We got word in April of the passing of Jean Way Schoonover, who along with her sister, Barbara Way Hunter, owned the firm where I started my career, Dudley-Anderson-Yutzy Public Relations, which became Ogilvy & Mather Public Relations.
Once the initial sadness passed — alleviated somewhat by reports from her family that even after reaching her 90th birthday last September, Jean was still vibrant and mentally focused, savoring her loves of family, travel and cribbage — I started to think about Jean’s legacy.
Despite the fact that Jean started her career in 1949, the way Jean lived her professional life and led her agencies has valuable lessons for PR professionals in 2011. I’m proud to share these with you in Jean’s memory and her honor:
- Ethics is everything. At a time when ethics wasn’t necessarily a core value of many PR firms, Jean understood that running the agency with a strong moral compass would be its own reward. In this, she clearly was ahead of her time. That is an important lesson for all of us who are members of an organization with a clear code of ethics, whether we practice in the corporate, academic or agency setting.
- Our most important role is that of counselor. Jean played many roles in her long career, and would jump in and help at the first sign that her assistance was needed. But she seemed to most relish the role of valued counselor to management. Her counsel was given diplomatically but directly, with 100 percent honesty and with one concern: what was best for the client organization vis-à-vis the various publics with whom it had relationships. And she was never afraid to tell a client that it needed to “do the right thing.”
- Teach your children well. Jean knew that nurturing young talent was an important part of her role as leader. She relished the opportunity to teach, and more so, to give newer professionals the chance to achieve things that they didn’t know they could. Early in my time at D-A-Y I was given one of those opportunities — and made a doozy of a mistake, one that involved a potential client. Jean had every right to lose her temper, to scream or even show me the door. She took none of those options. Instead, she calmly and warmly asked me a series of questions that made me realize my error. More importantly, I figured out the solution. I learned a huge lesson, and never made a similar mistake again. Because of the way she handled the situation, from that point on, I would have followed her off the proverbial cliff.
- Those who succeed should give back. Jean achieved quite a lot for a “girl” from a small town in upstate New York. That’s because she had the blessings of the love of hard work, a fast brain, comfort making tough decisions and the ability to persuade. She was rewarded with a successful business, one that a number of ad agencies and holding companies wanted to purchase and a big one eventually did so. But she knew that in return, she needed to give back, and that she did, as a proud trustee of her alma mater Cornell University, and sitting on various boards and committees of the YWCA of New York, PRSA and PRSA-NY.
- This isn’t a business for the faint-of-heart. As women owners of a PR firm in the late-1960s, Jean — and Barbara — had to be tough. Their resiliency was tested from the get-go when all the senior male executives — save one — left the firm rather than work for women. Or perhaps it was because when the sisters got a look at the books, they corrected the fact that the men, whom they now supervised, were paid considerably more than them. This resiliency was tested time and time again.
- Optimism is contagious. It was hard to be depressed around Jean. She had boundless energy — even after a redeye flight — and huge enthusiasm for public relations. She believed completely that ours was an honorable profession, that what we did brought value to our clients and the community at large, and was a great way to make a living. She was right.
Jean will be missed by the many PR professionals who worked at D-A-Y and O&MPR, the clients she counseled and all those with whom she interacted in one capacity or other. But the way she led her career lives on in its ability to inspire public relations professionals today and for years to come.
Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting, LLC and blogs at KensViews.com. He worked at Dudley-Anderson-Yutzy Public Relations and its successor companies, Ogilvy & Mather PR and Ogilvy Adams & Rinehart, from 1979 through 1993. He is an active member of PRSA Counselors Academy and PRSA-NJ’s Senior Practitioners Group, and co-chair of PRSA-NY’s Mentoring Committee.