Melbourne V. James, APR, FCPRS
Melbourne (Mel) James began his public relations career as a news writer for Canadian National Railways in Montreal, Quebec, from 1952 to 1955, writing human interest stories about passengers arriving by train and steamship, and new train developments.
After a two-year stint as manager of news services for the Bank of Montreal, he moved to Bell Canada in 1957 where he was promoted to supervisor of the news and information section in Toronto. Among numerous assignments, he crafted and edited news releases and speeches.
In 1964, Mel was promoted to manager, public relations, Toronto Region, where the position expanded to include responsibility for media relations, employee communications, information advertising, account inserts, directory introduction pages, covers, video productions, executive speeches, and special events. He became director of information for the Ontario Region in 1970. His career at Bell continued to develop as the profession moved into more strategic initiatives. In 1986, Mel James retired from Bell Canada, following a distinguished career in public relations.
Since his retirement, he has written a number of biographical sketches of outstanding Canadians for the Heirloom Publishing Company, and a new book, Make the Wind Blow
, outlining Canada’s role in the design and construction of wind tunnels around the world for the Aiolos Engineering Company of Toronto.
Professional and Community Service
- Honorary Member, College of Fellows, Canadian Public Relations Society, 2001
- Life Member, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1989 to present
- Chair, Communications and Public Relations Foundation, 1988-1991
- Lamp of Service, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1977
- Award of Merit, Public Relations Society of America, 1975
- National President, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1974–1975
- Accreditation, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1969
- President, Canadian Public Relations Society (Toronto), 1969–1970
- Member, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1964 - 1989
JAMES’ REFLECTIONS ON CHANGES IN PRACTICE SINCE 1950
Changes in Strategic Communications Planning
- Vice-Chair, Public Relations Committee, Official Visit to Toronto, Pope John Paul II, 1984
- President, Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs, 1975-1977, 18 years of service
- Public Relations Chairman, Family Service Association
- Public Relations Advisor, Marketing Committee, Art Gallery of Ontario
- Vice-Chairman, University Avenue Decorating Committee, Centennial Celebrations, 1967
- Vice-Chairman, United Way of Greater Toronto
- Public Relations Chairman, Toronto Board of Trade
- Vice-Chairman, Public Relations, University of Toronto Sesquicentennial, 1977
Strategic communications planning wasn’t a buzz word one heard in the early 1950s. It has grown out of the colleges and universities that now offer such courses that were not available then. In the early 1950s the major role of a public relations practitioner was dealing with the media and the media consisted of newspapers and radio, with the emphasis still on print journalism. Television came along later in that decade. Building relationships with editors and news directors by either seeing them in their off-peak work periods, or over a lunch or at the local watering hole where media people congregated was the basic approach. Technology, security concerns, and many other social changes have complicated such relationships today, some of it good and some of it questionable.
For instance, the media today too often quote unidentified or anonymous sources giving such sources the liberty to say what they want or give a biased opinion without the threat of being exposed. With the advent of television, the 30-second clip reduces news to a headline that can’t possibly reflect the total impact of an event, so a much more filtered flow of news now reaches the public. It is also obvious that reporters now indulge in more interpretation of events than earlier journalists who followed the traditional 5W approach.
There is also too much overheard or non-official comment now being dished up as news. A recent example was overhearing FranÁois Ducros, former Prime Minister Chretien’s communications director say to a friend privately that she thought President Bush was a moron and a journalist decided it was news. If she said it as an official comment then of course it was news as was the case where an MP became news when she stamped on a doll of the same Mr. Bush for television.
With respect to corporations and CEOs, it seems to me that there has been a shift from concern for customer relations to a greater emphasis on the need to please shareholders and enhance the bottom line. As a consequence, personal concern for the public appears to have decreased.
Technology such as voice mail has certainly helped create an impersonal attitude in the business community and elsewhere. During my career one could in variably get a secretary if not the actual executive you wanted to speak to but today it is often difficult to even get an actual human being to take care of your inquiry or complaint. There may be financial savings to be gained by using such technology, but the public relations person should be asking, at what price in customer relations.
Changes in Reputation Management
Public relations people need to have honesty and integrity. They need to stand up for the truth in the way they conduct their affairs internally and with the public. They need to instill this as essential in communicating with both senior management and their own subordinates. There are always going to be subordinates who feel their job is to please bosses by telling them what they want to hear but such an impulse should always be discouraged.
Public relations should involve reflecting long term objectives of a company, association or government and creating public awareness of problems and changes that must be faced. A simple example in my experience was the 1968 Bell Canada application for a rate increase that was going to increase local service by ten cents a month. Company officers believed that it must be kept a secret until announced to its regulator, the CRTC and as the company had a profitable year, the media and hence the public were highly critical of the application. The CRTC also for approving it. Years later when Bell decided to make a charge for information calls that required some 1600 operators to provide the service, when studies showed that roughly 90 percent of the calls were being made by 10 percent of the public, Charles Harris, APR (1970-71 National President of the Canadian Public Relations Society) who was Vice-President of Bell’s public relations department launched a program pointing out these facts before the company initiated the change with a minimum of reaction from the media or criticism of the CRTC.
If the public relations person is to be the spokesperson, it is essential that he or she have all the facts at hand and not solely rely on what some other department head or executive says "tell them, etc. etc." Sometimes public relations people are trapped into making a statement based on the faulty perception of people trying to protect their own department or job, and end up not only being embarrassed personally but also gain the mistrust of the media.
This leads me to comment on the 'no comment' response. In my view, never use it because the public immediately assumes you are guilty. It can be used but with an explanation of why it is necessary. To call ten minutes afterwards is dumb, much better to provide the best answer you can give before the deadline so that the reporter can update your information, particularly if it is an ongoing story such as an industrial accident.
Changes in How Public Relations is Practiced
Many of today’s public relations departments are reporting through marketing. Having public relations departments or agencies reporting to marketing is not ideal. There is an immediate bias to present only good or sales-oriented news. The public relations department is most effective in its role when it is a stand-alone department and not associated with marketing, or sales or legal, though the latter should be consulted as their input can be vital in many situations.
Since the 1950s there has also been a new emphasis on people being in the news; i.e. CEO profiles and their management skills or changes, etc., sports coverage of not only the play but the players; i.e. V.J. Singh’s criticism of having a woman play in the PGA.
In short, any controversial comment, even if unimportant, is fodder for talk shows, morning radio interviews and journals such as People Magazine. Today, of course, email, the Internet and cell phones have also reduced reaction time for responses to minutes instead of hours in earlier times.
About the mid to late 1960s, Philip Leslie, a public relations consultant from Chicago, who was also associated with the Tisdall Clark public relations agency in Toronto, made, in my opinion, a key observation about a major shift on how influence on public attitudes was changing. He claimed the old practice of having information originate with leaders and flow or 'trickle down' to the public was being replaced by the 'grass roots' activists, who used protests, demonstrations, talks and campaigns of all descriptions to register their particular concern, be it against seal hunting or tree cutting. This new public power also demanded change in public relations, such as holding meetings in a community before launching major projects.
Polls, of course, are another of the major changes. Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s ‘polls are for dogs’ was a humorous comment but in the 1960s the power of polling was being felt. Today it has become the new guiding light in setting most government policy initiatives and for that matter, the basis of much of our news coverage and hence the shaping of public attitudes. Surveys and focus groups are now considered essential elements in everything from packaging to political campaigns.
Media relations, therefore, are still important but the public relations industry has evolved into many more specialized areas such as shareholder or stakeholder relations, government relations, community relations, to name a few. Public relations agencies have also developed skills in all these areas.
Favourite Public Relations Achievement
One of my favourite achievements was the Bell Canada introduction of fibre optics. Originally the company thought it might be advantageous to make the first installation in Brampton, Ontario, because the premier of the province lived there. When consulted we pointed out that the distance made it not conducive for visits to show off the new technology to visiting officials and other experts in the field. A second choice was Don Mills, Ontario, but it had much the same drawback. Engineers then suggested the Yorkville area in downtown Toronto and that was ideal. Thirty-two homes were equipped with the new technology and a studio to show how fibre optics would revolutionize telephone and television technology was established in rented quarters in Yorkville.
Worst Moment in Public Relations
My worst moment in public relations occurred north of Brampton, Ontario. Long after most people had the telephone service they wanted on demand, there were new suburban areas where the company could not meet the demand for service for a few months. When CTV heard about it, they called to ask that the Bell president be interviewed on their Sunday night public affairs show. He agreed and appeared at what he and I thought was a one-on-one interview. But CTV decided to round up a bus load of protestors from the area and bring them to the studio to pepper the president with questions. As the public relations person, obviously, I should have been aware of or anticipated such a happening. I apologized to the president as we left the building, but he dismissed my embarrassment with a wave of the hand and the comment – "Forget about it, these things happen".
I joined the Canadian Public Relations Society in 1964 when I became manager of Toronto area public relations for Bell Canada. By 1966, I was CPRS (Toronto) treasurer, and I became Toronto president in 1969-1970.
In 1974-1975, I became CPRS national president. With the support of Bell, I was able to visit every member society in Canada and agreed to make myself available for interviews or talks to other groups if the local society wanted to arrange them. I felt strongly that the function of public relations needed to be better understood by the public.
It was also my good fortune to become involved with the Couchiching Institute of Public Affairs as a director in 1968, prompting an interest in planning conferences. Through a colleague there, I met Walter Weisman, a former director of internal communications at NASA, who was a superb, entertaining, speaker as well as an expert in the field. We suggested to CPRS member societies that they book him for a daylong seminar for a modest $300 fee that allowed them to market the professional development session to benefit their own local communities. Weisman’s tour was a great success.
One year at a national conference in Toronto, we decided to take delegates out of hotel meeting rooms to alternate venues. The Toronto Stock Exchange, for example, not only hosted a seminar on financial relations but participants were able to see the trading floor in action. The host companies also provided the refreshments that proved a significant saving in the usual coffee break expenses.
My association with both Couchiching Institute and CPRS also enabled me to organize several joint conferences under such diverse media and public relations concerns as "Polls, Politics and the Press", and "Arts and the Media".
As chairman of the job placement committee for the Toronto society, it was also my pleasure to help some 200 people find junior, intermediate and some senior positions in public relations.
Advice to People Who Enter the Profession
Membership in the Canadian Public Relations Society has been a rewarding experience, one of sharing expertise with any number of fellow practitioners from coast to coast that are far too numerous to mention here. But like any organization one joins, the real benefits only accrue to those who actively participate, whether it’s CPRS, the Board of Trade or any community organization.
Read about a variety of issues. Be broadly educated in the political affairs of the community that you are managing, and the media. Have a broad-based education, including social studies and history. In my day, there were no formal journalism schools or college courses such as we have today.
Develop a social network and establish public relations contacts. The network factor was very important in the success of my career, the broadening of community contacts and friendships, and nurturing the working relationships of successful public relations professionals.