Don LaBelle, APR, FCPRS, L.M.
CPRS Edmonton and CPRS Ottawa
Fifty years in PR, 50 years with CPRS, 50 years of significant accomplishments – and he still only looks about 50. How has Don LaBelle done it? If you ask those who know him, they would say "with perseverance and passion." If you ask Don, you would get a shrug of the shoulders. But if you ask him why, you'll get an earful.
Born and raised in Ottawa, Don exhibited two traits during his school years: curiosity and strong communications skills, verbally and in writing. After completing high school, he entered the BA program (English) at Carleton University, but left one year later to join the Ottawa Citizen as a beat reporter. In 1953, he joined the RCAF and served at air force headquarters in Ottawa and then Europe where he had the responsibility for detachment PR in addition to his normal duties. Don entered full time public relations with the RCAF in 1960 and continued in that capacity until 1965, ending his military career while serving at the Namao, Alberta base.
What lured him away from the male-centric military world with its precise professional standards and opportunities for adventure? Two things: upheaval (uncertainty stemming from the amalgamation of the three branches of military) and opportunity (an offer to work as the first PR manager for the Alberta Association of Registered Nurses). After a dozen years in the military, he opted for the AARN: "Now it was 10,000 women and me – that's gotta be great," said Don.
And it was. Don's two best moments in PR came during his five years with AARN (see below) along with one of his worst (their backing down during labour negotiation - refusing to strike when they said they would). Whether it was that event or new opportunity, Don returned to Ottawa in 1972 and became the first director of public relations for the Canadian Telecommunications Association. It was not a good fit. "In the job interview, I was told I would report directly to the CEO which is the right reporting relationship for PR, but when I started, I was assigned to someone else whose only interest seemed to be making me speak French. I came home from that first day and said to my wife, ‘Don't unpack; we won't be here long.' "
And they weren't. A CPRS colleague who knew Don wasn't happy approached him about a job in the federal public service. "We were about to purchase a house in Ottawa the day he talked to me – we let the house deal fall through." Good thing because it was soon back to Edmonton as PR manager for the Western Canada division of Public Works.
Though the job was enjoyable, Don was scooped up a few years later by another employer in – you guessed it –Ottawa. He was hired as the Director of Public Relations for the Canadian Automobile Association. He remained with the CAA for five years, before returning to the federal government in 1982 – working for Revenue Canada (Customs Border Services). He left Revenue Canada 15 years later and moved back to Edmonton as Manager Corporate Communications with Western Economic Diversification (WD). After five years with WD, he spent his last two years with the federal government in a secondment to Justice Canada to work on the national gun registry. Don finished his long career in Spring 2003 and after a few more years of retirement in Edmonton (and plenty of golf in summer and curling in winter), he moved back to Ottawa in 2011.
The boomerang moves between Ottawa and Edmonton continued throughout Don's career. "I like both cities and have spent equal time between them," says Don. "Where is home? Both places."
But while home looks like it will remain Ottawa for Don and his wife Mary Ellen (his three sons, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren all live there), his second "family" is spread across Canada. Who are they? The many CPRS colleagues that have become Don's friends over the years. For though Don's career in government and association PR has been exemplary, it is his dedicated service to CPRS
that marks him as an outstanding leader in public relations.
Don LaBelle could be called the godfather of CPRS. He has held so many executive and volunteer positions with CPRS locally and nationally that he could probably run the organization single-handedly. A member for more than 50 years (he joined as associate member in 1960, national member in 1963), Don was a founder and three-time president of the Edmonton society, vice-president of the Ottawa society two times, and in four national executive positions including President in 1982-83. He also served as National Awards Chair for five years, Chief Examiner of the CPRS Accreditation program for seven years and chair of the National Ethics Committee for four years. He has chaired four national conferences, two in Ottawa and two in Edmonton, and attended 45 conferences. Along the way, his contributions have been recognized with numerous CPRS designations and honours:
CPRS Edmonton President's Medal (1967)
CPRS Shield of Public Service (1967)
Accreditation in Public Relations (1969)
CPRS Lamp of Service (1993)
Admission to the CPRS College of Fellows (2000)
Life Member, CPRS Edmonton (2003)
CPRS Outstanding Achievement Award (2005)
CPRS Award of Attainment (2008)
Don sees his membership in CPRS as invaluable to both his personal and professional life. "I view the network it gave me as one, big happy family. Any time I had a problem, I could call a CPRS friend or two and ask whether they had faced the same issue and what advice they could give. And anywhere I go across Canada, I have someone to meet up with for coffee or a visit."
In addition to his many contributions to CPRS, he found time over the years to work on public relations committees for the Red Cross; Cancer Society; The United Way of Greater Edmonton; Catholic Family Services; and as a School Trustee for five years in St. Albert, Alberta. Besides enjoying golf and curling, for twenty years he played and managed a senior men's softball team in Ottawa.
Don LaBelle's Reflections
Two events, Don organized and promoted for the Alberta Nursing Association stand out: the AARN bi-annual conference in Banff, which surpassed the attendance goal and was very well received, and through them, PR work for the World Congress of Nursing in Montreal in 1969. The world event had 20,000 delegates and four official languages (English, French, Spanish and German). There were 800 media reps and they wanted interviews with people from their country of origin in their official language. "I spent an entire month on nothing but this congress, and on the week it took place worked 18-19 hours a day. It was worth it – it was a very successful congress."
Don's worst moment in practice came while with the Canadian air force in Sardinia in 1957. "It had taken our military many months of negotiation to get permission from Italian authorities to set up air weapons testing off Sardinia. "We were the first foreign military to be allowed into the country since World War II and they were nervous. The stipulations were stringent: no shooting within 50-60 miles of shore and no shooting on weekends. There were eight Canadian flight squadrons in Europe that came down one at a time for three-week training rotations. One unit from France were nicknamed the Red Indians; they wore Mohawk haircuts and were a lively bunch of guys. I was spending my day off at the beach one Sunday when the "Indians" were there, and idly watched them launch a Sabre jet. But instead of flying out to sea, they headed for the beach and buzzed us, not much more than 100 feet over our heads. This was their idea of a practical joke, but the Italian authorities were not amused. In consultation with our senior officers, we concocted a story about their instrument panel not working properly and apologized. They bought it, or pretended to, but it always bothered me. I think it's important for PR people to be honest and accurate; otherwise your credibility comes into question."
Don found it a much harder sell when he was seconded to Justice Canada for two years to provide communications to Albertans about the national gun registry. "About 50% of people supported it and 50% opposed it, and they weren't only the rednecks - that division was everywhere including within the police forces and media. I think we could have done a better job communicating that one, particularly when the media started touting the $2 million cost of the registry. Those figures were skewed as they included a one-time charge for changing over to new technology and the full salaries of RCMP personnel who had spent only 5-10% of their time on this initiative."
Changes in PR Practice
"When I joined CPRS in the early 1960s, it was an old boys' club: only men and managers, most of whom who had started their careers in media. People working in non-management positions were sent to what is now IABC. That changed in the 1970s when women came into the profession and formal education programs began. Today the dynamics is about 30% men and 70% women, and most of them have college or university education in PR. However, though these new grads are well versed in theory, many of them lack communications skills – the ability to get a story across through dialogue.
Today's PR practitioners need to know more than how to write a news release; they need to be well-rounded, to have some knowledge of law, finance, political science and other disciplines."
The second biggest change Don sees is in technology. "In the early 60s, we used typewriters – interviews were conducted in person and news releases were sent through the mail. Then in the 70s it was computers and in the 80s, internet and email. Today it is social media. Each new technology has speeded up the way we do PR – you need to be ready to respond instantly."
Internal communications has also changed. "It used to be that only senior managers knew everything that was going on and employees knew very little. Today, the better informed your staff are, the happier they are. PR people, in particular, need to know everything about an organization and where to get information they don't have. The PR director needs to not only sit at the board and management tables, they need to participate and offer advice. Good companies do this."
As for external communications: "If there was a public concern, it was left to PR to manage. Today we know that senior management need to demonstrate leadership by speaking up, and being open and honest, especially during crisis. Good CEOs know this and recognize the importance of reputation management; they play a much more active role now. Look at Maple Leaf: when they had their crisis over food contamination, the CEO and PR person worked closely on their strategy and messaging. They admitted something had gone wrong and rectified it. Their credibility was high and remains high, and they recovered their losses, their reputation and shareholder confidence. This has now become a textbook case of what to do right."
"The same principles apply to consultants. Whether you work for a big PR firm or are an individual working on your own, you need to know all you can about your clients and be involved in their decision making on matters of public concern."
Where is the PR profession heading?
"It's getting stronger, even CPRS membership has gone up in the past few years. It will continue to grow as long as people in the profession are getting something in return. You need good programming at the local level and opportunities to network and get involved. The contacts you make will be invaluable."
Advice to new practitioners
Start with a well-rounded education that includes a variety of subject areas as well as PR basics.
Hone your communications skills; PR is much more than theory. Good communications skills come with practice; they also come from listening.
Be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up – learn from the best and learn all you can about the organization you work for. Same thing when you're applying for a job – do your research on the organization before you enter the interview.