Matthew Seeger | 2014 Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech

Thank you so very much for what is indeed a very great honor. I have many people to thank including Mary Henige, John Austerberry, Debbie Lacey-Ortisi, Jennifer flowers, and of course Nancy Skidmore.

I would also like to thank the executive committee of PRSA.

There are so many wonderful Detroit PR professionals and this is a truly magnificent community.

I also wish to acknowledge past recipients including Bud Leibler and Jim Bianchi, and now Nancy Cain.

Other great supporters of the public relations program at Wayne State include Lisa Valle Smith, Paula Silver, Lorna Abraham and Michael Lane.

And of course the founder or our program Jim Measell and my colleagues in public relations, Dr. Shelly Najor, and Dr. Donyale Padgett. I have known Shelly since 1982 and I would like to congratulate her on her award. Those of you who know Shelly know that she isn’t easily excited, so you can imagine what its been like for us these last few weeks.

And so many students I have had the honor to work with over the last 32 years. While they often bear deep scars from my classes, I hope they have learned some things.

And finally my wife who has put up with too many crazy schemes, hair brained ideas and writing projects over so many years

This is indeed a great honor for me especially coming from so many former students and from a professional community I deeply respect.

I do have to wonder why and I being honored in this way.

Does someone need a grade changed?
Is there a crisis someone needs some help managing?
Do you think I have access to the secret Ebola vaccine?

Well I am proud that I have been able to support PRSA and our wonderful professional relationship through the Olfield Dukes Seminar, the PR/for the D effort, and I have taught a few of those PRSA accreditation sessions. But these are just natural outgrowths of our relationship with PRSA and an effort to support a community of committed communication professionals who also support our program.

We have almost 200 students studying PR at Wayne State and they all want to intern with you! The students are bright and eager and the program has never been stronger.

This year, the program will be seeking accreditation from PRSA which will make the program even more widely recognized for excellence.

I also believe Detroit is fortunate to have one of the best PRSA chapters in the nation. This chapter is distinct in three important ways.

First, there is deep commitment to this community, to Detroit.

When you are from Detroit – love and commitment to this community, to our heritage and to our development runs deep. It’s part of our DNA.

Second, the old Detroit blue-collar work ethic is alive in PRSA. Our collars aren’t all blue but Detroit does hustle harder.

I’m going to summarize a conversation with a former student who said “you know I love the Wayne students. They work so hard. They don’t wait around to be asked or told. They just do. You know students from xxxx really expect us to do for them. The difference is so striking.”

And third, this community doesn’t just seek to build diversity it embraces it as a resource. People from Detroit know how to talk with diverse communities, how to talk about tough subjects and seek solutions even when they involve complex problems.

While we are a great PR community there is more we can do.

It has been my goal to help the Detroit PR community become even stronger industry leaders, for Detroit to be a center of the PR industry.

There are trends I see that create great challenges for the profession, but if you know anything about crisis you know that crises also create opportunities.

So these are the three points that will be on the exam at the end of my remarks. And I am not grading I the curve.

The first is diversity.

Yes, we do diversity well in Detroit. We get it. We have had those very tough conversations and most of us have been forced to confront and reexamine our own assumptions.

Many of us have had that wonderful “step in it” moment where we address the needs and concerns of one group only to anger another.

But how is it that we take diversity from a place of being an issue we manage to be an asset we can build on?

One way to approach diversity is from the standpoint of audience and audience analysis, or in the parlance of PR, publics.

I don’t know that we have yet reached a point where we see diversity as a fundamental question of publics. Typically, we classify publics in ways as internal or external, supportive, neutral or hostile, engaged or indifferent.

But perhaps we can also think of the diverse communities within which we live and work as part of the public mix in public relations.

We can choose to understand publics in more complex ways, as engaged and indifferent, supportive and simultaneously hostile.

One of my friends and confidents in matters of race once said to me “You know Matt, I love you and are so trying hard to understand but you will always be an old white guy”.

And you know, she was right. I will always be white and I’m not getting any younger and that was a very liberating observation because it allowed me to recognize my limitations.

A second challenge is technology. Now my wife will tell you I have no business talking about technology. I can’t remember my password to any account.

But just think about what we have been able to do in just the last 20 years in terms of communication.

We have a whole new method of direct communication merging the strengths of interpersonal and mass communication. Machine to human communication and even machine to machine are increasingly common.

Mind you, it doesn’t always work. I had that memorable moment driving the in middle of LA traffic trying to make my third meeting with an alumnus when Siri decided that she should start providing all her driving directions in Spanish. My response to her was in very direct and colloquial English.

Machine to Machine communication opens a wide variety of issues and opportunities. Complex, highly integrated systems (or what is sometimes called the internet of things) such as smart grids, smart cities, and automated integrated production will exchange information and act upon it without the intervention of any human decision maker.

What are the implications for public relations and marketing? How long before machines make purchasing decisions for us? Already, I get dozens of messages downloaded to my computer with suggestions for clothes, tools, and fishing equipment. I also get alerts when someone I have used in my own research publishes a new article or book and I am alerted when someone quotes me.

Its just a matter of time before Siri figures our how to get my Amazon password from my wife and those purchases will just be made for me. I’ll leave it to you to assess if that’s a positive development.

And finally I must talk about crises.

OK, you knew it was coming.

In many ways, crisis communication was the issue that founded the PR profession. Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays both made the early impacts by communicating about crisis. Lee was dealing with industrial accidents on the railroads and worker strikes.

In many ways, we have come full circle. It’s hard to overstate the importance of crisis communication and crisis PR today.

Regardless of your political position, the physics of carbon emissions and a changing climate simply cannot be rationally denied. Recent polls of scientists have consistently shown an overwhelming consensus that human caused climate change is real. Of course, we now quibble over how those data were collected.

The potential impact of climate change is simply overwhelming. I have seen the maps produced by NOAA and FEMA and under current conditions, within a few short decades, many costal regions, including much of the gulf coast, and many parts of the eastern seaboard are under water. Other parts of the country will have temperature extremes that will require significant changes in agriculture and life style. And we will see many more super storms.

And yes, the Great Lakes will be affected.

What are the communication challenges of climate change? How do we help publics understand the need to change behaviors? How do we develop crisis communication plans that account for a changing climate?

These are PR challenges not unlike those faced by Ivy Lee.

And then there is EBOLA –

There is a disease that has come into our country that has the potential to create significant harm, including a great deal of illness, death, and economic disruption. Despite the efforts of our best public health professionals, we do not seem able to control it.

It is a very frightening disease and its called seasonal influenza.

Seasonal influenza kills between 5000 and 50000 people each year. In the 1914 pandemic influence outbreak, known as the Spanish flu, somewhere around 20 million people died.

In comparison, in the 40 years since we have known about Ebola 2 people have died in this country.

What accounts for the differences in the way Ebola is perceived?

One is exotic, the other pedestrian.
One is novel, the other familiar.

And of course, the communication abound these two disease is very different.

There are very frightening infectious diseases that are very threatening; disease that could devastate our economy and kill thousands.

Ebola is not one of them.

As I look across the spectrum of disasters earthquakes, tsunamis, wild fires, toxic spills, hurricanes, disease outbreaks, defective product, plant explosion, floods, terrorist attacks, building collapses, radiological and biological events,

I am struck by the critical role communication plays, public relations plays, in helping us understand, manage, plan for respond to and learn from these events.

Effective crisis communication, effective public relations not only helps clients but indeed saves lives.

Honestly, the world is filled with very significant risks – particularly as we consider the possibility of the interaction of so called natural disasters with technological failures.

But within crises and disaster we also see fundamental opportunities to rethink assumptions, to learn, to shed outdates assumptions and to move on.

And there is no community that should have a better understanding of how we can come out of a crisis, better stronger, smarter than Detroit.

If we can master diversity, harness technology and manage crises, the PR professions can continue to thrive and this PR community can help lead the profession.

Thank you again for this recognition. I am truly honored by this award and I hope I can continue to serve the Detroit PR community.