Charles W. Tisdall APR, FCPRS, FPRSA
Charles Tisdall began a lifetime career in public relations by working in advertising and motion picture development. From 1941 to 1946, he was the Associate Director of Industrial Information for the federal government, Canadian Information Services, Ottawa.
In 1952, he established Tisdall Clark with Joseph Clark, who had been Assistant Director of Public Relations with Massey-Ferguson. Tisdall Clark became one of the founding members of Canada NewsWire and the majority shareholder until 1986.
Charles Tisdall became a recognized leader in public relations in Canada and the United States. During 34 years at Tisdall Clark, he represented a variety of clients, large and small, including the Bakery Council of Canada (1952), Toronto Dominion Centre (1964), American Express Canada Inc. (1979), and London Life Insurance Company (1980).
He helped to establish accreditation programs for both the Public Relations Society of America and Canadian Public Relations Society. In 1979, he was the first non-American to be invited to the U.S. National Accreditation Board and, subsequently, he was named Chairman of the Canadian Board. He was founding Chairman of the International Accreditation Council. He was also a founder and Chairman (in 1982) of the Communications and Public Relations Foundation in Ottawa.
In 1984, Charles Tisdall was named one of the world’s 40 outstanding public relations professionals by the New York-based Public Relations News
, considered the bible of the industry. This award also reflected his firm’s emphasis and strength on corporate affairs and issues management. In 1985, Tisdall Clark and Partners Ltd. merged with Continental Public Relations Ltd., also based in Toronto, to create a major national public relations company.
Throughout his career, Charles Tisdall 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. He lectured at Humber College, Ryerson University, the University of Western Ontario, and New York University. He was a participant on the Advisory Board for the public relations degree program at Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was a seminar leader and teacher for the American Management Association and the Financial Post conferences. He wrote articles about public relations for the University of Western Ontario quarterly.
Professional and Community Service
- Member, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1950-1985
- Life Member, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1985 to present
- Canadian Public Relations Society Accreditation, 1971
- Public Relations Society of America, College of Fellows, 1990
- Canadian Public Relations Society College of Fellows, 2000
- National President, Canadian Public Relations Society, 1963-1964
- Canadian Public Relations Society Lamp of Service, 1965
- Recipient, Canada’s Centennial Medal, 1967
- Chairman, Canadian Public Relations Society National Accreditation Board, 1969-1972
- Canadian Public Relations Society Award of Attainment, 1972
- Trustee, Foundation for Public Relations Research and Education, New York 1984 (award for public relations – New York)
Charles Tisdall has been of steadfast support and generous of his time through leadership and participation in artistic, church, community, and charitable organizations. He was a trustee of The Anglican
, a monthly Toronto diocese newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada. In 1981-1982, he was a board member of the Toronto Theatre Alliance. He was a board member of the Performing Arts Development Fund of Toronto. He has been on the board of directors for Famous People Players, founded by Diane Dupuy. He has volunteered in public service with St. Paul’s Anglican Church, St. John Ambulance, Canadian Red Cross, the Canadian Diabetes Association, and others. He established a Tisdall scholarship for mentoring at-risk children, known as the Prime Mentors of Canada, based at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.
TISDALL’S REFLECTIONS ON CHANGES IN PRACTICE SINCE 1950
Changes in Strategic Communications Planning
I started public relations, formally, in 1952 when I founded the firm of Tisdall, Clark, and Leslie (as it became known). Before that, I was with the Canadian Government, Information Services, but we didn’t call it 'public relations'. Hence, the name "Information Services." Joe Clark had come from Massey-Ferguson as assistant director of public relations. Later, Philip Leslie of Chicago joined us. He had one of the top U.S. firms, and wanted a Canadian association.
Joe Clark had a distinguished career after leaving Tisdall Clark, to head up Canada NewsWire, which he did with great effectiveness. And Tisdall Clark was a part-owner of Canada Newswire for many years. It was also partly owned by Public and Industrial Relations. The U.S. NewsWire, which was the largest newswire in the United States, was a member, and the U.K. NewsWire was a member, too.
We also worked with Monty Berger in Montreal, a fine practitioner who still plays tennis every day at the age of 86. He had his firm, Monty Berger and Company, with offices in Montreal and Ottawa. That gave us those outlets. There was another firm in Vancouver that was an associate of ours. So we covered the whole country.
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.
Changes in Reputation Management
In fifty years, reputation management has not changed very much. The problem is that an internal staff always has to please the boss, whereas if you are in a consulting capacity, as I was, I didn’t have to please anybody. I had to have the guts to call it as it was, which I did, perhaps more than a lot of people. I never found that a deterrent to success. If you try to play games, you’re bound to be found out. No matter what kind of public relations is slathered on your particular piece of toast, it isn’t going to mean anything.
Changes in How Public Relations is Practiced
The practice is much more sophisticated than it was fifty years ago. We were pretty simple and did things "by the seat of our trousers," if we had trousers. Today, practitioners are very able and trained people who create well-developed strategies, look at news differently and disseminate it, indirectly, on behalf of various clients.
Practitioners today come from a variety of backgrounds – MBA programs, undergraduate courses of various kinds, and post-graduate studies like the University of Calgary or St. Francis Xavier, the University of Boston, and the University of Wisconsin. That’s good. We have a much more sophisticated purveyor of the truth. If there had been community college, certificate, or diploma courses offered years ago, I would have profited from them.
In earlier days, media relations really took place because almost every person in public relations came from the media. They did not come from university training or other disciplines. Now, a lot of media people come from other disciplines. Therefore, I think they are a little more objective in looking at the material.
What we have today are many more means of media relations and getting at people. E-mail is one. The ascendancy of the newswire organizations is another. So we have more outlets for them in trying to reach the people we want to reach. The media has changed in the way in which it covers stories. I don’t think reporters are as tough as they used to be because their interviewees are more sophisticated.
Companies became more aware of the importance of employee communications. When I started, the only tools that a company had were newsletters and notice boards. While that has continued, companies are using a variety of tools including videos, specialty PowerPoint presentations, annual reports, and intranet communication.
Another improvement concerns the current approach to address the measurement of results. In the early days, public relations people had articles reproduced, measured them, and then compared them to how much the client would have had to pay for that space if they’d paid for it. This was a bit of a false way of measuring impact because placement in the paper was not taken into account. Was it on the front page? Was it at the top? Was it below the centre fold? I remember spending hours and hours measuring the length of stories for our clients. Mostly, it was a mix of newspaper coverage. Some stories on the front page, others on the back. My experience was that if you had an honest story, it was covered. If you were playing games, promoting stories that did not have news worthiness or that did not mean much to anyone, you had a hard time.
Now we have large multi-national public relations firms working alongside small niche firms. I think it is good to have a mix of large and small. Sometimes small firms are the result of a person not being able to make it in a larger firm. So he sets up his own small operation which can be successful. Small firms can provide more individual attention and personalized service than a larger firm that may lose contact with their clients. That’s been my experience.
With Tisdall Clark, we could never work with second or third line management. It had to be the top personnel, preferably the chairman, president, and secretary of the company. That was important because if you work with second line people, they have to be convinced, then they take the proposal to the boss and they try to convince him/her. That is a waste of time. When you deal only with the top person, there is usually no misunderstanding.
Favourite Public Relations Achievement
We were a low-key firm but we went into programs with great depth. The program that we had the most fun with, as a crowning achievement, involved a company – Halladay Homes – up in northern Ontario. We had to publicize the operation.
It was a large company but nobody knew about them. So we decided that we should have a bathtub race in Bath, Ontario, where there was a big hill. And the mayors of Toronto, Schenectady, and Rochester, New York came over and raced down the hill in bathtubs with wheels on them. It was wild. The event was covered by Life, Time and every major news outlet in the country. It wasn’t long before public awareness of Halladay Homes increased significantly.
One campaign that was really outstanding was for American Express in 1980 when we arranged that one cent from every credit card purchase was put into a special pot, covering one month, let’s say, for example, the month of May. Then, at the end of the month, the revenues were allocated to the National Theatre School, the National Youth Orchestra, the National Ballet School, and one or two other youth organizations. It gained a great amount of favourable publicity for the client and it demonstrated corporate social responsibility in funding the arts.
Worst Moment in Public Relations
The worst moment was in the 1960s when a Dominion Envelope company was opening a plant in Don Mills. We were invited to arrange open houses and media receptions. We put the wrong date on the invitation. And we had a terrible time.
It worked to our advantage because everybody came to the thing because they were so curious. We admitted that we were wrong, before the client saw that there was an error in the date, May 13th instead of May 14th. We told them that we made the mistake. It turned out that he was understanding and supportive; he was on our side. The public relations lesson is that if you make a mistake, admit it before someone else can catch you in it.
I was involved with the predecessor of the CPRS, the Toronto society. There was a Montreal society, and then they joined forces in the late 1940s. I took a leadership role there because I thought it was a way of drawing attention to me as a practitioner, for people outside. I was active in helping to develop (with Gerry Brown from Toronto, and Ives Jasmin from Montreal), the accreditation program of the Canadian Public Relations Society.
When I started, the CPRS had only three societies, not chapters, but there were societies – one in Toronto, one in Montreal, and one in Ottawa. Initially, our conferences were held only in those cities. Then we gradually expanded. I was the first person to ensure that there was a national conference out west. I pushed for that.
I was active in the Public Relations Society of America, one of the few Canadians in that society. I headed their accreditation board and other national committees. I was also a member of the International Association of Business Communicators. I was better known in the United States than in Canada. I’ve always felt there’s a value in professional association.
Advice to People Who Enter the Profession
For people entering the profession, the major thing, I believe, is accreditation, of course, because that’s the benchmark of ability, or should be. The involvement in society affairs, I think, is important because you broaden your horizons. The people who say, "no, thank you," I think, are short-sighted.
As far as I’m concerned, the people who don’t pay their dues, in terms of participating, are less than the best. They only can get out of CPRS what they put into it. And putting into it is networking – being involved in programs, going to lectures, meeting other people in the field, exchanging information, and building up the level of competency through these programs.
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.