PR Seminar, which says it is “not about the practice of communications” (and we agree), holds its annual $1 million off-the-record meeting June 1-4. Ex-CIA head and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been added to program.

Panetta
Panetta

Panetta, Secretary of Defense from 2011-13 and director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009-11, joins other speakers including Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, and Bob Johnson of RLJ Cos., described by Wikipedia as “America’s first black billionaire.”

Gregory Page, executive chair of Cargill, was previously listed as a speaker but is not in the new program. Seminar, now being handled by Assn. Mgmt. Services, Pasadena, Calif., has vastly expanded its web presence.

Seminar had once closely guarded its registration list but the expanded site, runs pictures of the 35 first-timers at the 2014 meeting. They include 20 women and 15 men. This year’s meeting is at the Ballantyne resort in Charlotte, N.C. Registration of about $3,500 and other costs run the total bill for the meeting to about $1 million counting travel/room & board.

This is the one-hundredth of one percent of PR executives who, while supposedly sensitive to trends in public opinion, appear to be unmindful of the tsunami of articles and books talking about the growing divide between the super rich and the rest of the U.S.

An AP/Equilar pay study published this week and picked up by practically every paper in the U.S., noted that CEO pay packages have passed the $10M mark for the first time. Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty, which predicts a deepening of the rich/poor gap, has become a best-seller.

Longtime member John Budd scolded Seminar in 2009 for meeting at plush resorts and having all proceedings "off-the-record." He said the annual event should be in New York and open to the press. He wondered how the "self-styled experts in the management of perceptions" could exhibit "such an arrogant deonstration of tone deafness in the light of the public's outrage at company retreats in posh resorts."

There had been lots of criticism at the time of AIG meetings at resorts at at time when AIG was seeking billions in bail-out funds from the government. 

NASCAR, Noory Entertain

A highlight of the meeting will be a reception and tour of the Hall of Fame of the National Assn. of Stock Car Racing, which is in Charlotte. Jeff Gordon, NASCAR Cup Series champion, will speak at a dinner at the Hall of Fame Tuesday.

“NASCAR”
Hall of Fame of NASCAR

Comic relief from such topics as “Global Security” (Panetta), “Good News for Bees and other Pollinators” (Prof. Marla Spivak of Univ. of Minn.), and “Microfinance & Changing the World” (Prof. Muhammad Yunus of Unus Centre), will be George Noory, whose late night talk show “Coast to Coast” explores the paranormal including time travel, UFOs, alien abductions and “strange occurrences.”

Of special interest to the Seminarians is a panel featuring three executive recruiters—Bill Heyman of Heyman Assocs., George Jamison of Spencer Stuart, and Richard Marshall of Korn/Ferry International.

Seminar, in the 1970s and 80s, typically took in 7-10 new members a year. However, in recent years, due to an increase in the turnover rate of CEOs, classes of what used to be called “freshmen” grew to be 35-45.

The expanded Seminar website is a move to drum up new members each year to replace those who lost their jobs for one reason or another. Soaring prose is used to describe the group, which calls itself “the premier organization of the highest-ranking communications and PA executives at the world’s most influential corporations, nonprofit organizations and PR agencies.”

Seminar seeks the “best of the best—leaders of high professional standing and deep experience,” says the website. It describes members as “a highly articulate group. Not only do we mix it up with our colleagues, we mix it up with our speakers, “ it adds.

Writing and ability to deal with the press do not appear to be in the skill set of the members. If any of the current Seminarians has produced any books or conducted press conferences, we’d like to hear about it. Seminar is like a convention of lifeguards who have aquaphobia.

'PR' Absent from Titles but Not Tax Return

The term “PR” does not appear in any of the titles of the 35 new members. “Corporate communications” and “communications” are mostly used sometimes mixed with “marketing” and “PA.” Seminar removed the “PR” from its working name in 2007 although its tax documents still use “PR Seminar.” Net assets as of 12/31/12 were $786,163. EIN:41-1838593 (501c/3 charitable/educational status).

Neither “PR” nor “communications” as such are ever discussed.

Although it has used the term “Seminar” to describe itself since 2007, its 990 tax return is for “Public Relations Seminar” and its statement of program services says it’s devoted to improving “professionalism and business conditions in the area of PR,” helps members to meet the “PR needs” of employers and clients, and “fosters the acquaintanceship of leading PR practitioners who are advancing enlightened PR and practice in the business sector.”

Reporters and editors from such media as New York Times, Washington Post, ProPublica, CBS, Time, Financial Times, The Economist (and about 20 others) once were featured speakers but not in recent years.

Peter Sussman, a founder of the Ethics Board of the Society of Professional Journalists, noted that reporters who attend Seminar and don’t report on it violate ten articles of the SPJ Code.

However, PR people of media still attend. Attending for the first time this year are Eileen Murphy, VP-CC, New York Times Co., Jason Schechter, CCO, Bloomberg, and Emma Carrasco, chief marketing officer, National Public Radio.

Other newcomers included Diane Lofgren, SVP and CCO, Brand Communication, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, a national director of PR Society of America; Steve Burgay, SVP, external affairs, Boston University; Michele Davis, head of global corporate affairs, Morgan Stanley; Stephen MacCarthy, VP-C, University of Pennsylvania, and Euart Glendinning, CC & PA head, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

Blue chip corporate PR executives often earn close to a million or even millions yearly. The 200 highest paid CEOs of U.S. companies averaged $15 million yearly in pay packages in 2012 and their other executives, including PR heads, have to be paid commensurately. SEC filings showed that Fred Hill, who was PR head of JPMorgan Chase for eight years to 2006, took home $4 million to $6 million in five of those years.