When you’ve been in the PR business for several decades, you’re witness to a lot of change.
Those of us who’ve been around for a while saw the introduction of horseless carriages and the end of dinosaurs roaming the earth. Oh wait, that’s just how my kids see my generation. But in reality, PR has undergone a lot of change, and for the women who led the way in Vancouver’s PR industry, some of those evolutions are bigger than just the end of fax machines.
Evolutions in the PR profession
“The two biggest evolutions or revolutions are in technology and social change,” says Deborah Folka, APR FCPRS LM. “My career began with my Olivetti manual typewriter 40 years ago and today includes the immediacy of the Internet and AI-generated stories in a vastly changed communications landscape.”
“The access that a sole practitioner has to information and ideas now is different,” says Susan Jamieson-McLarnon, APR LM.
Folka notes that social changes she’s seen rival the technological shifts. “It’s been a similar upheaval from being a single-parent second-wave feminist to alternately cheering, gasping and agonizing over the issues and opportunities that face women today,” she says.
But what hasn’t changed are the principles of our profession. “(We’re still focused on) the ability to communicate well, to understand issues quickly and distill messages to their essence and to always think broadly considering the objectives, the stakeholders and the ethical issues that may be at stake,” adds Folka.
Amen to that. When I was starting out, we focused most of our energy on media relations, and couriered media kits to newsrooms, sent news releases via faxes and actually picked up the phone to pitch reporters. Now we message on WhatsApp or Instagram and pay to boost our posts. But good writing and strategic communications thinking are still the necessary skills.
“When I started out, ‘generalist’ was the thing to be,” says Francine Gaudet, APR FCPRS LM. “In today’s world people are focusing on specific areas – issues management, writing, etc. People have become more targeted in their practice. For many years, I think I was valued more for a business development and fundraising skillset than the Public Relations skillset, because of the dollar value attached.”
Advice to your 20-something self
Deborah Skaey APR, who worked with associations, corporations, agencies, and was instrumental in establishing post-secondary programs in PR, says she’d tell her younger self to stay true to her values. “Trust yourself,” she says. “You are good enough.”
Gaudet would tell her younger self to broaden her PR horizons. “Make sure you don’t become too specialized too quickly,” she advises. “Come to your specialty more naturally.”
“I would tell that naive young woman to set good boundaries, to say ‘no’ graciously and without excuses, to think carefully before replying or acting, to surround yourself with inspiring, brilliant people and to always ask ‘is this the right thing to do?’” says Folka.
Jamieson-McLarnon says she would have wanted to add business education to her skills if she had it to do again. “My old arts degree (history and fine arts) came in very handy over the years, much to my parents surprise,” she says. “But if there is one academic degree that I missed, and I think would have been very useful, it would an MBA. It levels the playing field, and you can do it in your evenings and on weekends.”
Establishing a PR career
When I was starting in communications, there weren’t many PR programs to study. Some people took communications at college or university, but most of us moved into PR from journalism, political science or other non-communications fields. We learned on the job, honed our PR-related skills, and if we were very lucky, found excellent mentors. Of course, most of us also took advantage of professional development through CPRS, like the APR program. We became strategic thinkers as we progressed through our careers, and eventually we were taken more seriously in the boardrooms.
“My career in PR started with a two-line ad in the classifieds seeking an editor’s assistant,” says Jamieson-McLarnon. “Amazingly, I was given the job and every opportunity to learn many essential skills. This first real job set a pattern which repeated itself over the next 40-plus years. All along I was mentored, and my ideas were encouraged. I was fortunate to be hired by the UBC Alumni Association, eventually becoming editor and communication director. Then I saw another ad (much bigger this time) and moved to SFU as editor of its weekly newspaper and assistant director of internal communication. From what I gather, this hiring pattern doesn’t happen so much these days.”
And it works the other way around too, bringing skills from PR into other fields. Lisa Martin, CPRS Vancouver’s President in 1993-94, is now a renowned leadership coach and author.
“All the PR skills I learned were very transferrable to my leadership coaching/consulting business and led to my ability to write five books on the topic and coaching leaders to become better communicators,” says Martin.
In ye olden days, we took the jobs we could get and tried not to cross moral lines. But bringing your own opinions and values into a job was not the norm. I still remember one man I worked for calling me a “latte-drinking leftie” whenever I questioned his conservative views. It was meant with some level of affection, but I doubt he’d get away with it today.
Skaey says she remembers a time when a PR practitioner’s personal opinions or leanings weren’t allowed to be expressed at all. “Now I am seeing see PR firms deliberately focusing on climate change and environmentalism, and some are embracing the split between left and right,” she says. “Many times I moved jobs because I needed to work somewhere that was in line with my own values.”
The best legacy these pioneer women of CPRS Vancouver left me and all the women who came after them is not just the trail they blazed, it’s the legacy of mentorship. They certainly gave that to me, and I try to pass it on myself.
“I think mentorship is extremely valuable,” says Gaudet. “Finding that fit is a way to learn from real life experiences and being able to experience the profession in a different way.”