Jon Iwata, IBM PR chief since 2002, who last month received the Paladin Award of the PR Society Foundation, has presided over a PR department whose memberships in PRS declined from 15-16 in the 1980s and 1990s to six currently.

The last printed members’ directory of PRS in 2004 showed nine IBM PR people, not including Iwata. IBM employs 444,000.

[“Today’s IBM, rotten to the core,” is six-part series on by Robert Cringely.]

Iwata joined the elite, secretive (PR) Seminar in 2002 and in 2003 joined the elite and almost as secretive Arthur W. Page Society, an offshoot of Seminar.

Membership fees for Seminar are about $3,500 yearly. Iwata, as chair of Seminar in 2007, led in removing “PR” from the name of the group, citing the few members who have “PR” in their titles. The annual four-day meeting is always at one of the top resorts in the U.S. Travel/hotel/meal costs can equal or exceed $3,500.

IBM, PRSA memberships
IBM's PR Society memberships declined from 1984 (top) to 2004.
Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami and Secretary of Health & Human Services under President Clinton, was among the speakers in 2011. The meeting was at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach, Fla.

Membership in Page is $1,395 yearly and attending Page meetings can add thousands to that.

Iwata is also a member of The Wisemen, a New York group founded in 1938 by John Hill comprised of many of the execs who belong to both Seminar and Page.

Ten years of memberships and activities in Seminar and Page cost about $100,000 which is where IBM (or Iwata himself) invested in memberships in PR groups. Employees typically have their companies pay PR memberships and PRS was obviously not on the approved list at IBM.

Seminar, Page Are 3/c’s; Where’s “Education?”

Seminar and Page have the 501/c/3 tax-free status meant for charitable and educational institutions. Companies can make tax-free gifts to C/3’s and deduct it from their incomes. That is not possible for c/6’s such as the PR Society.

Everything about Seminar, including its very existence, is cloaked in secrecy, which calls into question its promise of being educational. It only “educates” its 150 or so members.

Resume-trading and networking are also chief activities of Seminarians because of the high rate of job turnover of the PR execs which is linked to high CEO turnover. Only seven of the 26 new members in 2005 were at the 2011 meeting where 49 of the attendees were there for the first time. This is a rough count of members who lost jobs since there is a limit on memberships and those who lose jobs are only allowed to come to one more meeting.

The secrecy and the participation by at least 25 leading journalists and publishers in Seminar led Peter Sussman, a founder of the Ethics Board of the Society of Professional Journalists, to write that the journalists broke at least 10 articles of the code by not reporting its existence.

Seminar has top speakers whose wisdom should be shared with the PR community.

Page shares some of the secretive habits of Seminar including a private membership list of about 400. Page members have access to the phone and e-mail contacts of editors without providing that information on themselves.

Page meetings are open to the press but Page should also supply texts and summaries of what the speakers have said.

Media, and especially newspapers, have been put on a starvation diet by corporations. Newspaper ad revenues plunged $29 billion to $20B in 2011 from 2006.

Cash-rich companies like IBM ($12.3B cash/investments) and Apple ($110B in cash/investments and no debt) could at least subscribe to the websites of publications if they don’t want to advertise. Economists say corporations are sitting on about $2 trillion in cash reserves that should be put to work creating jobs.

Although the late Steve Jobs of Apple is usually referred to in the most reverent of tones, Brooklyn College Prof. Eric Alterman called him “An American Disgrace” and “SOB” in the Nov. 28, 2011 The Nation for “hoarding an $8.3 billion fortune to no apparent purpose” and cancelling “all the company’s charity programs.” Jobs also ignored “34-hour shifts, beatings and child labor” in the Chinese plants where Apple’s products are made, said Alterman. h

Iwata, on receiving the Paladin Award in 2011, appeared to accept the decline of traditional media.

IBM’s PR people are now operating in “new profession” that has moved from mass communications to engagement with individuals, he said.

His 2009 Institute of PR speech referred to PR people as being in a “priesthood.” He said they are “tasked now with making others as expert as we are—and that makes some of us uncomfortable. We’re the crafters of messages. We’re the authorized spokespeople. We’re the producers of high-quality video, print, events and online.”

Seminar Head Jordan Faces Questions

Ray Jordan, PR head of Johnson & Johnson, is vice chair of Page and chair of the 2012 Seminar in San Diego.

Jordan may have his hands full this year because it’s the 30th anniversary of the Tylenol murders. Ex-employee Scott Bartz has written a 619-page book, now recognized by Wikipedia, that challenges the J&J position that it was blameless and that the murders were something inflicted on seven victims by someone going from store-to-store and leaving poisoned bottles.

Bartz says the acetaminophen in Tylenols often went through as many as five different sets of hands while under the control of J&J before delivery to stores and that one of the victims, who just had a baby, got her poisoned Tylenols from the hospital drugstore where outsiders were not permitted.

He also urges readers to “do the math.” The odds were that hundreds of poisoned bottles were in stores in the Chicago area, he says, since the chances that victims purchased and used the exact few poisoned bottles were astronomically low. Only a few poisoned pills were in each bottle, further escalating the odds, he says.

The Tylenol murders is about the only crime where most of the evidence was turned over to the logical suspect--J&J--or destroyed at the urgings of police, says Bartz.

Where Are the “Leaders?”

Some PRS members believe we erred in headlining April 30 that “PRS Leaders Skip Burson Dinner.”

The definition of “leader” is someone who gives orders that are obeyed.

PRS chair Gerard Corbett was at the dinner and assured us there is no boycott against the O’Dwyer Co. We told him we wanted confirmation of that the next day by PRS COO Bill Murray and/or VP-PR Arthur Yann so that proper hearing equipment can be arranged for us at the 2012 Assembly and conference in San Francisco.

No such call or e-mail has ever come from Murray or Yann. We did get a rare e-mail response from Murray saying he was out-of-town on other PRS business and that is why he skipped the Harold Burson dinner.

We e-mailed back asking what was more important than a dinner that drew 2012 chair Corbett, 2011 chair Rosanna Fiske, chair-elect Mickey Nall and the staff heads of Page, Institute for PR and Council of PR Firms that he knew about months ago?

There was no response. PR, faced with thorny, multi-faced issues, has a tendency to freeze.

Participation by IBM and other major companies in the PR Society is needed to bring about reforms. Instead, their PR executives have left governance of the Society to others and have gone to small, private groups such as Seminar, Page and Wisemen.