Hilda E. Wilson, APR, FCPRS(H)
If every profession can be said to have its outstanding achievers, then the Canadian public relations profession looks upon Hilda E. Wilson as one of theirs.
In the early 1960s, Hilda was working as secretary for a construction company. With the company growing and new subdivisions opening, she was assigned to work in the new public relations department in 1963. This was her first taste of PR. Hilda learned how to handle analysts, deal with shareholders and get financial page publicity. She was also asked to coordinate the company’s first public offering, something she had never done before.
In order to do a good job, Hilda passed the Canadian Securities Institute course, attended financial seminars and took the American Management Association’s courses on investor relations in New York City.
When a top spot opened up unexpectedly in her department, Hilda applied. But even though she was qualified for the job, she was turned down and told by the president that the PR manager position was more of a “man’s job.” That experience ultimately led her to consider going at it in PR on her own.
To be sure she was making the right move, Hilda approached Charles Tisdall, the highly regarded co-founder of Tisdall-Clark (who was one of Toronto’s promising new PR consulting firms at the time) and confided her new business idea to him. Tisdall proved to be very helpful to Hilda; he patiently guided her on how to start her own business and became both a mentor and lifelong friend in the process.
In 1965, Hilda opened Investor Relations Canada Ltd., (IRCL) in Toronto’s financial district. Her former employer became her first client.
At IRCL, Hilda became a pioneer of financial and consumer education PR practices because of her innovative ideas for clients like ITL Industries Ltd., of Windsor, Ont. They became the first company to charter a plane full of invited analysts to visit the plant and meet with the CEO. This successful idea shortly became common practice for out-of-town junior industrials.
Then in 1967, new Loblaws president Leon Weinstein invited Hilda (at the suggestion of his advertising agency) to help him grow the supermarket’s business. Subsequently, she became what is today considered an “outside” director of consumer affairs.
At the time, consumer backlash was at an all-time high and supermarkets, busy with their bottom lines, were largely ignoring it. To combat this attitude, Hilda started a regular consumer column in the weekly Loblaws ads. An innovative first in supermarket advertising, it soon caught on and was being read avidly. Her readers looked forward to each week’s revelations the same way they looked forward to their favourite TV soap opera. Other supermarkets soon followed suit and started similar versions of Hilda’s consumer education column.
It was in this role that Hilda also became comfortable being an outspoken consumer advocate. In a Stimulus Magazine feature article, the writer said: “Hilda Wilson … would probably resent the inference, but she is the grandmother of the consumer relations activities in food chains across Canada.”
Before long she found support coming from the Consumers’ and Dieticians’ Associations, who recognized and embraced the trail she was blazing.
In 1968, Hilda welcomed one of the country’s most remarkable retail legends, Shoppers Drug Mart, into her family of clients. She never had to compete with other firms to retain the business of her most prominent client over the 30+ years she had the account. She also went from consultant to board member to advisor emeritus for the client before passing the baton on to her son Michael prior to her retirement.
Now in her 80s, Hilda keeps busy as both a grandparent and an active community member. In July 2008, she launched her third book with co-author Dea Cappelli Clark titled, The Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition.
She also continues to be recognized for her exceptional influence in the world of business communications. In an August 2008 issue of Marketing
, Hilda was proclaimed as one of the 10 most influential pioneers in Canadian marketing history. The introduction to her citation says it all: “At a time when PR was exclusively a male domain, she opened it up to women.”
HILDA’S REFLECTIONS ON CHANGES IN PRACTICE SINCE 1960
Changes in Strategic Communications Planning
- Honorary Member, College of Fellows, Canadian Public Relations Society
- Lamp of Service, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1968
- Member (first Canadian woman), Public Relations Society of America, 1965-1980
- Outstanding Volunteer Award, North York Chamber of Commerce, 2002 Professional and Community Service
- Board Member and Fundraising Chair, Orchestra Toronto, 2000-present
- Chairwoman and Member, Montebello Conference on Canadian Information, 1975-1990
- Chairwoman, Pauline McGibbon Cultural Centre, 1966-1969
- Community Representative, Animal Care Committee, Sanofi Pasteur Inc., 1989-present
- President, Vice-President and Board Member, Toronto Philharmonia, 1988-1999
- Founder and Executive Director, German Wine Society in Canada, 1976-1990
- Founding Director and Board Member, Council on Drug Abuse, 1973-1990 and 1997-2004
- Founding Director, Honorary Director and Member (National Board of Governors), Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, 1967-1970, 1970-present and 2001-present
In my early days, the emphasis was on writing press releases and getting publicity. Now the strategy goes all way from research and surveys, to evaluation and changes at the management level.
PR practitioners are also more creative because they are encouraged to think outside the box. When lawyers used to write press releases, it was very difficult to change legal jargon into something interesting, but that’s no longer the case.
Changes in How Public Relations is Practiced
Clearly technology has transformed not only the speed of response and the far wider reach, but also the skill set of today’s practitioners. While in Israel in 1968 as Prime Minister Pearson’s press attaché, I used the telephone in the middle of the night to call the Canadian media one at a time. In those days, I used an electric typewriter, carbon paper, lots of whiteout, stencils and a duplicating machine. They are probably now all exhibits in a museum somewhere.
Another big change is the fact that there are more women in the business and who are very qualified too. Back in my days, women were either teachers or nurses and that was it. Today, you can be a woman and do anything and it seems that women in PR are doing very well.
Younger PR professionals are also better educated. In the early days, you wanted to be in PR because you liked people. Today, you have communications courses, media and multimedia courses and journalism courses to choose from to prepare for a career in PR.
In regards to media relations, back then most PR people were former journalists. Their strengths were that they knew everyone in the media business in terms of getting placement of a story or an article. Today, that doesn’t hold true. Media is open to all comers, especially if you have a track record of not bringing junk to the newsroom because people recognize that what you put out can be trusted.
There is not as much fact-checking today as there used to be. You could count on what you read in the news media as the truth before. The five Ws also used to be written into the first 26 words whereas now you have to get to paragraph five to find that. There’s so much more human interest stuff crammed in before the 5Ws are explained and more entertainment before news. Print is emulating TV.
Today, investor relations are so complicated too. The Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) came out in 1965, which was another reason I went into business for myself. It was a brand new regulatory instrument copied by other provinces and I really knew it back to front. At the same time a lot of junior industrials were going public and the CEOs really didn’t know what to do with the OSC act because they were busy making the widgets. I became counsel to many of them back then and it’s even more complicated now. Whole departments are investor relations. Every day something new is coming out for investment – even investment dealers have specialists in certain aspects of the market now. Before, there was only ever retail and institutional. Now with so many more specialists, reaching them is very complicated.
The impact of change has also left its mark on the profession. As a result, it’s close to impossible to be what was once described as a “generalist” in PR. The “specialist” now dominates and larger companies will have several communications specialists either on staff or as consultants.
Favourite Public Relations Achievement
There were several but the one that sticks out is Shoppers Drug Mart. I started with them in 1967 and kept them all the way to my retirement at a time when competition was pretty brisk and others wanted to get on the Shoppers Drug Mart bandwagon. Even though the company went through four different presidents, they stayed on with me for more than 30 years. When I retired in 1999, my son (who was in the business with me) carried on with the Shoppers account. It was a seamless passing of the torch.
Throughout my career, I was closely involved with CPRS. I was one of the early guest lecturers of public relations classes taught as part of the then Ryerson Institute of Technology’s continuing education program. Subsequently, I became an associate examiner of APR candidates in 1976 under Dr. Walter Herbert.
I participated regularly in chapter and national CPRS events over the years and was a section editor and contributor to Public Relations in Canada – Some Perspectives. In the 1970s, I was invited to become a Communications + Public Relations Foundation board member. I was also a longtime member of Public Relations Society of America’s consultants’ section in the U.S.
Advice to People Who Enter the Profession
- Never stop learning. Never assume you know enough about your profession to last throughout your career.
- Have an inquisitive mind. Think outside the box.
- Never work on a project you don’t believe in. You’re not lawyers who are obliged to defend a person you believe to be in the wrong.
- When you take on an assignment put both your mind and your heart into it. Detachment is for brain surgeons. If your heart isn’t in it, you’ll do a mediocre job.
- Don’t be word proud when others edit your writings. Some who have approval authority make changes for the sake of change; otherwise, they’re not seen to be doing their jobs. Some changes actually improve the message.
- Unless you’re a one-man (or woman) show, don’t care who gets credit for a successful outcome. The right people will know of your involvement.
- Try not to be the company spokesperson. People are still leery of PR-speak. Train your CEO (or client) to speak from the horse’s mouth.
- Get involved in your professional association to keep abreast on current trends, swap ideas, network and get to know your peers (even though some may become your competitors).
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Mistakes are good teachers. Self-esteem always precedes the respect others give to you.
- Most importantly, behave in an ethical manner at all times and demonstrate fairness and integrity with staff, clients, colleagues and those you encounter in public situations while fulfilling your duties.
Future of Public Relations
I see PR expanding its horizons even more than today. There are so many more things that are “PR”, such as public affairs, corporate affairs, etc. It’s a huge industry now.