The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Shelley Spector of the Museum of Public Relations
As the holder of a degree in history, I understand the importance of remembering, assessing and honoring the past while ensuring that we learn lessons from it as well. That’s exactly what the Museum of Public Relations does. So, it only makes sense that I would feature the Museum’s Founder, President and CEO in this series. It’s a pleasure to welcome Shelley Spector to the Common Sense Colloquy.
And what better time to feature Shelley Spector than during Women’s History Month? Women and public relations are inextricably linked not just in history but in the present day and in the years to come. Indeed, women have been pioneers in the practice of communications and have contributed far more to this industry than we generally acknowledge. So, let’s address that in this Q&A.
But first, a bit about our guest. Shelley founded the Museum of Public Relations, the only such organization in the world dedicated to the PR field, in 1997. The Museum features artifacts from pioneers like “Edward and Doris Bernays Ivy Lee, Inez Kaiser, Arthur Page, Ofield Dukes, Muriel Fox and many other women and people of color who have been left out of the history books.” And yes, it even includes a few contributions from yours truly (thanks Shelley!).
As Shelley writes on her LinkedIn page, “The Museum aims to enhance today's profession by learning from the people and practices of the past. It provides free lectures, online tours, and unique industry events. Our digital archives include interviews with PR pioneers, classroom resources, digitized books, and bios on diverse industry leaders.” What a great mission, right?
Shelley is an inspiring woman in her own right. She’s an Adjunct Professor of Public Relations at Baruch College and is the founder of Spector & Associates, the public relations firm she founded in New York City in 1991 after serving as an executive at RuderFinn and in communications role at the American Stock Exchange and Hill & Knowlton.
I first met Shelley when I was invited to participate as a panelist in the Museum’s ongoing LGBTQ Pride Month series “The LGBTQ Experience in Public Relations” in 2021. That led to an invitation to serve as Emcee and Moderator of the event in 2022. Along the way, I’ve sponsored the Museum’s events focused on the role of African American, Asian American and Hispanic communications professionals in our industry and attended as many of the virtual events as possible.
Shelley is a remarkable person possessing seemingly indefatigable energy to both run a business AND ensure that our industry does not forget where it came from. I consider myself fortunate to call her both colleague and friend and I’m thrilled that she accepted my invitation to participate in the Common Sense Colloquy series.
My thanks to Shelley for sharing her wisdom with us – and you.
Q: What would you say is the most important contribution of the Museum to the practice of public relations today?
A: I’d say the major contribution the Museum has made is to lift up the contributions of others—particularly individuals from the previously under recognized communities like African American, AAPI, Native Americans and LGBTQ. Since 2017, we have provided a platform to recognize these individuals, not just the “stars” of today but the untold stories of diverse individuals in history. For a century, our textbooks have only featured white men as the founders and leaders of this profession: no women or people of color or representatives of the LGBTQ or disability communities. We take it as our mission to uncover everyone’s stories, and literally change the way we tell the story of our history. By doing that, we help today’s diverse young people feel greater connection to this industry.
In telling a more “diversified” history, we are also redefining how we discuss PR history. Rather than just studying the history of the PR profession itself, we look at how public relations has impacted history, especially social history. This would include, abolition, Stonewall, suffrage, the Women’s Movement of the Sixties. When you research all these movements, you see the integral role played by strategic communications.
By including social movements in our understanding of PR, the profession becomes much more meaningful, relevant and important. And frequently, the leaders of these movements are and have been women and people of color—all of whom were innately good communicators.
Q: How do you define the role of women in public relations? What should people know about women’s contributions to communications that they don’t know or maybe don’t remember?
A: Women have been professionals in this industry far longer than it was commonly understood. After all, it took until the 1980s for there to be a woman CCO, and the first woman led agency was commonly thought to be started in the 1960s. But women PR professionals have been in this industry at least as far back as 1918. Only recently did we discover a woman by the name of Zelda Popkin, who, with her husband Louis, opened a PR firm in New York City a year before Doris Fleishman opened a firm with her husband, Edward Bernays, in 1919. Later in the 1920s, there was a woman named Belle Moskowitz who did both political consulting and PR for real estate companies. Their histories have been nearly forgotten by the textbooks. Only recently have the textbooks started to cover the life of Inez Kaiser, who in 1957, became the first Black woman to open a PR firm. I wouldn’t be surprised to find other diverse women who proceeded her.
Q: The Museum has hosted multiple annual events examining the role of women, people of color and LGBTQ people in building the public relations industry. How do you think we should proceed in ensuring that we both honor the many contributions of these communities AND foster the conditions for us all to have the same opportunities to thrive in this industry in the future?
A: I think that a particularly important outcome of these programs is that, for the first time, the industry is listening to panelists discuss in very frank terms about how racism, sexism and general bigotry is affecting them personally. Much of what we have talked about are crises seem to be historical in nature. But they are the very roots of the crises we experience today.
Many of the Museum’s programs of the past few years have focused on the role of communications in raising awareness for the wave of racial hate of the past few years, including the murder of George Floyd and Asian Hate incidents. It is one thing to hear or read about these incidents from news sources. But it’s quite another to hear about it from fellow professionals personally. We hope that this helps employers become more sensitive to the impact of these societal crises.
Panelists also talk about what’s getting in the way of their success. We hear stories about microaggressions, bias in getting promoted, lack of follow-through in diversity programs, and situations where diverse employees felt excluded from client meetings. While I don’t have any hard data, I do know anecdotally that company leaders have been listening, and hearing about issues that they may have not known about before. Many of these issues have been written about in the past. But to hear them discussed first-hand, live, with candor and emotion, it makes a greater impact.
We hope that the industry is listening.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: “It’s not creative unless it sells,” paraphrased from ad man David Ogilvy
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: “Publicity is a means to an end, not an end unto itself,” from the first Big Idea seminar I gave.