By Janet Simons
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
A year ago, the late Tim Russert addressed the 2007 Public Relations Society of America International Conference in Philadelphia and called for a change in the tenor of public discourse during the upcoming election campaigns.
The moment is seared in the memory of Jeffrey Julin, president of Denver’s MGA Communications.
“Russert stopped, and he looked up at the audience,
and he said, ‘We Americans must demand a more respectful discourse,’” Julin recalls. “And I wanted to jump up and hug him.”
Julin was inspired to take up the cause, and, because he had been elected to serve as chairman of the 32,000 member PRSA for the 2008 election year, he was in a position to act on that inspiration.
However, as the titular head of a profession most of the world considers crass and cynical, he also was in a position to see a lot of people shake their heads and wonder if he’d lost his mind.
“I got a lot of ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Julin in an interview conducted by cell phone as he headed for the Detroit airport on his way back to Denver from the 2008 PRSA International Conference. “But someone has to start.”
The PRSA launched the “Clean and Fair Campaign 2008” networking group on Facebook, which attracted more than 2,300 members.
And, right after the Democratic and Republican national conventions in August, Julin issued a formal request to the campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain that they abide by the PRSA code of conduct and agree to “uphold the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent in communicating with the public.”
“We asked them to sign something, and — not a big surprise — they didn’t,” Julin said.
In the months that followed, it became clear that political discourse relying on lies, innuendo, character assassination, anger, half-truths and misleading information had the inside track.
But Julin isn’t easily discouraged.
“I’m not naïve at all. I understand that negative advertising is used because it’s effective,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about how it wins campaigns.
“But what do we lose? We lose the ability to go on the journey together because negative language pulls people apart,” he said. “You can’t build community with anger. You’ve got to start somewhere, so let’s start with good, effective communication that is also respectful, honest and fair.”
And, even though the campaign season is at its close and his PRSA chairmanship ends Jan. 1, Julin is determined to continue his quest.
“This program is just the launch of our interest,” he said. “It’s going to take time. Now we’re going to start looking around to see who we can partner with.
“We will continue. There’s no sense that we failed. It was a beginning. We really didn’t think that one organization was going to change the tone of the entire country. At least we have people talking about it.”
Julin doesn’t think he has led the PRSA into a battle with windmills.
“Are we Don Quixotes? I don’t think so. But even if we are, that’s no reason not to do it.”