Bart Mindszenthy, APR, FCPRS LM
Partner, The Mindszenthy & Roberts Corp.
Communications Counsel, Toronto, Ontario
In the June 2001 issue of PR Canada magazine, Bart Mindszenthy was described as a “New Renaissance Man.” In the opening paragraph the author described him as “poet, philosopher, caregiver, composer, artist, parent, author, entrepreneur — oh, and specialist in crisis communication.” All these are true but since that time he has added a few more descriptors including educator, mentor, futurist and a darn good public relations practitioner.
Bart Mindszenthy (pronounced ”min-zen-tee”) is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada. He graduated in 1969 with a Bachelor of Philosophy from Monteith College, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan and a concurrent major in journalism. One year earlier (1968) he received his Certificate, Public Relations from the University of Michigan. In 1971 he received his Certificate, Advertising, from Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Toronto.
The best way to get a sense of his 46-year career is to allow Bart to describe it himself.
While still earning my double majors in philosophy and journalism, I got a part time job with our local weekly newspaper chain, which at the time happened to be the largest in the United States. I started off doing, yes, obits. Moved into sports. Liked sports a lot as it gave huge range of reporting and style freedom. That led me to doing also some features. One Sunday, being the only reporter around, albeit still a cub, I was called to cover a murder story and I got to see the gore, the bodies, and get to the police station just in time to watch the alleged killer turn himself in. That rather fulfilled my journalistic cravings. Plus I started learning about PR and decided that making and shaping the news was a lot more interesting than reporting it.
My first PR job was with the Detroit Convention Bureau, and just weeks after starting, the infamous 1967 Detroit riots broke out. It was very tough promoting the city after that. A year later I joined the Detroit-Macomb Hospitals Association as editor of the internal monthly newsmagazine and also its “PR person.” We lost a body on the first day of my job, found it four days later: my second experience with crisis communications years before I discovered it would be my specialization.
Still in 1968 I co-founded MPI Communications in Detroit with two partners and we worked part time for not-for-profits, developing and delivering internal and external communications materials. We really didn't do strategy because we didn't know how. We did proposals and then built things. Fortunately, they by and large worked well.
In 1969 while on a vacation to Toronto, I cold-called PIR, at the time Canada's largest PR firm, ended up with a short-term freelance contract, then a longer one, then a full-time job offer that I accepted. Worked my way up to VP and shareholder, and left in 1983 to head up communications and related services at C-I-L Inc, at the time Canada's largest chemical company. I thoroughly enjoyed five wonderful years there, growing in every professional way possible, but the itch for consulting got the best of me and I moved on to be Executive Vice President of what became a good-sized PR firm called The Beloff Group. That was a disaster. We all make some career mistakes. This was mine.
In 1990 I left and teamed up with Gail Harcourt-Roberts to create a niche firm specializing in crisis communications management, issues management, major change, and strategic communications planning and that is all we did from the start. Twenty-three years later we still do those things but much less so given the competitive marketplace and have instead focused on building and licensing strategically focused communications-based management skills building programs.
What was public relations like when you first started and what it is like today?
When I started, PR was seen as the “pay for play” field, the fun thing to do: wine and dine journalists and plant stories; trade on goodwill and good relationships to get good stories placed in print, on radio or TV and wire services, and in major magazines. That was our universe. For most, strategic communications planning in the deepest sense was not understood or used; our goal used to be to figure out what we should do to spend the budget we're asking for that looks most productive and helpful.
Today, it's much more sophisticated, quasi-professional and comprehensive. Flying by the seat of one's pants just doesn't work anymore, and there are few fast fixes. Plus, everyone anywhere today can be a photojournalist or a publisher. It's a totally different, high-pressure non-stop world.
What is your definition of strategic planning, as you know it today?
The process of determining where the organization is in terms of its work, environment and stakeholders and then building a plan with measurable objectives that determines what the organization will do, how, why, for whom, and how it can be exceptionally good at all that.
How have you worked with the media during your career?
Way back when my main job at PIR was handling accounts and lots of media relations in a very different, much more comfortable and cozy world. So the relationships I had then simply aren't relevant today. Suffice to say, I've always believed organizations are too media driven and reactive. Media is an important stakeholder, but shouldn't be seen as the driver in the relationship-building process organizations strive to achieve. Media is a conduit; it is not the end all and be all that many make it out to be. We can today reach all our stakeholders directly if we really want to, and that's a real deal changer.
- With (now) wife and business partner, Gail Harcourt-Roberts, helped manage the media frenzy around the Ben Johnson 1988 Olympic scandal. (that is how Gail and I met).
- Working on behalf of the Government of Newfoundland to save the only economic engine of Labrador's imminent fiscal demise by talking on and defeating the Innu and about 100 plus engaged supporters they'd aligned over some years, from the major faiths to unions and foreign activist groups. This is about NATO military flight training out of Goose Bay and we had six months to make it all work. It did. What an experience all around.
- Developing Pope John Paul ll's crisis communication management plan… and getting to meet him.
- Canadian Gypsum serious health and environmental issues in the community surrounding the Toronto gypsum wallboard plant: changing a confrontational situation into a mutually respectful environment over 18 months. One of my earliest heavy duty, learn-by-the-seat-of-my-pants experiences that’s stayed with me always.
- The Rolling Stones concert at Downsview Park with an audience of 500,000 for one day where we managed myriad flashpoints to ensure the event would be unflawed and help restore Toronto’s reputation in a post-SARS environment.
A totally consuming but amazingly rewarding experience was serving as President of The Empire Club of Canada in 2004-05. Founded in 1903 and to this day Canada's speaker's forum of record, the Empire Club has become a slice of Canadian history and has had thousands of leading lights address it. My goal was to do something different and dramatic, and without going into the details, the major undertaking for me was to get all the premiers of Canada to come talk about their vision of the future of the country and to cap that with an address by the Prime Minister. And I did it, with the exception of the Premier of Quebec (we could just never sort out the political issues). I also had the youngest ever speaker, a nine-year-old from Winnipeg who heads up the Ladybug Foundation focused on helping the homeless, and 30 other speakers. Standing at the podium of the weekly Empire Club televised meetings, introducing a stellar series of speakers who all had strong credentials, is a memory that will be bright and strong for me as long as my memory holds true.
My worst moment in terms of a sense of failure was when we'd been working intensely with the Board and senior staff of the Toronto Humane Society; the board had taken over from the “old guard” and tried to introduce good corporate governance, new management methods, more accountability, a sensitive but sound business practice. But what the nice Board members failed to do was stay close to the “membership” of the THS. The old guard did. And the old guard staged a brilliant assault on the new board by enlisting the members who had voting rights. We were hired to help build and guide a communications strategy so the new board could maintain its position at a called special meeting of voting members. Long and short, we developed what really was a winning strategy and built all the tools and procedures but needed total board commitment and engagement. However, once the fighting got fierce, more and more new board members shied away from the fight, from active participation. That was understandable: who needs to be attacked, verbally abused or work daily shifts when they are a volunteer? So one by one the only people who could have made the strategy succeed started backing off, leaving us with just a few board members who stayed the course. And at the special meeting of the members, the old guard had in hand who could have made the strategy succeed started backing off and away, leaving us with just a few board members who stayed the course.
At the special meeting of the members, the old guard had in hand so many absentee ballots nominating votes in their favour, that the new guard lost the vote, the right to govern, and the fight to do what was really most right for the THS. To that point, and since, Gail and I had/have never “lost” a crisis/issues battle/assignment. It's like being a lawyer with a lot of court experience losing a case for the first time. It was depressing. I took it way too personally. But even now, some years later, I don't know what else we could have done.
My worst moment in terms of sheer fear was when we were doing all the crisis/issues planning and on-site management of the Toronto SARS Rolling Stones Concert sponsored by Molson's and supported by all orders of government. It was, and to this day remains, the largest ever one-day concert in history, with about 500,000 attending. We were running the crisis centre back stage. The concert began at noon and at around 10 pm, not long before the Stones were to appear, there were a lot of stoned, drunk but happy people in the crowd -- the police spotted a guy who'd somehow managed to get atop a sound tower. The police mounted and were about to send into this throng a dozen or so armed SWAT team members, all dressed to the nines like Darth Vader. We knew that this had the very real potential to cause a full-blown riot. The next 30 minutes could be a book or TV special about how we diffused the situation and got the SWAT team to step down. That was sheer fear for real.
My worst moment in terms of having no idea what to do was the first day on the job as Communications Coordinator at the Detroit-Macomb Hospitals Association in Detroit. I was 21 years old, still in university, and this was a part-time job. It was Friday afternoon and we had lost a patient who had died - literally. Could not find him anywhere. The shift changed, so did the next one; we got into Saturday and then Sunday before a strong smell led to a linen storeroom where someone had shoved the gurney with the body, presumably temporarily, when they didn't have time to go to the morgue. It became a media story, the family sued, and I had to figure out what to say and how to say it. I was sweating bullets and guessing all the way. I got it sort of right and in parts wrong, but lived to work another day. In retrospect, I think this just proved that common sense in our business is a very good attribute.
You joined CPRS in the early 1970s. Why have you been so active in CPRS during your career?
- Accreditation, 1973
- President, CPRS Toronto, 1987-88
- Chair, CPRS National PR for PR 1989-90
- Chair, CPRS National Committee on Professionalism, 1991-94
- Cross-Canada professional development workshops for CPRS with Gail Harcourt-Roberts, 1993
- Member and founding supporter of CPRS Toronto public relations reference collection, Metro Toronto Reference Library, 1998+
- Member, CPRS National Advisory Committee, on creation of College of Fellows, 1998
- Member, CPRS National Task Force, accreditation and professionalism, 2000-02
- Member, CPRS College of Fellows Management Committee, 2001-06
- Presiding Officer, CPRS College of Fellows, 2007-12
- Director, Communication & Public Relations Foundation, 1998-2009
- Judge, CPRS Toronto ACE awards program, 1997, 1999, 2000
CPRS for me has been the most relevant national body representing the business of public relations. More importantly, I think anyone in the business should by extension support the voice of the business, in this case CPRS. Is CPRS relevant? I think so, but mainly to its leadership and members. Should CPRS be more visible to other stakeholders and decision makers in all sectors? Yes, yes, yes.
What are the major changes you have seen in the profession?
We are not a profession and won't be until there is some form of licensing and accountability, which we don't yet have. Major change: emerging body of knowledge, better education, deeper thinking about communications strategy building and implementation.
Future of Public Relations
PR is said to be important, yet in too many organizations it reports to legal, marketing, HR, etc. There is lip service paid to PR but budgets are often under pressure.
Too many senior managers who are MBA bottom-line driven executives really don't understand PR. It's sadly, like training and some other functional services, seen as “soft” costs, thus open for push back and cutting.
PR will never be what it can and should be until there is certification, licensing, accountability, scheduled PD, and real sanctions against those who break the rules, conduct poor practices or aren't driven by defined elegant ethics.
Advice to new practitioners:
Network like mad. Get to know people who have five or more years of experience and are working in agencies or corporately. Ask for advice; ask for projects to help with. Volunteer PR time to some not for profits you believe in and use outcomes to build a portfolio. Attend CPRS and IABC functions and shamelessly hand out cards with not just your name and coordinates but some kind of cute catch thought or phrase as to why they may want to follow up -- and ask for cards and email notes. Contact PR firms of all sizes and ask for any assignments that can help those firms get their work done on time and on budget. Remember that just as in some other fields, word of mouth and personal recommendations are golden in PR. Plus, think about what you want to be. A generalist plus what? What one or two niches do you want to excel at and be known for, because that opens doors to opportunities.
, Royal Roads University, Victoria, BC. MBA and Graduate Certificate programs in Public Relations and Communications Management. 2000+
, Royal Roads University Faculty of Management Advisory Board 2002-2006
, Advisory Board, MBA in Public Relations and Communications Management, Royal Roads University, 1997-2001
Senior Associate and Lecturer
, The Niagara Institute, 1988-1992
, Advisory Council, Seneca College Public Relations Program 1988-1991
, Southam Business Publications writing awards, 1983-1990
, The Manager is the Medium®, a communications skills program for managers and supervisors developed in 1995-98
Frequent speaker/co-speaker at conferences/conventions (i.e., CPRS national conferences, IABC international conferences, Young Presidents, Society of Association Executives, World Disaster Conference, State Fraternal Congress, etc.) and seminars and workshops at colleges and universities in Canada and the United States.
• Director, One Change, 2012+
• Director, Psychology Foundation of Canada, 2006-2013; Member, Executive Committee, 2009-2013
• Director, 1988-2003 and President, 2004-2005, The Empire Club of Canada
• Member, Public Relations Society of America Counselors Academy, 1998+
• President, The Walter Frisby Society. 1972-74
• Chair, Metro Toronto Interfaith Immigration Committee, 1972-74
• Member, Omicron Delta Kappa leadership society, 1966+
• Ongoing involvement with various charitable organizations
Featured on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/user/mycarejourney
The Family Eldercare Workbook & Planner, 2010, Lifeworks Books, Toronto
Aging Parents: 200+Practical Support Tips from My Care Journey, 2010, Lifeworks Books, Toronto
Parenting Your Parents: Support Strategies for Meeting the Challenge of Aging in the Family, 2002, Dundurn Press, Toronto; revised 2nd edition January 2011
Parenting Your Parents: Support Strategies for Meeting the Challenge of Aging in America. 2007, Dundurn Press, Toronto
Parenting Your Parents: Straight Talk About Aging in the Family. 2013, Dundurn Press, Toronto
Leadership@Work: Be an Effective Team Leader Anywhere, Anytime, with Anyone. 2001
LifeWorks Books, Toronto; revised 2nd edition January 2011
No Surprises: The Crisis Communications Management System, 1988, Bedford House, Toronto.
Public Affairs Management in Canada (1986, Wiley Books, Toronto)
Cost Effective Management for today's Public Affairs (1987, Washington, DC)
Solutions magazine (2001-2011)
Author/co-author of numerous journal and magazine articles (i.e., Business Quarterly, PR Reporter, Communication World, Insurance, Hospital Quarterly, Tactics, Strategic Communications Management, etc.).
Bart on Books
My ninth book is due in bookstores and electronically on this year. It will be the fourth in the Parenting Your Parents series, called Parenting Your Parents: Straight Talk About Aging in the Family
, co-authored with Canada’s leading geriatrician, Dr. Michael Gordon. Seven books have been co-authored and three have been national best sellers.
Leadership@Work: Be a Better Team Leader Anytime, Anywhere, with Anyone
was in fact the fifth best-selling business book in Canada in 2001 and on the business book best sellers list for months. The new revised second edition (2011) is still selling and now also is an iPad and iPhone app. I co-authored that with organizational psychologist Dr. Harvey Silver.
The 2005-second edition of Parenting Your Parents: Support Strategies for Meeting the Challenge of Aging in the Family
also became a national bestseller.
No Surprises: The Crisis Communication Management System
(1988) was co-authored with TAG Watson, APR, and Bill Koch, APR, FPRSA and became a North American best seller in its price category. It is, to this day, considered the seminal work in the creating the framework for the practice of crisis communications management.
I am currently working on my first serious attempt at fiction; the book is called One Yard to Midnight
Voted “Canadian Public Relations Executive of the Year” by readers of PR in Canada magazine 1988.
Canadian Public Relations Society national awards:
- Award of Recognition, 1988
- Award of Excellence, 1985, 1986, 1987
- President's Medal, 1991
Canadian Public Relations Society Toronto awards:
- Mentor Recognition Aware, 1999
- Honorary Life Member, 2007
Selected as first group of seven CPRS College of Fellows
Selected for the CPRS Phillip Novikoff Award
Selected for CPRS Shield of Public Service
International Association of Business Communicators awards:
- Award of Merit, 1983, 1986
Selected for listing in “Canadian Who's Who,” 1992 onwards
Awarded Rakoczi Foundation Life Achievement Medal
To summarize Bart…
Bart Mindszenthy's work in public relations in Canada and the United States has left an indelible mark on this profession. Not only has he practiced his craft but also he has taught and mentored many people both in educational and informal settings. His contributions to CPRS nationally and the Toronto Society has made for a stronger and more robust Society with a higher understanding and name recognition in all sectors.
His innovation and strategic thinking have gotten companies and organizations out of trouble and saved many corporate reputations and money.
His ongoing dedication to education at Royal Roads University ensures that Canada will continue to have an ongoing supply of well-trained and competent graduates who will continue to build Canadian Public Relations Society and the profession for the future.
Bart is not finished yet. He may be playing a little more tennis and golf but Gail and Bart continue to take on assignments and work with clients and volunteer in the community.
Bart Mindszenthy is a fine example of the consummate public relations professional. He deserved to be one of the first seven inducted into the CPRS College of Fellows. Today, he leads by example and never wavers in his pursuit of practicing and improving public relations in Canada.
Last thoughts for readers
One of my university majors is in philosophy, the other journalism. It's a very strange but interesting combination. With one I learned how to think; with the other, I learned how to express myself. The two have served me well. I think our Mindszenthy & Roberts business cards may demonstrate this best. The cards are fold out and opposite the contact coordinates it says: “What you think determines who you are. Who you are determines how you'll act.” Not only do I believe in those two lines, but I think they reflect what we in the business of communications must always think about and be guided by. After all, we're in the relationship business, and understanding what stakeholders think and how they may act has got to be at the bottom line of all we plan and do.