Edsel J. Bonnell

Edsel J. Bonnell C.M., LL.D., APR, FCPRS(H), L.M.
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador


Edsel's Background
Edsel Bonnell was born in St. John's, Newfoundland on July 7, 1935, and was educated at Salvation Army College, Prince of Wales College and Memorial University. He began a career in journalism in 1953 as a reporter with the St. John's Evening Telegram and subsequently became a columnist and news editor. Edsel also worked in radio and television as a writer for VOCM Radio, news editor and commentator at CJON Radio and CJON-TV (now NTV), and public affairs panelist with CBC Radio and CBC TV in St. John's. In addition, Edsel published a current affairs magazine "Here In Newfoundland" from 1956 to 1958.

In 1959, he became Director of Newfoundland Public Relations Company Limited, making him Newfoundland's first full-time professional public relations consultant. The following year, he founded the firm of E. J. Bonnell Associates Limited. In later years, he operated the Newfoundland Advertising Co. Ltd., SignCraft Limited, The Daily News Limited, and associated marketing and publishing interests.

Edsel sold his publishing interests in 1972 to return to professional public relations activity as President and Principal Counsel of Bonnell Public Relations, and became the first Newfoundland PR consultant to earn professional accreditation (APR).

Major Achievements
His contributions to the field and to CPRS are well recognized and celebrated:
  • Six national Awards of Excellence and one Honourable Mention from the Canadian Public Relations Society
  • CPRS Award of Attainment for "leadership and outstanding achievement in Public Relations in Canada"
  • Philip A. Novikoff Memorial Award in recognition of superior and outstanding service over time as a public relations professional
  • CPRS Lamp of Service
  • First practitioner in Atlantic Canada to be elected as an Honorary Fellow of the CPRS College of Fellows
  • Inducted as a Life Member of CPRS in 2005
  • Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland for work in public relations and the community, one of only a few people that have ever received such an award for work in public relations
  • Order of Canada in 2001
  • Paul Harris Fellow of the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International
  • St. John's Citizen of the Year for 1984
  • Inducted into the Hall of Honour of the Kiwanis Music Festival Association in 2004.
  • Recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal.
Professional and Community Service
From 1989 to 1996, Edsel suspended professional practice to serve with Premier Clyde Wells in the combined roles of Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor in the Premier's Office. He chaired the Strategic Economic Planning Group that developed the Province's Strategic Economic Plan in 1992, and the Strategic Social Planning Group (1992-1996). He returned to private practice in March 1996.

Edsel is very active in community affairs, having served as Chairman of the Board of Governors of Coughlan College at Memorial University, President of the Better Business Bureau of Newfoundland and Labrador, and member of the Board of Governors of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council and other community, church, and charitable organizations. An ardent amateur musician, he founded the Gower Youth Band in 1973 as a non-denominational community service organization supported by Gower Street United Church, and established the adult Gower Community Band in 1997. He continues to serve as Conductor and Musical Director.

Edsel's Reflections

Greatest Achievement
I would have to say that my "crowning achievement" for a client was the PR strategy and program devised and implemented for the 1977 Canada Summer Games in St. John's. My company (Bonnell Public Relations) was retained by the Games Committee in 1974 to handle all public relations for an event which was being questioned in the media (and sports circles) across Canada because they had little or no faith that Newfoundland could actually host an event as important as the Canada Games. "No one will come" was the big criticism. "Certainly, the media won't be interested" was a close second. At that time, the largest media contingent at the "big" games venues (mostly in Ontario and Quebec) was in the range of 250-300, and the general wisdom was that we couldn't even come close to attracting that kind of national media interest for St. John's. Fortunately, I had a text-book relationship with the Chairman, General Manager and key committee officials of the St. John's Games who gave me "carte blanche" to do whatever was needed PR-wise, and an appropriate budget to do it with. I established a PR Committee (volunteers), many of them the leading PR lights of the area, and I brought in the graphic arts genius of Ted Mills (Ted Mills Advertising Associates Limited). Together we launched into the most creative and vigorous campaign imaginable to prove everybody wrong! We issued a record 613 media accreditations … more than double the usual media involvement as noted earlier.

We organized a national PR tour which "caught on" across Canada, climaxed by the most innovative Canada Games "flag-raising" on Parliament Hill in the history of the Games. We sent out invitations from our Games Mascot, a Newfoundland dog named "Harbour Beem Jack" from Bob Nutbeem's kennels, to every registered Newfoundland Dog owner in Canada and the U.S., and we had the largest convocation of dogs (and owners) in history on the campus in front of the House of Commons. Prime Minister Trudeau was estranged from his wife Margaret at the time, but we fixed that by bringing a gift of a Newfoundland Dog puppy ("Rideau 77") to the Trudeau kids, and needless to say it made front page photos and news in every major newspaper across Canada the next day! Pierre, Margaret, the Trudeau children, and "Rideau" under the Newfoundland Canada Games Flag with hundreds of dogs, owners, well-wishers, MPs, Senators, a military band, and hordes of onlookers all jammed into the Parliament grounds.

Worst Moment
In more than a half-century of PR activity, there are obviously many candidates for "worst moment." Certainly, high on that list would have been the Ocean Ranger disaster in 1982. I was still the local counsel for Mobil Oil while they were in the process of establishing their own in-house PR resources, some of whom had virtually no training or experience in public relations up to that time. It was a heart-wrenching and somewhat surreal experience, especially when I was trying to deal with local media people, one of whom had a son on the Ranger. I knew he was lost before his father did.

But on a PR professional level, I think my "worst moment" came in 1996 after I left the Chief of Staff office in the provincial government to return to private practice, and saw my dream of the non-political inter-departmental professional PR Directors group which we had established and maintained for eight years turned into a nightmare of political flacks virtually overnight... and in many cases, with the concurrence of the PR directors themselves.

PR Director Judy Foote and I worked hard, with the full support and commitment of Premier Clyde Wells, to create an ideal professional environment for PR independence and respect within the Government. At one point we achieved the distinction of having more people with APRs and BPRs than any other provincial government in Canada. But the structure fell like a house of cards to the persuasive machinations of a very political administration. They (the PRs) surrendered professionalism and the security of permanent virtually unassailable public service positions for the impermanence and spin-doctoring requirements of political masters. That would have to be my worst professional moment.

Biggest Challenge
As an advocate of strategic communications planning many years ago, when there was still a fair amount of activity based on "the seat of your pants" or "gut-feelings," it has been a pleasure to see a greater level of professionalism applied to PR assignments and certainly more evidence of the RACE formula in action. However, in some areas it seems to have been trivialized by the dogmatic adherence to rules that every communications action must have a "communications plan" attached to it, even the most routine of media releases or advisories. It seems to me that this is extreme to the point of being absurd, wastes professional time, and like most familiarities, breeds contempt.

Changes in How Public Relations is Practiced

The changes I have seen during my career:
  • Media Relations...generally more professional and detached over the years, less personal "buddy" system; improved ethics; broader scope of media; i.e. social media, blogs, etc.
  • Media organizations and reporting quality .....except for some die-hard journalistic dinosaurs, generally more mutual respect between PR and reporters; media quality is better in fast-breaking short bites and on-site coverage of events, but I think has deteriorated in quality of investigative, in-depth, long-term reporting; overall more cosmetic than comprehensive, especially in electronic media (why do subjects have to be interviewed out in the rain, when they'd be more comfortable behind their desk where they have real answers to real questions?); TV is glitz with computerized visual effects and handsome or gorgeous "anchors," but it's not always newsworthy...in other words, McLuhan was right, the media really is the message now!
  • Employee/internal communications...50 years ago few CEOs thought of employees as being a "public"; their goodwill was assumed rather than earned. That has changed for the better, but there are still instances where corporate commitment to real employee PR is a mile wide and half-an-inch thick; more lip service than philosophy.
  • Shareholder/investor relations ... wise companies place great emphasis on keeping the "stakeholders" informed and engaged.
  • Overall application of stakeholder relations planning .... I assume this relates to ensuring effective and timely communications with all publics... employees, shareholders/investors, governments, regulatory agencies, trade, civic, environmental groups, media, etc. and of course, the general public, all of whom can be "stakeholders". As in the above answer, there is much greater awareness and commitment by wise companies in today's world, and those who neglect stakeholder relations do so at their peril.
  • Use of pre and post campaign research ... true professionals always placed a high priority on the "R" in RACE in pre-campaign activity; I think the real change has been in post-campaign research, with the development of more scientific measurement and evaluation tools to strengthen the "E" element and to demonstrate to clients that PR is a continuum, and not a "stop" and "start" process which the word "campaign" suggests.
  • Issues Management ... this is pretty doctrinaire stuff for enlightened practitioners and clients in today's world, but it was not always so obvious. Decades ago there was a greater tendency to use PR as a medicine, trying to heal one complaint at a time, without identification of a variety of issues and how they can be addressed.
  • Quality and competence of those starting to work in PR ... I believe the availability of smart new blood has greatly improved as university students take advantage of opportunities to earn degrees in PR. When I began my career, people came into PR from media jobs or perhaps sales or marketing or human resources disciplines, and training was overwhelmingly "on the job". There were some remarkable success stories from that era, but the professionalization of PR over the years, thanks mostly to the tireless efforts of many "Greats" in CPRS and PRSA, has created a desirable and rewarding career choice for bright, creative young people. Kudos, too, to the educators who are turning out practitioners with a Bachelor of Public Relations (BPR) who can contribute skills and specific experience right from the first day in a new job. The APR/BPR combination is a proud hallmark and an assurance of professional quality.
  • Reputation Management: I recall speaking to the St. John's Rotary Club in the fall of 1998, nearly 13 years ago, on the critical importance of Public Relations and the changing face of the profession, and I mentioned the emerging specialty of Reputation Management (RM). That may answer this question. Thirty years ago, RM wasn't talked about very much because it was accepted as a natural benefit by-product of good public relations; 13 years ago, it was being singled out as an area of study and specialization, and today it is an essential element of good PR planning and crisis management.
  • National Firms and Niche Firms: If the mix is right, it's good. Large national and multinational firms provide professional leadership, expertise development, and research facilities that are invaluable to corporate/government/institutional PR directors and staffers, as well as smaller PR firms, especially localized consultancies that enter into a symbiotic relationship with the "big guys." However, there is much to be said for the "niche" firms. Often, they offer the sagacity and experience of seasoned PR veterans or creative geniuses who enjoy independence (and/or the joys of small-town life!), the depth of knowledge of a specialist in a field of industry or communications discipline, and the critical "on-the-ground" knowledge of local issues, mores, and political realities. For small-sized clients with small-sized budgets, the niche firms also offer flexibility, immediacy, and personal attention not available from the giants. That's all good, and my experience has been very positive in having alliances with respected international firms when offering my own service to local firms who may need large-scale resources at some point, and also in receiving assignments from the nationals to handle local programs and events on their behalf. That's all good. The "bad" would be if the PR monoliths ever want it all, and swallow up (or destroy!) the niche firms and specialized independents. There is room for both, and the clients deserve both.
  • Anything else? Only to say what a wonderful experience it has been to participate in the incredible growth of the Public Relations profession for more than 50 years. From the days when you would have to sit down with a client and try to explain what "public relations" was before you even got around to why he needed professional PR, to the communications revolution of today when practitioners must offer skills and technical expertise far beyond basic PR principles, is a dream come true. Through all of this, the Canadian Public Relations Society has been the linchpin of the profession: the glue that has held us all together, and the unflagging champion of ethics, accreditation, and education. When I began my career, there were separate PR societies in Ontario and Quebec, and even in the Atlantic Provinces. Thankfully, unity was achieved and the CPRS model has been a bastion of professionalism. I have also been privileged and humbled to know, work with, and serve in CPRS with some of the greatest names in Canadian PR history, the true "movers and shakers" of our field. I am forever grateful.
Where is the PR Profession heading?
Upward and onward! That may be a little too trite, but I see a great future for the profession and CPRS. The communications revolution is exponential, and the challenges are enormous due to the explosion in technology. To control a message when hundreds of millions of blogs have unrestricted means of criticism and even slander is no small feat. Sophisticated techniques are required to attract the attention of overloaded traditional media. And clients are well-educated CEOs who know they need professional PR, and expect the best. Public Relations is no longer an accessory, it is now a necessity; it is no longer an option, it is now vital. It is a prime career choice for bright, educated young people who have a commitment to the profession, worship the code of ethics, attain and maintain accreditation. The financial rewards can be very promising, and security is assured for the brightest and best. I often tell interested students that I don't know of any accredited PR professionals who are out of work!

Advice to a young person entering the field:
Five things:
  1. Learn.
  2. Memorize the CPRS Code of Ethics and live by it.
  3. Learn.
  4. Become accredited and maintain your accreditation. Be very proud of it.
  5. Learn. And never stop learning, from mentors, peers, CPRS, and clients.