You talk about being a profession. How can they be professional when they can’t even stand up and talk about it? You won’t hear a peep from any PR people about Mark Penn. That is what annoys me and irritates me. Now, the last eight or nine or ten years I have been well removed from function and activities of public relations. I am working much more with corporate side. I am on the advisory board of the National Association of Corporate Directors. I am a director of the New York chapter of Corporate Directors. And I am looked upon as sort of the director of special programs meaning that I conceive of the luncheon program that isn’t the usual boilerplate that all the governance people do these days. A man by the name of John Bogel who made a very solid reputation in the mutual fund business wrote a book about the The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism, a very thoughtful man. He’s older of course, so he speaks up and we had a session on that. To me, that’s fascinating, maybe to others it’s pretty boring. But, that’s why I write this newsletter, that’s another thing I started, it’s bi-monthly…
Interviewer: And it’s an invitation?
Budd: Oh yeah because I got a very eclectic mailing list with a lot of lawyers and CEOs and consultants and I will say senior PR people. What I try to do in it is interpret the context of public opinion what’s going on and what you should do about it. In other words, the way that even if you are thought of as a communicator in a company or in an agency representing a company. One of the ways you could earn your way into a counseling mode is by taking the initiative, sending memos or whatever to the CEO and say look this is such and such is happening. And this is what might happen and this is what we ought to think about. And this is what I try to point out here. I am hoping to give clues to what you might do. But public relations is a very integral niche business. There are those who where ambition which is more than just a word in the dictionary. They will move and they will do it and they will succeed and there are successful people in the business. They are much in the minority. So be it. This is another talk I gave way back when. This is typical of some of the white papers I do.
Interviewer: You are a prolific writer.
Budd: And this was something I conceived of, but it was unsuccessful. I thought well and I know why I wasn’t successful. CEOs would welcome the advice of a retired CEO who they could talk with, with impunity, where as they might be hesitant letting their hair down with anyone on the board. What I didn’t and we had a few assignments and I signed up again philosophically after I said before a half dozen, maybe eight retired senior executives. Both what I didn’t really count on is how immune sitting CEOs are to advice. My thesis was correct I know that. You can see it now by the short tenure CEOs have. But this was a little too avant-garde for them.
Interviewer: This being the CEC, the Chief Executive Counsel of The Omega Group?
Budd: But it was good it didn’t fly.
Interviewer: Do you think that the new media, the electronic technology including the Internet is making the public relations practice more or less ethical?
Budd: First of all there is no public relations process. What does it do in communications or communicators? No I don’t think it is making a mark. Walter Wriston who was highly regarded head of Citi Corp., now deceased, once told me he said. Your ethics come from your family, you don’t hire them and find them later. So if you’re going to operate unethically, you are going to do it. So he could operate on that and if you operate ethically no matter what the venue is you are going to be. That’s why I don’t am not particularly enamored of ethical guidelines. There’s a lot of showmanship and the same thing applies to corporate social responsibility. I think companies have an innate responsibility to their community, employees, so on and so forth. And because they do have the leverage of their size and money they should do more than just make successful products. They should really extend their, their social responsibilities in areas they are responsible for or in disciplines that relate to them and not all this. You know if all the CEOs ever did all the social activists asked them to do, there’d be no social activists. They live off the green mail from companies. They are not satisfied. It’s amazing to me how many companies pay for their own trouble. They underwrite seminars and lectures and other things for people who are dedicated anti-capitalists. And it doesn’t take rocket science to find out who these people are and what they stand for. Do you agree or don’t you agree? And if you don’t agree and if there are truly negativists and so forth, you have no right to support them. I would wonder what would happen if you ask individual shareholders, not the institution, the individual shareholders would you give $.50 a share or a $1 a share to underwrite such and such a program. I bet you’d get a big No, you don’t, you put your money or you buy company stock for only one reason. You want to get you think and you hope that the investment will appreciate and you’ll get dividends. That is why you are doing it. Otherwise you have no reason. You are not going to do it because of that company is green. Doesn’t mean anything to you if your investment withers. Now if you are satisfied with the financial results and the company is actively engaged in worthwhile activities, that’s fine. And you can be proud to have the money in that company. But it’s not why you do it initially and I think boards particularly boards and CEOs are trying to buy peace and I can understand why they want to. But somebody’s got to take a stand some place some how on some of these things. I am writing a piece for the next newsletter because I’ve been reading stories about carbon emissions and so on. You tell me who is going to buy stock from a company because the carbon emissions are point something 1. I don’t understand it. Who does? Either the people do or you don’t understand. I don’t think.
Interviewer: Is there anything that you’d like to say, that we haven’t gone over, to the upcoming public relations practitioners. This next generation what else might you want to say to them so that they can be better at what they do.
Budd: The spirit of dissatisfaction. You know don’t be immobilized by temporary success, small perks, fancy titles. There’s always a way to do it better and it depends on what you personally want. And if ambition is an adjective and not a noun then you have to earn it. By in large public relations business is in the corporate world so you better immerse yourself in that. Just don’t go to the PR meeting, go to business meetings. Get into their mindset, their rhythms. Talk to them. Read what they read. Not what you want to read. If you go to one of the Page meetings. I am not going to it because I don’t think the speakers they have chosen have anything to say that I need to know. But nevertheless I have never gone to a business meeting where I haven’t gotten something out of it. Maybe a contact, maybe an idea and I have gone to an awful lot. I wonder why I am going. But you have to. You have to be dissatisfied with what you are doing and your own progress. One of my friendships that I’ve developed over the yeas, a man by the name of Donald Keough. Now Donald Keough was the president and soul of Coca Cola. He was the guy who went to the 200 and some odd companies where Coke is sold. And spread the gospel. He retired at 65 and Coke went through a series of bad choices for CEOs so in a totally unprecedented move, they reelected him to the board at 77. He’s a resident of Notre Dame. He’s a garrulous storyteller Irishman, but as solid as a steel bar. And my daughter got involved in her husband’s security business and he has MS, so she was running it for a while and I asked Don if he would talk to her. And he graciously did and what he said to her. She still walks on water from that meeting. He said set down your own goals. What you really think you want to do and look at them at least every couple of months and see how you are doing. And if you cheat, you are only cheating yourself. And I kind of do that unconsciously. You know. You need that kind of discipline and I think personal discipline is an important thing for young people. I can’t tell them be ethical or be moral because they either are or they aren’t. I could give them all kinds of guidelines, that doesn’t mean a thing. One of the clichés of the business you put your job on the line every day. I’d like to know who left because I disagreed with something, they don’t put their job on the line everyday, that’s an old wives tale. You mentioned it once in your questions. I did a research and wrote a profile of Arthur Page one time. So I think I know although I certainly never met him, I think I got a feeling of what he was all about and while I think the Arthur Page Principles are noble but they are a little too pious. Arthur Page was not pious. First of all Arthur Page was not a public relations man, he was a businessman, and he dealt with his peers who were also directors. He had great instincts obviously about the relationship of a company to its employees and to its neighbors so on and so forth. And he articulated those. Not in those wonderfully codified terms that are in the Page directory. I don’t think he would disagree with any of them and I think they are great to have. But there is a little lack of reality in some of them I think. I don’t know. An organization has to have something like that. They also should realize the practical side. But get over the fear of writing. I don’t care what you do. You know if you don’t do that well. And you don’t like to do it. You know. It’s, it’s too bad. So much more important than being a virtuoso with technology. You can always hire those people. I don’t know what the curriculum is at Penn State but If you ever want a role model to look at look at Ball State. Know much about it?
Interviewer: No, I really don’t.
Budd: They have an extraordinary communication operation. They have their own radio stations. They have their own newspaper. They have their own PR firm who actually take local assignments. It’s a beautiful university buried out in Muncie, Indiana. I am very impressed by what they do in the terms of what we are talking about. I’ve been to other schools that are okay. But they stand out.
Budd: Unfortuantley, they also are buried under journalism.
Interviewer: Penn State has what you just talked about…
Budd: It’s only about a couple of years now isn’t it?
Interviewer: The School of Communications was organized in I think 1985 and the college in what, “91 “92?
Budd: What’s the background of their dean?
Interviewer: Journalism comes from
Budd: Practical journalism or academic?
Interviewer: Practical he was a sports writer, I believe.
Budd: His name is what Anderson?
Interviewer: Right. Doug Anderson. He came out of Arizona State. That is where he was before he came to Penn State.
Budd: What was he doing at Arizona State?
Interviewer: He was the Walter Cronkite, he was the head of the department, of journalism. But our program has really grown.
Budd: You know one thing I have always thought about that dealing with the present and not the idealistic future. What could help, I think, a boot camp for graduates and programs such as yours all states whatever. It could be three days. It could be one day to inculcate these young people into what the real world of public relations is about. They graduate full of academic theories on behavioral modification, cognizant dissonance, all that sort of stuff, which is fine. I never had any of that wish I did. And then they go to a job at an agency or a company and find that what they are asked to do uses none of that. And they get disillusioned. And I’ve heard some numbers about how many really don’t stay in the field or even get into it after they graduate. So if you had a boot camp and I’ve envisioned this in my mind often. I would have a faculty of nobody but retired. I don’t want anybody who is working because they are going to tell me how good it is. Somebody to say what it’s like in a corporation, who’s been there and retired and not everybody who is retired is capable of being objective, agency, business in a sense, what is the corporate mentality? Where do you go? A real hard-nosed preparation for what they are going to face and it should be sponsored. Transportation is probably the biggest cost, by the Institute for PR or Page, but I can’t get anybody interested because, I don’t know, they think they got it licked, but they don’t care. But God, I think that would be enormously helpful because what they are going to do if they decide or think they’ve decided they want a career in public relations. The first few years you got to be apprentices, I don’t care about your title. Now they have things like junior assistant accounting. What kind of crap is that? Dear God. But they won’t really understand what it is all about for several years. But they should realize that is an apprentice not an internship an apprenticeship they are going through. And all of the things they learn. It’s like liberal arts. You don’t immediately use it. You don’t know when it’s going to kick in your career and all of a sudden you remember something that Shakespeare said that relates to a point you want to make. Or if you can’t remember you know how to look it up. But it comes in later and if they got that kind of a briefing which I think should only be available to those who are interested enough maybe even pay their own way to where it may be, like in New York or some place. I think it would be a hell of a help. They got to take that theoretical stuff and not dismiss it as being theoretical. Tuck it away. But meanwhile do as asked. And you know the earlier part you learn what I learned when I was doing publicity was (a) how to research, how to judge the biased opinions of some editors, how to make judgments on what was newsworthy and how to write and how to recover when it flops. Seriously you are not going to do that, are you, in the beginning? You are not going to sit down and tell the boss and the CEO how to do his strategic planning. I would recommend people going to an agency first not a company because if you get in the company hierarchy, you are going to have a long haul up. In an agency a good agency you’re more likely to be exposed to more opportunities so you grow that way. Then you can move into a company and of course the way I did but I came in much later. If I had done it earlier it might have been different. But I was an acknowledged expert when I came in so I got away with a lot. What did they know. It was as I look back it was interesting still interesting. Now my biggest problem was try to educate directors into what being a director really means. The fiction is that shareholders elect these people to be their representative, and that the directors hire a CEO. You tell me why, if you picked a CEO because he has the qualities of leadership, whatever, whatever right, and then you hire an executive coach? What’s going on? If he was that good he didn’t need an executive coach. And that’s a big business now. Another colleague of mine, and these are the things you accumulate over the years, was the dean of psychology at Tulsa University. His specialty was personality. And he is now in private practice in Oklahoma. He’s written a book on personality. But he makes the point that the reason so many boards are surprised when the CEO implodes because they haven’t done their due diligence when they hired him because the executive search firms are overwhelmed by charisma and don’t dig deep enough and if you dug deeper into the candidate you find out whether there is a narcissist way whatever his hang-ups are and he’s developed a battery of tests personality assessment he calls it. It’s not perfect obviously. But it’s a hell of a lot better than they are doing. And if they did more thinking along those lines, there would be less surprises than the ones we read about.
Interviewer: Well I want to thank you. It was wonderful. We really appreciate your time.