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May 16, 2001



"You have entered a very elite circle, you are the cream of the crop of the PR world," William H. Shepard, then VP-PR of Aluminum Co. of America, told new members of PR Seminar in 1979.

That about sums up how members feel about this group that was a spinoff of the National Assn. of Manufacturers in 1952.

The PR directors of NAM companies used to gather separately before the NAM meeting in the 1940s. They then decided to get together apart from the NAM. Since 1952 was the first meeting using the name, PRS, the 2000 meeting last year was billed as the 49th and this year's meeting June 6-9 is being billed as the 50th.

All of the living ex-chairs of PRS have been invited back to this meeting, which could be the largest gathering ever.

Pebble Beach
The Inn at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach, Calif.

As usual, it's at one of the finest resorts in the U.S., the Inn at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach, Calif., where rooms start at about $400 a night.

The conference fee for attendees is $1,800 and there is an extra charge for spouses who attend. Most of the men bring their wives and about half of the women members bring their husbands.

Total Cost: $750K or More

One member figured that between travel and other expenses the bill for a couple would be at least $5,000. Since about 160 members attend (plus spouses), the cost will be upwards of $750,000.

A blue-chip list of speakers has been arranged for the meeting including Paul Gigot, Potomac Watch columnist of the Wall Street Journal; Michael Novak, columnist who is with the American Enterprise Institute; Ken Dychtwald, specialist in lifestyles of the aging, and Faye Wattleton, president, Center for Gender Equality, New York.

Not a word of the proceedings is supposed to escape although the O'Dwyer Co. has covered the event with varying degrees of completeness since 1970. A number of members, who do not believe the event should be secret, have supplied, each year, membership lists, programs and coverage of many of the speakers.

Such members, who believe press relations is the No. 1 task of PR people, disagree with the attitude of many PR Seminarians that PR people are, first and foremost, members of top management.

A veteran Seminarian said that would be fine but what he learned was that many Seminarians had little, if any, contact with their CEOs.

Sweeney Blasted Nike

Howard Paster, CEO of Hill and Knowlton, is this year's chairman of PRS.

Some of the speakers, including AFL-CIO president JohnSweeney, have released their remarks to the press.
Sweeney addressed the 1998 PRS at the same Pebble Beach location, blasting the "Nike Economy" that seeks subcontractors offering the lowest wages in foreign countries. He called the "new standards" proposed by Nike CEO Phil Knight "a cheap PR stunt" because the standards are voluntary.

Knight had promised ten days earlier to improve the conditions of those working on Nike products.

Howard Paster, chairman and CEO of Hill and Knowlton, is this year's chairman of PRS. He was asked if the group might finally say something for public consumption on its 50th anniversary.

He said he would ask other leaders but doubted that tradition would be broken, even for the anniversary.

Barlow to Be Honored

There will be special recognition of Walter Barlow of Research Strategies, Princeton, N.J., the only member to have attended all 50 of the meetings. Barlow serves as the photographer for the group although none of the photographs has ever been published outside of PRS circles.

Among companies to be represented are Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart Stores, General Electric and AT&T (from the top ten Fortune companies) plus other blue chips such as Coca-Cola, Time-Warner, Eastman Kodak, Aetna, Hewlett Packard, World Bank, Chevron, Dow Corning, McDonald's, Sears Roebuck, Prudential Insurance, American Airlines, Forbes, CBS, Warner-Lambert, United Airlines, Knight-Ridder, ABC, Dow Chemical, Boeing, Nike, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive.

The blue chip count is down from a couple of decades ago when almost all of the top 25 Fortune 500 companies were represented.

Yearly turnover is almost five times what it once was, reflecting high turnover in CEOs. Some 30-35 new Seminarians are needed each year now to replenish the ranks vs. only seven or eight in the 1970s.

CitiGroup Not Attending

One of those not attending is John M. Morris, retired senior PA director of CitiGroup, who now works part-time as a consultant to the company.

Morris said he attended PRS four or five years but did not go last year. His successor at CitiGroup, Leah Johnson, VP and director of external affairs, is not going either.

Pebble Beach resort
"By meeting at elegant resort hotels, holding black tie dinner parties and having numerous other social events, Seminar participants mimic the social lives of the corporate elite whom they serve," said Dr. Caroline Persell.

Morris said Johnson does not believe in groups such as PRS. "Our department is focused more on getting out a defined corporate message or philosophy about CitiGroup than connecting with other PR executives," said Morris.

He feels there has been a shift in recent years to PR pros being more oriented to clients and employers whereas they once tried to be equally loyal to the press and clients/employers.

Many heads of PR have come from the political side where PR performs a sales and marketing function for political leaders, he noted. Such political PR or salespeople are 100% loyal to the candidates and elected officials for whom they work, he said.

Paster was formerly a Democratic lobbyist in Washington, as was Thomas Hoog, president and CEO, H&K/USA.

Heads of Big PR Firms Attend

Representing PR firms, based on past attendance, will be Harold Burson, Burson-Marsteller; David Drobis, Ketchum; Lou Capozzi, Manning, Selvage & Lee; Daniel and Richard Edelman, Edelman PR Worldwide; Al Golin, Golin/Harris Int'l; Bob Feldman, GCI Group; Bob Druckenmiller, Porter Novelli; John Graham, Fleishman-Hillard; Larry Weber, Weber Shandwick; Bob Seltzer, Ogilvy PR Worldwide, and Andrea Cunningham, Citigate Cunningham.

Also present will be PR people from major associations including PRSA (the chair of which is always invited); Jack Bergen, Council of PR Firms; Geoffrey Pickard, American Institute of CPAs; Jon Holtzman, Chemical Mfrs. Assn.; Robert Zito, New York Stock Exchange, and Michael Baroody, NAM.

A top-flight speakers program has been set up for the chosen few including:

–Paul Gigot, Potomac Watch columnist, Wall Street Journal.

–Ken Dychtwald, founder of Age Wave and a specialist in lifestyles of the aging.

–Faye Wattleton, president, Center for Gender Equality, New York.

–Michael Novak, American Enterprise Institute, who writes about religion and the "voluntary sector."

–David Ellington, president of NetNoir, focusing on black/African American culture;

–Ted Price, president, Crisis Management Group.

–Sue Bostrom, senior VP, Internet Business Solutions Group, Cisco Systems.

–Clotaire Rapaille, Archetype Discoveries Worldwide.

–Dean Kamen, president, Deka Research & Development Corp.

Rituals Abound

The over-riding secrecy in which the meetings are cloaked is a "bonding technique," according to Dr. Caroline Hodges Persell, chair of the Dept. of Sociology, New York University, who analyzed the group for the O'Dwyer Co. in 1990.

Seminarians were practically ordered to bring their spouses for many years, when most of the members were men. This gave PRS further "control" over the members, said Dr. Persell. Wives were barred from the sessions for the first few decades of the group and then were allowed to sit in the back of the room. Now, they can sit anywhere.

Members wear a name tag with different colors to signify whether they are "freshman," regular members, or governing committee members.

Rituals include the ringing of a bell before each session. A "bell-ringer" is appointed each year and this is a position of high prestige. The symbol of PRS, in fact, is a bell. It is used on programs and other literature.

"By meeting at elegant resort hotels, holding black tie dinner parties and having numerous other social events, Seminar participants mimic the social lives of the corporate elite whom they serve," said Dr. Persell.

"In the temporarily self-contained world of the secret Seminar," she said, "the PR executives have a higher status than they do in their occupational worlds. By excluding some members of their own occupation, all members may enhance their status in their own eyes, and perhaps in the eyes of others aware of the group. An open society has less capacity to enhance social status," she said.

A secret society prompts reactions, she warned.

"Those excluded react by poking fun at it or by overestimating its importance. The fact of secrecy suggests the idea that a special association might one day use its energies for undesirable purposes," said Dr. Pursell.

Networking and jobseeking are prime activities of members. A book devoting one page to the biography of each member is circulated, which is ideal source material for executive recruiters.


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