PR: Fifty Years in the Field

Jack Donoghue

PR is interesting reading, for several reasons. First, the central theme that runs through the book focuses on the design and dissemination of information in a society that has been characterized by information overload. Second, and this describes the author's overall approach, the book's content is a carefully selected collection of events from a half-century of his PR experiences in the field. Third, as one of the author's colleagues indicates in the Foreword, the book is "partly about the evolution of our profession [in Canada] and partly about Jack's evolution as a professional" (p. ix). Finally, because the experiences discussed in the book represent the author's career in three social sectors--the Canadian armed forces (during and post-WWII), the government civil service, and in a private public relations firm--the book is content rich.

In sum, then, the volume becomes a practitioner's handbook, anecdotal in style, with each chapter (17 in all) prepared as carefully as one would hope lecturers organize their materials: objectives of the chapter and central ideas are underscored; a selected PR experience is narrated; and conclusions (lessons learned from the experience) are identified--often in designated point form.

On occasion, the book suffers from uneven editing of the author's conversational style. For example, as the author recounts some of the problems related to the placement of Canadian troops in Germany as Canada's commitment to NATO after WWII, he is moved to explain about the ineffectiveness of the French Maginot Line which the German forces easily circumvented shortly after the outbreak of the war. The interjection, while interesting in itself, serves only to detract the reader from the central narrative. As well, full appreciation of the volume demands a pretty sophisticated level of understanding of Canadian history of the past 50 years (or, at least, some grey hairs); while the examples of the last half-century cited by the author are identified historically in general terms, the discussions are not always carefully referenced for the reader by detailed time frames.

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the events selected by the author that serve as case studies for PR practitioners (or, for those who would be) make this volume compelling reading. The events are historically significant and they are recounted by Donoghue in a manner that underscores their long-term consequences for Canadians. For example, Exercise Muskox (1946) in Canada's north was a success in military-scientific data gathering; military-community liaison in times of natural disaster (Manitoba's 1950 flood and 1953 polio epidemic) helped to define a valuable and valued domestic role for Canada's armed forces; and the federal government public relations campaign concerning the 1969 Canada Water Act offered evidence about the federal government's capacity to mount massive information programs for the nation. Other narratives provided by the author offer equally important lessons. Two, however, merit particular mention here.

In 1970, the Trudeau Liberals created Information Canada, intended to serve as a centralizing information agency of government in lieu of the various separate federal departmental information agencies in existence at the time. The move by the government was condemned roundly by the opposition, as well as by many of Canada's media, as an attempt to create a government propaganda instrument. From the start, Donoghue points out, Information Canada was in trouble, given the lack of agreement even by members of the government about the value of the agency. When it was disbanded in 1976, Donoghue describes the history of the agency as having had "five turbulent years" (p. 106). The author also emphasizes that at the time of its demise, Information Canada had amassed a huge staff of 677 employees. This chapter concerning Information Canada, even in encapsulated form, offers interesting insights by the author about what might be proper, and what could be improper, roles of governments as information disseminators.

While in the employ of a private public relations firm from the 1970s, the author also experienced a massive national public relations confrontation between the federal government and Canada's private petroleum industry. The federal government's introduction of a Federal Export Oil Tax in 1973, and the government's National Energy program in 1980, combined to threaten Canada's oil self-sufficiency, according to the private industry. In his chapter, entitled "Public Relations and the Abuse of Political Power," the author thoughtfully discusses the confrontation which, to this day, has not been resolved entirely. For example, Donoghue indicates that the failure of the federal government (this time under the Tories) to repeal the National Energy program was one of the underlying causes for the formation in Western Canada of the Reform Party in 1987. The surprising victories by the Reformers, in terms of parliamentary seats gained and the favourable popular vote across the country in the October 1993 federal election, suggest that the public relations confrontation discussed by the author might very well have had more political fallout than anticipated by either of the participants.

A guest chapter by a former president of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), and a concluding chapter, in which the author reflects upon his career and the future of his profession, round out a compact and valuable addition to the public relations literature in this country. Concerning the future of the profession, the former CPRS president does not equivocate when he asserts boldly that, in terms of the business community at least, "The 1990s belong to people in our business" (p. 174). There may be some truth to that claim; a newspaper business story in early 1994 described how major corporations on the continent were involved busily in fashioning "mission" and "vision" statements for their companies. Who else but PR practitioners would be so preoccupied?