John Francis

John Francis, APR, FCPRS (H)
Calgary, Alberta


Career Highlights
John Francis was among the first to see the importance of public relations as an emerging social science and was unquestionably the first to establish a professional practice in Western Canada.

John, born in 1932 in Calgary, studied commerce at the University of Alberta. He then joined Calgary Power where he was assistant director of public relations from 1954-56.

Although still in his early 20s, John had already come to the realization that the viability of any business or institution depends entirely on its ability to win public support through its attitudes and actions. He recognized, too, that the presentation of this corporate or institutional personality must be rooted in research-based information from qualified advisors. At the time, the public relations profession was ill-defined and everyone from press agents to propagandists passed themselves off as specialists in the field.

John was in a unique historical situation. Oil had been discovered in Alberta in 1947 and the province’s transition from an agricultural society to an energy-based economy was gaining momentum. It created an urgent need for disseminating accurate public information.

In 1956, John headed to Boston University in Boston to take a master's degree in public relations as he was determined to increase his own professionalism in the field. His master's thesis, The Public Relations Problems faced by U.S. Petroleum Companies Operating in Canada, paved the way for of a PR career in the energy sector.

However, two years later when John became the first Canadian to graduate with a master’s degree of science in public relations, Calgary's oil patch had hit a slump. The oil industry simply wasn’t hiring.

Instead of turning away from the industry, John was propelled to start his own home-based consultancy. His business started by doing annual reports for oil companies and within a year, J.D. Francis & Associates was firmly established with a downtown office and a staff of two.

Over the next six years, the company's expertise attracted a roster of blue ribbon clients in the fields of energy, engineering and real estate development, including the now famous Heritage Park tourist attraction. By 1965, John’s company had offices in both Calgary and Edmonton.

In 1966, John purchased Nattall and Maloney, Calgary’s second-ranked advertising agency to create Canada’s first fully-integrated advertising and public relations company.

In 1967, the new company officially changed its name to Francis Williams and Johnson Ltd., (FWJ). The company’s fully-integrated approach to marketing communications was a radical departure from established practice; no other agency was doing it and none was as proficient or effective. 

It wasn't long before FWJ was winning acclaim for its imaginative campaigns, such as Travel Alberta's "Wish You Were Here", "Stamp Around Alberta" and "Take An Alberta Break".  The public also fell in love with the Alberta Milk Producers' "Wear A Moustache" and "Butter is Better" in addition to the Calgary Stampede's "Quick, world!  What word comes after Calgary?" This particular campaign gained not only worldwide attention but profitable international business.

John’s team was called on to orchestrate public relations campaigns for major public and private developments including three hospitals, the Glenbow Museum and countless commercial projects. John created a research division which conducted a major public opinion study that led to the creation of the Alberta government's Fish Creek Park in Calgary, Canada’s first provincial park within a city.

Major Achievements
  • Award of Attainment, Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), 1986
  • Advertising Award for Best Single Creative Product in Annual Competition, Calgary, 1981
  • Advertising Industry Achievement Award, Calgary, 1996
  • AIDS Calgary, for contribution of professional guidance for The Names Project, 1989
  • Appreciation Award for Outstanding Service as CPRS national president, 1991
  • College of Fellows, Canadian Public Relations Society
  • Downtown Achievement Award, Lifetime of Service to Downtown Calgary, 1997
  • Lamp of Service, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1991
  • Lifetime Member, Canadian Public Relations Society
  • Master of Marketing, Lifetime Achievement Award for Marketing Excellence, Calgary, 1996
  • Merrett Award, in recognition of outstanding effort, The Calgary Philharmonic Society, 1971
  • National President, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1989-90
Professional and Community Service
  • President, Board Member and Director, Calgary Philharmonic Society
  • President and Board Member, Alberta Theatre Projects
  • Supporter, XV Olympic Winter Games, 1988
JOHN’S REFLECTIONS ON CHANGES IN PRACTICE SINCE THE 1950s

Changes in Strategic Communications Planning
The masters program at Boston University was ahead of its time. They taught students to address all public audiences, to spell out objectives, to use research to find out what targeted audiences were thinking and to pay attention to the difference between opinions and attitudes.

I spent my career attempting to apply these and other fundamentals. I had to “run uphill” much of the time trying to persuade clients to take a strategic and principled approach to their communications. Too often, I found clients just wanted their name in the paper, to pull the wool over the eyes of the shareholders and financial markets, or to get their development approved by city hall.

Today’s communication tools are much more sophisticated and well used; however, business goals are still too short-term and pragmatic and the goals of governments are still too connected to covering up bad news.

Changes in How Public Relations is Practiced
Newspapers have changed radically but still lead the news cycle, so the first rule of media relations is to earn the trust of the editor or reporter. With fewer reporters to cover much larger beats, newspapers are more ready to accept handouts uncritically. Journalists are much better educated in their own profession and are usually specialized in at least one or two areas of study, such as education, community service or government. Reporters ask better questions and write more comprehensive stories, but newspapers tend to have less space nowadays so it is more difficult to get a story published.

Television news has become trivialized and except for the CBC, BBC and NPR, radio news has almost disappeared. Television and radio documentaries now offer various organizations more opportunities to tell their stories. A lot more news and public relations channels are also available – we have PR specialists in a heretofore unknown field planting stories on Google, on cable channels and on blogs.

Moreover, traditional communication tactics such as employee newsletters, bulletins and magazines are being published more frequently and in more interesting ways. It took a great deal of resourcefulness and management support in the 1950s to publish even a modest magazine and get it out quarterly. Management today has become more sophisticated. It listens better to employees, and it shares more information with them. The gradual disappearance of unions may be in part due to improved communications between management and labour.

In terms of shareholder and investor relations, the regulatory reporting requirements that companies must adhere to today are much more demanding than past procedures. These filings are available to the public through the System for Electronic Document Analysis and Retrieval (SEDAR), thus making the mailing of annual and quarterly reports much less important to sophisticated analysts.

While ordinary shareholders may feel reassured in receiving a colourful, persuasive annual report (and therefore less likely to sell their shares), real power players are brokerage investment analysts and mutual fund groups. They often delve far deeper into information than ordinary shareholders to get a better look at the whole picture. The most important task now of the corporate investor relations manager is to respond to questions from analysts and news media.

Favourite Public Relations Achievement
In the 1970s, the Alberta government established a committee to provide community guidance in shaping what became Fish Creek Park, Canada’s first provincial park within a city. The committee retained FWJ, who developed a survey to determine the preferences of the people of Calgary. Instead of conducting a random sample survey, FWJ distributed the survey as a stuffer within the daily newspaper. The survey posed questions that would make people think about conflicting priorities facing planners in developing a major park. It was as much an information piece as it was a survey. FWJ received 35,000 replies at a time when Calgary had approximately 200,000 households.

Worst Moment in Public Relations
At the grand opening of Happy Valley (a public recreation area in Calgary), I had looked after every detail for my client – crowds, tours, guests, media. After everything was over however, the client was still reluctant to pay the bill. It turned out I had neglected to introduce the client to the mayor, who had been on the podium beside him. I had forgotten who he was working for at the event.

Advice to People Entering the Profession
· Get a public relations degree or at least a diploma
· Take a junior job to get practical experience before accepting an intermediate position
· Specialize in a sector, such as consumer products, financial, government, industrial or public service

Future of Public Relations
When I started many of the practitioners were ex-reporters who wrote news releases. They were not involved in policy. Public Relations is now established as part of senior management and government with responsibilities that include helping to set and implement policy. This trend will continue because our educational base is so strong.