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.
* * *
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.
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.