PR needs more iconic role models like Charles Tisdall

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Public relations pioneer was renowned trailblazer for his contributions in setting national standards for PR ethics and practice, creative solutions to complex challenges, and helping herald high tech in communications, while supporting numerous important causes. (From the CNW Group news release, issued on March 24, 2007.)

For me, valuable knowledge and connections often bubble to the surface of consciousness in roundabout ways. My inaugural post on PR Conversations, a tribute to a Canadian PR icon that I never knew personally and whom, until lately, I only “knew of” peripherally, is one such example. The catalyst for this began in late November 2006, when I was contacted by Barbara Sheffield, APR, Fellow CPRS, about recruiting a treasurer and executive board member for the Canadian Public Relations Society’s Communications and Public Relations Foundation. Back in 1982, its founder and first chair was Charles Tisdall; today Barb is in the lead role. The foundation’s operations were becoming more complex and sophisticated, and it was time for its financial reporting to reflect that: the board wanted to recruit a treasurer who understood all aspects of the chief financial officer role.

Barb and I were in frequent contact during the recommendations and interviewing process. Besides the satisfaction of placing one of our professional accountants in this volunteer role, an added bonus was getting to know Barb better, and learning about the foundation’s architects and influencers, and its work funding education and research.

When a film PR pal e-mailed and asked whether I’d like to invite multiple friends to a December “word-of-mouth” screening, Barb was one of the people I approached. She was definitely appreciative, but graciously declined. It seems the chance to see a free movie wasn’t enough incentive to cancel a scheduled “date” with her valued colleague and friend, Charles Tisdall. Barb cherished every opportunity to “talk shop” with Charles and update him on the current state of public relations and its major players. His advanced age of 87 and their meeting place in the complex-continuing-care unit of a hospital didn’t matter; it was simply a new chapter of a dialogue begun years ago. He might have had numerous other physical limitations, but Charles’ mind remained clear and speech unaffected; Barb told me she continued to benefit from his wisdom, counsel and wit. It seems there conversations were always lively and punctuated with frequent laughter. Best of all, their relationship and discussions had the underpinnings of mutual respect, admiration and liking.

When the CPRS website and an e-bulletin informed members that Charles Tisdall had died in late March, I immediately thought of Barb. I knew his passing must have had affected her deeply. What I hadn’t appreciated was his immense influence on so many other individuals and organizations, in particular the evolution of public relations in Canada and beyond.

As I would learn, Charles Tisdall had a lifelong talent for practising positive, effective and powerful public relations. He influenced the growth and direction of our nascent profession. More importantly, he cultivated incredibly strong and loyal personal relationships.

For more information, Barb pointed me to existing resources about Charles: (on the CPRS website) his Yocom profile, the Tisdall tribute written in March, and the Communications and Public Relations Foundation and Diana and Charles Tisdall Lecture in Communications dedicated web pages. Plus the news release about his death, issued through CNW Group—the newswire service his firm, Tisdall-Clark founded and in which they remained one of three major shareholders until 1986. Reading through the materials, what emerged was a portrait of an exceptional éminence grise PR practitioner: a multitude of significant and interesting positions (employment and volunteer); numerous awards and honours from several organizations (including being named “one of the world’s 40 outstanding public relations professionals” by the New York-based Public Relations News); and an history of influence that heralded much of what constitutes Canada’s codified (and now common place) field of public relations today.

Some of my favourite “sound bites” from these resources:

“Throughout his career, he recognized the importance of education in public relations, emphasizing goodwill in the community, an improved understanding of the profession, encouraging higher standards and accountability among its practitioners, and an increased awareness of the contribution of public relations.”

“The practice is much more sophisticated than it was 50 years ago. We were pretty simple and did things ‘by the seat of our trousers,’ if we had trousers.”

“I don’t see that many changes over the years in the overall definition of strategic planning. Everybody uses different words now to indicate what was, essentially, strategic planning. We always had strategic planning in developing programs. We’re just using the same stuff and doing it quite effectively. For instance, people say, “I’m having a dialogue with somebody.” Well, a dialogue means that you’re having a conversation.”

“Until his hospitalization last year, Tisdall closely monitored media and public relations, often suggesting that while delivery technology has changed radically, professional dialogue and communication has not. He always said that it always has been and still is all about relationships, telling the truth, learning from success and failure and never forgetting that, like journalists, professional public relations practitioners serve the public interest as much as their employers.”

“I was better known in the United States than in Canada.”

[On the future of public relations] “I think it’s more of the same—knowing your audience, knowing how to talk about things, and interpreting the situation clearly to your client. Whenever there are people involved and sensitivities of people, in a corporate or individual sense, you’re going to have a need for arbitrators who are, essentially, public relations people. I don’t mean in terms of making deals in salaries or negotiations, but people who interpret for the other guy if they can’t do it themselves.”

* * *

Desiring more of the sense of the private man behind the impressive public profile, I contacted Barb again. She told me about working at the Ontario Arts Council fairly early in her PR career, when her office was situated across the street from Tisdall Clark. During that same period she chaired CPRS Toronto’s education committee. The closeness of their offices proved serendipitous. “We met frequently for coffee chats, where we would talk about many things, including matters relating to chapter and national accreditation and other education programs, ethics and electoral procedures. Some areas ending up on formal agendas and bore concrete results. This was during CPRS’s early days of defining corporate governance.” Barb found the experience of having personal access to an individual who adhered to the highest ethical standards at all times—professional and personally—invaluable. The “Tisdall benchmark” has influenced Barb’s own interests and dealings with various publics and personal relationships, including her continued involvement with the Communications and Public Relations Foundation he founded.

Another delicious fact I learned from Barb: Charles always identified himself as a feminist!

Perhaps it isn’t that surprising, given his enormous love and respect for his wife, Diana, who was herself a tireless and dedicated community volunteer. The news release indicates that Diana “meant more to him than all of his accomplishments and accolades.” Charles also fathered two daughters—who both chose careers in education—and he was blessed with three granddaughters. But considering the times and the state of the industry during much of his working life (male-dominated and very much an “old boys’ club” in terms of access), I find it immensely gratifying to realize that this avowed male feminist (dedicated husband and father; vocal supporter of early female trailblazers, such as Ruth Hammond) was situated in positions of power and influence. As a senior practitioner, volunteer and a lecturer in public relations, I wonder how great was the “Tisdall effect,” regarding the explosion of numbers over the past three decades of females studying PR and/or entering the field. Not to mention the “correction” to the prior gender imbalance in today’s active association participation.

“He also was ever hungry and open to new ideas and concepts; he always was a keen student of world events and how those influenced the course of decision making, and thus, the course of history.”

All research points to a man whose positive influence continues to manifest itself today, particularly in the practices and corporate governance of the field of PR and the association he belonged to and valued. He was an advocate for the benefits of continuing educations, particularly accreditation, and for peer-to-peer networking and dialogue. He was generous in encouraging input from new voices and fresh thinking, formally and informally through his friendships and championing efforts. Ongoing legacies include the aforementioned Communications and Public Relations Research Foundation (the foundation is one of three organizations to which the Tisdall family requested “remembrances” be directed), and the gift of the Diana and Charles Tisdall Lecture in Communications series, presented annually at the CPRS conference, with a mandate to “demonstrate the societal power and value of public relations/communications thinking.”

Based on everything learned, I believe Charles Tisdall would have appreciated the concept of “PR Conversations.” If the times had been right, I’m sure he would have been a first-rate contributor.

Social media allows PR practitioners an increased profile via self-publishing, but I’m of the opinion that it’s the topics and/or people one chooses to focus on, plus the tone of the commentary, that ultimately bears lasting and positive results. And using Charles Tisdall as an example, it’s also the way you treat people “offline” that cements one’s reputation.

To better understand and appreciate this iconic Canadian PR practitioner and gentleman, I encourage his work, association and community colleagues, plus past students and lifelong friends, to share more remembrances not found in official documents. As a starting point, Bart Mindszenthy granted permission to publish this poem of tribute. (Note: Bart is a foundation board member and another active contributor to the advancement of public relations in Canada.)

Charles the Good: A Gracious Gentleman of Honour and Achievement

The email shouted:

Charles Tisdall died this morning

And I was so saddened and so gladdened,

For a kindred albeit somewhat older spirit,

A gentle man gushing goodness

Who left us, but joined his one love in an everlasting future.

He always has been for me one of those people from the past

Guided by principles and values and truths, now long lost.

He always was a warrior for what is right and fair and just,

While adoring his family for all the sense of love and joy they brought.

* * *

Charles,

You really were one of a kind,

And kind you always really were.

With a mind much larger than your body ever was,

You flourished with bodies whose minds were as keen as yours.

* * *

Charles, we miss you already

And always will.

Really.

Because you were a gracious gentleman of honour and achievement

Who so openly shared dreams and joys and sorrows and pain.

Whose smile and wit and charm would always beguile

All those whose lives you touched and often made more complete.

* * *

Charles, you’ve now finally again found and eloped with your Diana,

Off to that other world where the two of you will share

An ever after, everlasting love-filled embrace forevermore.

with deep respect and affection for a dear friend
Bart Mindszenthy, APR, Fellow CPRS, March 24, 2007

Update (04/16/07): Marketing Daily pays tribute, Charles Tisdall: Canadian PR trailblazer

Update (06/20/07): The June CPRS Communique included the following entry:

Diana and Charles Tisdall Lecture in Communications
During the Diana and Charles Tisdall Lecture in Communications luncheon at the National Conference in Edmonton, the Communications + Public Relations Foundation, in conjunction with CPRS, paid tribute to Charles Tisdall who died in March at the age of 88. The six-minute video is available for viewing on the CPRS web site. Charitable donations in memory of Tisdall may be made to the Foundation.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Judy
    what a truly fascinating story! I wish we could all rejoice when we have the privilege of learning about colleagues we knew nothing about, but which have been so relevant in their environment. I very much welcome Charles in our group and hope that he will be quickly joined by other, however virtual but certainly significant and professional presences.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  2. Judy – a brilliant read and marvellous tribute. There are so many great pioneers in PR who are in danger of being forgotten. I hope PR Conversations can become a repository for some memories – but it would be great to have an online Hall of Fame.

    What strikes me (knowing several “senior” PR practitioners myself) is that they value people, conversations and friendship. In becoming professional, some people decry this “gin and tonic” approach, but it was about respect, trust and humanity, which should always be at the heart of good public relations.

    Not all my “old guys” in motor PR were as feminist in their day as Charles Tisdall appears to have been. But I find they are very supportive of women in PR today. They think we have things harder in terms of the speed of change, but their values apply as much today as when they were busy protecting reputations and managing the media agenda.

  3. Charles Tisdall and I were #s 1 and 2 respectively as the first two Canadians achieving PRSA Fellow status…..a few years later, CPRS grandfathered us both into the CPRS College of Fellows. I kidded Charles about his “new” grandfatherly honour, since he was “much older than I”…..his generous response….”David, you’re the youngest grandfather I know.”

  4. Dear Judy
    I greatly appreciated reading about Charles Tisdall and thank you for such an interesting post. I think this paragraph was particularly pertinent:

    “He always said that it always has been and still is all about relationships, telling the truth, learning from success and failure and never forgetting that, like journalists, professional public relations practitioners serve the public interest as much as their employers.”

    For me, a really valuable aspect of conversations such as this is the opportunity to listen, learn something new (because there is something new to learn every day) and gain insights into the experience of others – your story about Charles Tisdall does all those things. I think Heather’s suggestion is an admirable one – sharing stories about the industry’s pioneers in different parts of the world would be a very positive thing to do, so I shall go off for a bit of a fossick* around New Zealand’s past.

    *Fossick is a Kiwi expression that I am particularly fond of which means searching around, not necessarily systematically, and turning up something interesting. In England, it tends to mean ferreting out information, so I’ll be doing a bit of both I hope.

  5. Toni, I think the idea Heather proposed (and Catherine seconded) is excellent: PR Conversations is ideally situated to launch an international Online Hall of (PR) Fame. (Maybe we should corral Heather into working with our dear Andrea to set it up.)

    (I also think it’s great that Catherine is providing us with “Kiwi expressions,” to supplement your Italian ones.)

    And to David, thank you for sharing that story about Charles. It sounds like you concur with Barb and Bart about his generosity and wonderful sense of humour. I wish I’d had the privilege of knowing him personally, but these personal remembrances are a great consolation prize.

  6. Judy,

    Like Catherine, I was struck by the comment regarding relationships. The saying, “No one cares what you know until they know that you care,” can apply to public relations professionals as much as to clergy, physicians or politicians.

    In that regard, Judy, you have prepared yourself well for this dive into blogging, because you have built a strong network of colleagues, myself included, who appreciate what you have to say. Best wishes for many future posts that will be as worthwhile as this one.

    Tom

  7. Judy,
    Thnaks for posting this and what a great story you have told the world. Not many people can claim they have known a legend and Canada- nay the world- just lost one. Barbara did cherish her time with him and with a mind like his, a wit like no other I have know who would not !
    I am equally pleased to see David’s post and others who pay tribute to this great man. Bart Mindsenthy’s poem -in addition to showing yet another one of Bart’s many talents- is equal to the task of looking back on one’s life and contribution to the betterment of society.
    I only hope I can achieve a quarter of that in my lifetime.

  8. (Received by e-mail, I was asked to post this in the Comments section, because Judi was receiving a “no puedo abrir” message at the Internet cafe when she attempted to comment on PR Conversations directly. JG)

    I am currently travelling around Mexico and was saddened by the news of the death of Charles Tisdall. I knew Charles for many years, as we were co-board members for The Famous People Players, the well-known black light theatre company based in Toronto. He was one of the most supportive members of the board and at one time served as its chair. He always had time to spend working out problems, preparing reports and being a jovial representative of the board. I later followed him as chair and his guidance was invaluable. No question was too small or mundane for him. He treated everyone as if she or he was the most important person he knew. He always had a smile on his face. Towards the end of his life, while he was in the hospital, we visited him a few times before I headed south and he told us wonderful stories of his life.

    He loved art, the theatre and above all…his family.

    He will be missed.

    Judi Schwartz

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