Remembering Tom Harris

May 1, 2018

Thomas L. Harris, APR, Fellow PRSA, a longtime agency leader and decorated PRSA member, died on March 26 in his Highland Park, Ill., home. He was 86.

Harris, a recipient of PRSA’s highest individual honor — the Gold Anvil — in 2000, was a management consultant, an author and the former president/partner of GolinHarris (now Golin) during his storied career. In addition, he was an adjunct professor in the master’s program in Integrated Marketing Communications, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.

I had the pleasure of knowing Tom from my early days at PRSA starting in 1994. He wrote several articles for us and served as a source on other stories. He was one of the first PR practitioners who I recall espousing the benefits of a truly integrated communications program.

Given the careers theme of this issue of Strategies & Tactics, I’m sharing his wisdom on being a professional communicator. Harris wrote the following tips for the Plank Center at the University of Alabama:

  • Don’t be greedy. Don’t accept the job that pays the most. Choose the one that will offer you the best opportunity to learn, stretch and grow.
  • Always rely on straight talk. Be obsessively clear and concise [without] the jargon.
  • Go the extra mile. Quality service is at a premium today in all business, especially ours.
  • Don’t have PR tunnel vision. Your client will rely on you if he thinks of you as a business adviser and not a vendor.
  • Be a great team player. Teamwork works. The joy of the business is working with many talented people and being a member of a winning team.
  • Remember the nice touches. Money talks and perks work — but little things still mean a lot to the people who are most important to you. Email is convenient, but a personal note, a book or a lunch with the boss is forever.
  • Keep up or drop out. The practice changes faster than the speed of light. Change is the law of life, and the internet has changed the ballgame forever.
  • Take the business seriously. But don’t take yourself too seriously. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Don’t be too disappointed if your pronouncements are neither little noted, nor long remembered.
  • Give credit where credit is due. Somebody else may have a better idea. That somebody may be the somebody you work for, or who works for you.
  • Keep your sense of humor and have some fun — in business and in life. Visit a museum. Attend a concert. Take in a play. You and your work will be better for it.

In a blog post from March 27, Ellen Ryan Mardiks, vice chair at Golin, recalled what Harris told his students before his retirement:

If public relations is to retain its position as the credible source, then we must not blur the line between information and propaganda, between advocacy and salesmanship. The old description of public relations as “the conscience of the corporation” is more relevant than ever in today’s complex society.

The highest calling of public relations is to keep our organizations on straight paths, to counsel the powers that be not just to say the right thing, but to do the right thing. Our greatest value to our organizations, the media and our stakeholders must always be to separate information from misinformation and disinformation, and tell it like it is.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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