The Art and the science of leaving one’s mark: A requiem for Arthur Yann

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“What I’d really like people to say about me after I’m gone is that, in some small ways, I left the profession and the companies and clients I represented better than when I first met them.”

– Arthur Yann, APR


* * *

I don’t know how long Arthur Yann had been in the job of vice president of public relations for the Public Relations Society of America when I mused some five years ago on Twitter why it was that PRSA billed its annual conference as being an “international” one. I do know that Art was already monitoring the interwebs, that he tweet-responded very quickly and that I had a LinkedIn invitation from him within the hour, indicating he’d like the opportunity to correspond with (and convince me) in a format that didn’t rely on 140 characters or fewer.

The proactive persuader and relationship builder

He provided me with the line of reasoning about the numbers of delegates from a variety of countries who registered for any given conference, that subject-expert speakers were often non-American and that many of the topics covered were indeed public-relations international in nature.

I remained unconvinced about the rightness of the name, but I was impressed that the saucy, tweeted-out opinionating of a female, Canadian, non-member of PRSA mattered to the top PR person at the world’s largest public relations association.

Not to mention that the initial correspondence was friendly and gracious and already provided hints of his intellect and communication skills, generosity and sense of humour.

And that was the start of a virtual, cross-border professional and personal relationship of mutual respect and liking, a buddy system of sharing resources and links, opinions on public events and individuals and, on occasion, asking for or offering specific association-related counsel and criticism.

And at least a gigabyte of smiles and laughter.

As time went on we also provided one another with profile opportunities, based on respect for one another’s public relations knowledge and world view, rather than some obligatory sense of vested interest or quid pro quo…simply because this international relationship wasn’t dependent on the more-typical PRSA affiliation of employee and member or other stakeholder. At the core was our mutual belief that ethical public relations should be practised in the public—not self—interest.

Art also respected and appreciated our vision for PR Conversations and treated our collaborative property and its principals with a similar deference to that of more-traditional and longer-established media.

I was utterly gutted to hear of Art Yann’s untimely death.

Over the four weeks since his passing, I continue to grieve that my valued PR contact and friend is gone. I no longer have to physically stop myself from sending him a message, but the mental (spiritual?) exchanges continue and I expect them to for a long, long time, because I have to find some way to fill in this gaping hole.

One way is to provide this highly personal tribute—I’ve chosen the word requiem, because that means an elegiac song, and Art indicated having eclectic musical tastes—based on our joint public relations endeavours and exchanges, plus my observations and intuitions about Arthur Yann, both the professional and the personal.

Arthur Yann: public relations in a fishbowl

I’m very glad that two years ago I conducted the interview with Art, because it offers an opportunity to compare and contrast what he said with what I observed him doing, then and since. You can do the same.

When I approached him about the idea Art seemed truly surprised—and touched—that I thought he would make for a valuable interview subject.

Once I convinced him of my seriousness, he thanked me—Art always exhibited exquisite manners—and agreed, but asked if it could be delayed several weeks until some significant obligations and projects for PRSA were completed. (I seem to recall it was around the same time as the next strategic three-year planning process.) Not only was his first obligation to his employer, but if he was going to do an interview, he wanted to give answers to my questions full consideration and attention.

Loyalty to his employer, plus attention to obligations and commitments, spoke to Art being the consummate professional. Always.

Art’s professional legacy

Some of the initiatives he was involved with during his five years with PRSA were inherited ones that he refined or grew, others (such as the #PRDefined initiative and the business schools outreach) he had direct involvement in initiating and guiding members through the complex and sometimes slow collaboration and consensus process that is part-and-parcel of association management.

Arthur Yann’s interview bio indicated, “…supports the achievement of organizational goals set forth in PRSA’s strategic plan, and advocates on behalf of the public relations profession and its practitioners.”

I believe the official and quite beautiful PRSA In Memoriam Arthur Yann, under the by-line of William Murray (and the many tribute comments that follow it) best speak to his numerous successes in PRSA-specific areas, particularly,

…. Those discussions led to Arthur setting out PRSA’s new vision for advocacy, which focused on ethics, the value of public relations and diversity.

so for the most part I’m going to focus on different things.

In the week following his death, Heather Yaxley and I spoke about Art the person and our mutual sadness about his passing, including how sometimes what you find yourself missing the most about someone is intangible, personal and irreplaceable.

How can it be encapsulated? Perhaps in attempting to capture the exact form that was the essence of the person. In Heather’s words, “It is their wit, their naughtiness, their ‘I get you’ empathy and understanding or just sharing something that you can’t with anyone else or would never ever make public but they are there to help you express it and vice versa.”

Even before I could rouse myself from my sadness and reflections to articulate the thought, Heather knew I would want to do a tribute for Arthur Yann on PR Conversations.

It’s appropriate to include her thoughts:

“I never met Arthur—Art—but felt like I had, which is the measure of a good ‘virtual’ relationship. I found him to be funny, intelligent, caring and insightful.

When asked by my co-author who could contribute views about public relations for a chapter in our The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit book, I didn’t hesitate in recommending Art, as I knew he would deliver. That’s not something I say about many people—in fact, I wouldn’t recommend many people.

But wherever he is practising his Art today, I wouldn’t hesitate in giving him a glowing testimonial. I regret we never asked him to complete our PRoust Questionnaire, as I’m sure his responses would have been brilliant.”

In turn, I quoted from Arthur Yann’s contribution to The Strategic Toolkit (pages 51-52), when I wrote my definition of social public relations.

Keith Trivitt, who was recruited by Art as his first director of public relations (and continued to value him as a mentor and close friend, post-PRSA), echoed Heather’s praise. When asked for the biggest takeaways from their working time together, Keith indicated:

“The biggest lesson I learned from Arthur was to pay attention to the details. They can make or break you in public relations.”

Public relations beyond the borders of PRSA

During the interview I asked Art about where he would most like to focus his time. He had two answers:

  1. On improving the reputation of the profession.
  2. Improving the civility of online discourse.

Under Art’s watch, PRSA conducted ongoing advocacy (including traditional and social media outside the USA) and measurement on the success of the first goal (see the 2011 interview).

From my educational perspective, however, I warmed to and learned from his efforts regarding the civility of online discourse. So much so that when I wrote my Decorum Byte column, I knew Art had to play a part. Of course he delivered a note-perfect, public relations-oriented response:

…. Contacting Arthur Yann for current thoughts on the civility—or not—of online discourse (and its potential impact on business reputation), this decorous response was received:

“I think it was Byron who said, ‘Believe in all that’s false before you trust in critics.’ Although it’s likely he was commenting on the cultural critics of his day, the same sentiment rings true in business—bricks-and-mortar or digital.

I’ve always been taught never to criticize my competition. Not only does such negativity reflect poorly on the critic and his or her credibility, it’s a lost opportunity to talk about yourself and what differentiates you. On the surface, seeing such criticism might not immediately impact my opinion of a business, but it most certainly would impact my opinion of the source, assuming you can separate the two.”

William Murray declared that Arthur Yann was “one of the best writers I’ve ever met.” I concur. Over the years his degree in journalism and talent for writing was put to good use by many organizations and individuals, including me.

Art’s professional-personal public relations DNA traits

Despite his overtures of friendliness and graciousness on first contact, I believe Art took time to form opinions about individuals. People would be mentally placed at a positive place of possibility; in the case of critics, neutrality. Then he would listen and watch what they said, and contrast and evaluate their experience and actions, including how consistent and ethical was their viewpoint and critical thinking, and figure out what were the underlying motivations in expressing them.

For the critics, he would work his magic to persuade people to a more logical place of understanding, based on historical facts, data, external research and outcomes. And if you said what you meant and meant what you said—and were reasonable about any criticisms—Art not only had your back, but would look for places where he could help a person shine. As he said in the 2011 interview:

“It’s helpful to understand the issues, the players and the mindset. Or to be able to say, ‘Hey, I know him/her; he/she should be speaking or writing for [PRSA].’”

I suspect the ultimate compliment and sign of trust from Art, this always-discreet, consummate professional, was in revealing some of his thought process about issues and people, including couching it in self-deprecating and amusing terms. As Art once told me, “Frankly, in this job, I kiss up to A LOT of people whom I wouldn’t hire to mow my lawn.” (Having worked in the association sector for many years, I knew exactly what he meant.)

What he didn’t do was indicate who those people were.

And that’s something else I want to emphasize: as much as we shared about many things, Art never engaged in idle office gossip or negativity for its own sake. Not about his boss, William Murray (all indicators pointed to a relationship of respect for one another’s skills and strengths and personal liking), other PRSA employees or the elected officials and chapter volunteers, etc., who devoted their time to the betterment of PRSA and the public relations profession in general.

Even in private correspondence, he focused on the positive aspects of these key stakeholder relationships. At most Art revealed, in part, how challenges were overcome, focusing on actions, initiatives and changes, not individual personalities.

A natural #leanin advocate

I don’t know if Art had the opportunity to read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, but even if he did he probably didn’t learn too much. Why? Simply because he already lived and demonstrated Sandberg’s advice, coming from a family with great female role models, including his Mother, who always called him Arthur, and sisters Vicki and Kelly, plus marrying Amy who appeared to be his equal partner in all ways. Together they joyfully created daughter, Sofia. Speaking of Sofia, I think had Sheryl Sandberg known, she would have applauded how Art chose to spend one allotted vacation week:

Week 1, I transitioned Sofia from nanny to daycare, e.g., Monday for two hours, Tuesday for four hours, working up to full days on Thursday and Friday.

[And everyone was rewarded Week 2 with a family vacation at the beach.]

Best of all, I think #leanin Art welcomed this opportunity to play his co-parenting role to the fullest, rather than feeling it an obligation. (I have a postscript to this tribute that speaks to his love for his wife and daughter.)

From a professional perspective, in an industry/craft that is dominated by women practitioners, Art wore the mantle of “male feminist” easily and happily.

Comfortable in his masculinity, he also appreciated women of intellect and capabilities who were unafraid to speak up, but recognized that much of the professional world did not do the same.

In his senior-level role at PRSA, I believe Art did whatever he could to even the female odds.

He welcomed debate with me. Even the rare time we disagreed strongly on an issue at the front end, I think he relished the challenge of politely, slowly and consistently detailing his rational, counter argument, based on facts, in order to win me over. Or at least appease me, by recognizing my concerns and conceding where I was correct.

And usually he did. Well, except for our “debate” about the fairness or NOT of the Canada-USA women’s soccer semi-final officiating at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

I think that was the one time we resorted to agreeing to disagree.

Coping in a PR world without Art

Do you remember the late-series episode of The West Wing when outgoing C.J. was giving advice to incoming chief of staff, Josh? She handed him a brightly covered note with the initialism:

W.W.L.D.

In explaining her What Would Leo Do? visual reminder CJ suggested channelling the wisdom of the deceased former chief of staff, Leo (and also the talented, empathetic actor, John Spencer, whom apparently everyone involved with The West Wing respected and adored).

So this is the suggestion I offer up to the international public relations community: in your company or agency role when confronted with an opportunity or challenge, have your own mental note in mind:

W.W.A(rthur).D.

In doing this, in some small way, you can leave the profession and the companies and clients you represent better than when you first met them… just like Arthur Yann did.

I asked Stephanie Cegielski, who worked side-by-side with Art over the past year as associate director and PRSA advocate (and whom he told me shared the same worldview), what tangible advice she was channelling from him over the last few weeks:

“Arthur would frequently repeat the Arthur W. Page Society quote, ‘Public relations is 90 percent doing and 10 percent talking.’ He taught me that if you do right then you won’t need to say that much.

It was important for him to convey that doing the right thing is always the right thing to do.”

Saying goodbye

I know I am a better practitioner and person for having known you, Art; thank you for the immensely rich and rewarding five-year, virtual relationship you initiated.

And I am just one person you life-touched amongst hundreds, maybe thousands, of PR practitioners from the USA and other countries, who have their own requiems to sing about you.

Because as much as I’d like to believe we had a special relationship, I’m positive there are numerous people convinced they had the same.

I think that was one of your special gifts—making every person you developed an ongoing relationship with feel truly valued and respected.

The other major lesson you taught Keith Trivitt was “to be humble but proud of your work,” so I trust you were aware of the difference your made in your “work” life and elsewhere. I fervently hope between the outpouring of prayers, thoughts and tributes in your honour, you are somehow aware of an unrealized, even greater impact, now.

For example, the fact that it’s as difficult to say an earthly goodbye to you as it is in ending this tribute post….

 

Postscript to Sofia (and your mom)

The happy Yann clan: Amy, Art and Sofia

Sofia, oh how your daddy loved you. When we were discussing a photo to accompany his PR Conversations interview, the first one he offered was a joyful one of the two of you at the beach. Given that your dad was in a swimsuit, it was regretfully decided it wasn’t appropriate, but I think he secretly wanted to take this opportunity to show to the world, his beautiful, bright and fun-loving daughter.

One day he had a (rare) bad day at work, due to some external (and unreasonable) demands. Although this particular encounter got him down, your dad told me that it was OK, because going home to his family in a few hours kept his spirits up, particularly anticipation of dedicated playing time and special bedtime rituals with you.

In many ways your father was very private about family life, but he still managed to sneak in things you said or did on numerous occasions. Although it wasn’t articulated as such, I suspect early on you demonstrated intelligent observations and humour just like his. And he was so, so happy that the Christmas 2012 present mommy and he chose for you was a hit:

[Sofia’s] “big” present was an easel complete with sketch pad and white and chalk boards, plus the necessary dry-erase and “dot” markers, chalk, colored pencils, finger paint and the like; she LOVES it.

Right before one Easter, your dad told me that Aunt Debbie [mom’s sister] is very creative, including planning lots of activities to do with you. I’m betting he hoped love of this art easel spoke to a similar, maternal-side, creativity burgeoning in you.

Of course if you become president of the United States one day, your dad wouldn’t have been surprised at that career path, either.

I told your dad my favourite part of his 2011 interview was the answer he provided about whether he had any character weaknesses to overcome. Look how smart he was, turning a perceived flaw into strength…and even working in the two people that meant the most to him!

“I can be emotional and impatient, and I have a tendency to take things personally, even when the issue or topic really isn’t about me.

Maybe this sounds strange or overly simplistic, but being a new father to Sofia has given me an entirely new perspective that has been helpful in managing these tendencies. My wife, Amy, says fatherhood has brought out the best in me but, of course, she’s biased.”

What a great gift to have Sofia, the best parts of your wonderful dad living on in you.

(And Amy, it was so gratifying to be told that you shared, very quickly, that same interview on Facebook with family and friends. I hope you deem the above tribute to be similarly uplifting and share-worthy, particularly in celebrating Art’s life and incredible impact.)

Photos from PRSA’s Remembering Arthur Yann Facebook page.

Also see this tribute by Aaron Perlut on Forbes: Farewell To PR’s Chief Defender: Arthur Yann

11 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for writing such a lovely tribute to my brother. I think he would have loved it…especially the parts about Sofia.

  2. I realy enjoyed reading this piece by Judy. I did not know Art very well but I can see he left a positive mark wherever he went- something most of us should aspire to. I certainly do.

    • I know you worked with Art and Keith (Trivitt) regarding the #PRDefined project for PRSA, Jean. I think you share(d) with him both an appreciation for public relations* and the ethical underpinnings that need go hand-in-hand. Plus the consensus-building aspects.

      *I didn’t get into it in the tribute proper, but what was interesting regarding all of the kerfuffle about the PRSA “new definition” was a misunderstanding by people was that it wasn’t defining what they “did” every day, but rather what value public relations can bring to organizations (and/or individuals). I also think many of the people who complained about it being high-falutin’, non-applicable etc., didn’t know or appreciate that Art had spent a good chunk of his career (in agencies) doing consumer product marketing. He knew the difference between the two areas/disciplines. As do you.

      I’m sorry you didn’t get to know him as well as I did, but even a little Art knowledge should go a long way. Thank you for the feedback.

  3. Judy:
    Pardon the intrusion on your memorial, but since you brought up business, the “new definition” of public relations was a crowd-sourced flop. It is process rather than outcome oriented, speaks of strategic communications without any real foundation, and is so bland and broad that PRSA has to take 226 words to explain it on its Web site. A sixth-grader could do better.
    If I were still a member, I’d be disappointed in PRSA. As it is, they need to get on the stick and hire a management consulting firm (a credible one) to tell them how to re-organize and become an advocate for public relations.

    • Bill, I’m sorry that you, like so many other non- (or former-) members were under the impression that PRSA staff drove the end definition.

      The committee comprised a variety of PRSA members, hand-chosen by that year”s president, as well as some external participants (e.g., from IABC and CIPRS, plus Dan Tisch from the Global Alliance).

      Art Yann and Keith Trivitt were the staff liaisons.

      And you may not feel PRSA has moved the advocacy needle forward, but external research has proven efforts have indeed been effective.

      • Judy:
        I wasn’t under the impression that the PRSA staff drove the end definition. But they drove the process, they crowd-sourced it, and facilitated the whole mess.

        • It’s obvious I can’t influence you to think differently, Bill.

          On the other hand, neither will your criticisms of PRSA take away from my respect for Art Yann and all that he accomplished, professionally and personally.

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