Oral Histories

John M. Reed

Full Interview

John M. Reed Biography

John Reed, a pioneer in the development of international public relations, began his career following military duty in Korea and Japan and work with the United States Information Service, USIS, (known domestically as USIA).  His initial position in international PR occurred in 1960, when he joined the reorganized Olin Mathieson Corporation.  After a variety of similar positions with other international companies, he opened Consultants in Public Relations, SA, (CPRSA) in Geneva.  His first client was Johnson and Johnson.  After several years, he joined Control Data Corporation as vice president of public relations, but also continued his consultancy in Switzerland.  Reed’s career has spanned a wide variety of influence in public relations, covering international work in government, industry, consultancy and teaching.  Reed, a recipient of multiple awards and honors throughout his lifetime, continues to travel the world extensively.


Interviewer:  Let’s talk a little bit about, since we sort of touched on education, let’s talk a little bit about public relations education. When you found yourself as a teacher in the classroom - university level, you talked earlier when we were at lunch about how important that was, how important it is to you? Do you believe that recent graduates are prepared for the informed ethical decision-making that they are going to face in today’s world?

Reed:  I'm going to put my foot in it now. It depends on the attitude of the student and the attitude of the teacher. If the attitudes are and the thought process is that this is something mechanical like mathematics or brick laying, I fear for the future. If, if this is seen as something that has a life unto itself, that’s going to go wrong. What public relations is really about is supporting the best things, backing, pushing, helping the best that is in society. And making its practitioners feel great, as well as rich. But first great, and making the best causes survive and prosper. By causes I mean automobiles or donations to the Red Cross or whatever the product may be. I think a lot about this, because I’ve been in the classroom and the young people are like the population of the country. Some are this way. Some are that way. Some are tall. Some are short. I don’t find enough ‘spirit’ for want of a better word. This is not a very academic word perhaps, but spirit. I don’t find enough spirit there. And spirit is what’s needed as well as technology. I think that the history shows that the great PR people have been those with spirit who have dared to do something, who had taken on difficult problems and solved them. I think that anybody can make a work-a-day livelihood in the PR field by doing this, that or the other thing, being very good at audiovisuals or knowing how to write a press release; but those who will really enjoy life and have fun with it and contribute something positive and useful to society are those who will be fired up by the notion of persuading for good, persuading positively, persuading to make something good happen whether it’s to buy Hershey bars or not to eat too many chocolates. It’s a wonderful profession.

Interviewer:  Is there anything else you want to share with the next generation of PR professionals?

Reed:  Well get to see it and do it up close because the books are too tightly structured. And therefore boring, you know. And I don’t want to criticize people and so on and so forth but you know as revered as Cutlip and Center are and I know both of them. Scott Cutlip and Allen Center. It’s really dull and furthermore it doesn’t really reflect the excitement that goes on among the real practitioners. I would have paid for my jobs. I had so much fun. As it turns out I got more and more money. I really did. And, and I didn’t think about that particularly. My father died when I was very young as a boy. And I said to him shortly before he died. It was one of the few things I remember. Daddy what shall I be when I grow up? All boys ask their parents this. And girls too I’m sure. And he said I don’t care what you are. Be the best at what ever it is you do, be the best. I don’t care whether you are a street sweeper or president. Be the best. That’s one of the few things I remember about him. The other thing I remember about my father is he sent me a postcard. We’re in boarding school in Leonardtown, Maryland. He was an international union organizer for the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). And he was picked by the first woman cabinet member Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under Roosevelt to be a delegate to go to a World Congress of the International Labor Organization to be held in Lima, Peru. And one day I got a postcard at Leonard Hall in Leonardtown, Maryland from Lima, Peru. Well I couldn’t believe it. I mean it had a postage stamp on it. I had never seen a piece of mail from anywhere in the world. Had a postage stamp. Had a picture of the Andes Mountains. Holy cow, I rushed to the geography book and the dictionary to find out where is this place. Where is my father? He was in Lima, Peru. Of course I called it ‘lima’ as in lima beans. And so I started pestering my the brothers who were teachers where is this? Where is my father? It was signed Daddy. I was what ten something. Well I was set on fire that he would go to. I looked on the map. Outside the United States down in South America on the Pacific coast in this place called Peru. Holy cow. That set me, you know, that was a and then he said whatever it is you do, be the best and then you know it just sort of came. I wished I had my father for many, many more years but for the bit, the few years we did have him, I’m grateful. Because he said go do it. I think that public relations has a great capacity to do good. I think we can persuade people to donate to the Red Cross. If we can persuade people to cross at the corner not in the middle of the street. And we can persuade people to give up smoking cigarettes. Fat chance! And so on. But we have a responsibility as well as that right to do that. And our responsibility is to persuade people to do the right thing. To do it for the right reason and do it in the right way. And that gives a morality to public relations that, that people don’t think about very often. It’s a very moral kind of thing that we do. And I like that. You know you do well by doing good. And for me the the specialty that I was sort of pushed into was international - doing it some place else. Wonderful. I had a great time. I consider myself a very lucky guy. Really.

Interviewer:  I feel pretty lucky just to have you share some of your experiences with us. This has been wonderful. This will become part of the permanent collection at the Page Center. Any other thoughts?

Reed:  No, the only thing we really didn’t touch on I suppose are what we unfinistic refer to in textbooks as case studies. Everybody is interested in case studies.

Interviewer:  They are rather large here.

Reed: Big thing is case studies. I think that’s a bit formal. I like to think of it as problem solved. What is it you needed to get done and how did you do it? And did it work? And I love to hear other PR people when I’m with them tell me about how they solved a particular problem. You know and how it worked or how they approached a particular problem. And when I think back in the long career in this field, I think always about those Bayanihans solutions to problems and how wonderful it can be. And although we’ve used and I have used press releases and all the paraphernalia of standard PR all over the place. It’s the creative things outside that, that have had the best influences. You know

Interviewer:  The actions.

Reed:  The actions and the ideas. That’s really exciting to me. You know you changed the color of this or the shape of that or whatever and it will have a profound influence. That’s, that’s terrific.

Interviewer:  Well I want to thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.

Reed: Thank you for coming.