Public relations and character

I ran outside this morning. At 5 a.m. it was about 30 degrees, no wind and a perfectly clear sky. It doesn’t get much better than that in Northeast Ohio on the last day of fall.

When you are running by yourself you really do have time to think. And that’s a luxury that many of us don’t enjoy these days on the job. And even when we leave the office, with e-mail and cell phones we can easily get tethered to the job 24/7.

But not when you are running. I was thinking this morning about Henry Eaton. Henry founded the PR firm Dix & Eaton in Cleveland and for years was one of the most respected public relations counselors in Northeast Ohio and beyond. When I was vice president of corporate communications at BFGoodrich in Akron I hired Dix & Eaton and had a long and very successful relationship with that firm. It also gave me the opportunity to meet and work with Henry.

Henry Eaton was everything you could ask for in a public relations counselor – and friend. He was totally honest and trustworthy. He listened and he cared. He had tremendous credibility with his clients and with reporters and editors. And he was a brilliant strategic thinker. We went through some difficult times together: plant closings, a contentious senior management change and the relocation of BFGoodrich from its home in Akron to new headquarters in Charlotte.

I would talk to Henry and ask him what he thought. What approach would he take? At first he offered very specific advice. But as time went on, he would answer by saying, “You know what to do. This isn’t rocket science.” And he was right. I did know what to do: tell the truth, inform employees first and often, don’t spin the story, be available to answer questions and provide access that enabled reporters to talk to senior managers, be responsive and responsible. And when in doubt, communicate quickly and often to everyone that may have an interest. I learned many valuable lessons from Henry Eaton and from others throughout my career: Hank Wardle, Tony Massi, Jim Griffith and Foster Smith among them.

When Henry died a few years ago, those of us who knew him personally lost a friend and valued associate. The public relations industry lost someone who represented everything that is right about what we do – or try to do.

I’m certainly no Henry Eaton. Not even close. But I respected him – and part of my responsibility today as a teacher at Kent State is to help students learn that professionalism and character really do matter in public relations.

I read a lot of blogs and articles about public relations and social media. Most focus on process and technology. “Ten reasons why company blogs are a waste of time.” “Ten reasons why your company will fail without a blog.”  “An insider’s look at how to actually get someone to read your blog.” Gee, maybe I should read that one.  You get the point.

But I don’t read much these days about character. And about the personal values and traits that are necessary in public relations careers.

And that’s a shame. On the job I can help someone become a better writer. But I’m not certain I can help him or her become more ethical – and professional.

I was thinking about character and about Henry Eaton during my six-mile run this morning. I’ll think about how to get someone to actually read my blog tomorrow.


6 responses to “Public relations and character

  1. Rob,

    We have plenty of PR types who write about blogging, and even more who expend a majority of their energy luring and baiting readers and links. Too often they forget their own advice: It’s about the content. And outstanding content you have, my friend.

    The core values of PR — character and its allied traits of truth telling, empathy, charity, and openmindedness — never get old. No one’s out there talking about Ethics 2.0, are they?

    You bringing a refreshing new voice to the conversation, and you’re off to a fabulous start.

  2. Rob –

    This is a great post.

    I think you can always teach ethics and professionalism by example. I learned how to carry myself by observing the interactions my professors and some role-model professionals had with their colleagues and us students. Now of course, that was before I entered the working world, but I have to believe teaching by example works here too. Albeit, it may be more difficult because people get stuck in their habits, but even if you only impact one person with your behavior, it’s worth it.

    I agree with Bill. More people should blog about ethics. I think people don’t because it’s a difficult conversation – or maybe they just don’t realize it can impact their bottom line? If you ask me, they’re both good reasons why should be talking about them.

    In theory, ethics is easy. You tell the truth. You’re open and honest. You do what’s right.
    But in real life, ethics can get dicey. What’s right or true to one group isn’t necessarily right or true to another and you have to figure out which choice is more “right.” (The “right vs. right” ethics-class discussion is suddenly coming back to me…)

    And sometimes ethics is difficult because it means telling the client something he/she doesn’t want to hear or disagreeing with a supervisor or a colleague.

    Ethics takes guts — maybe if we did talk more about Ethics 2.0 more it wouldn’t.

    I’m glad we’re talking about ethics. :o)

  3. Rob:
    On behalf of Henry Eaton’s family, let me say how grateful we are for your comments about our father.
    He was a remarkable man, counselor, friend — and a son, brother, husband, and father to four of us.
    Not a day goes by where we don’t think about the life lessons we learned from him, shared at the 6pm dinner table, or at some auspicious moment near a soccer field, or tennis court, or parking lot, or in the dark of night on one our walks.
    He touched so many people; but perhaps his greatest legacy is that the people he touched, are now impacting others…and for that, his legacy continues.
    Thanks again for sharing your words — very meaningful for us, his family.

  4. Dave,

    Thank you so much for your extremely kind comments. Everyone who knew your father misses him — and those of us in the public relations business honor him by continuing his legacy.


  5. Rob,

    I wanted to second Dave’s comments on behalf of Henry’s other family — the people at Dix & Eaton who had the honor of working with him and learning from him, and the fantastic pleasure of just spending time with him. He was a great teacher, teammate and friend. You gave testimony to the kind of impact a counselor like Henry can have on his clients, and I’m happy to say the same principles that you valued made him a terrific leader and colleague. He was a model of the kind of person our profession needs more of – and every other profession, too.

    Thanks for the reminder.


  6. Michelle Stirling

    I just followed the link to your blog entry for the second or third time now, and I want to thank you as Uncle Dave and Scott have already done. I’m the oldest of Henry (or as I called him, Pa)’s fourteen grandchildren, and was lucky enough to have him for 21 years. Sometimes I wonder if I imagined it; could it be possible that my own grandfather was such a wonderful human with such generosity of spirit, or do I just remember him that way because I loved and admired him so much? When people outside of the family take the time to honor his memory in the way that you did, I feel like my heart will burst with the amount of pride I have for Pa.
    In a quote attributed to Elton Trueblood, “A man has discovered the true meaning of life when he plants a shade tree under which he knows he will never sit.” As a truly humble man, I believe that Pa would be immensely moved that he was able to leave a lasting impression of goodness that you are sharing with your young students. So again, thank you very much for honoring Pa and his integrity with your words… it meant a lot to us all.

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