#50over50: Jean Valin

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

The method school of public relations

You’ve heard of the method school of acting. But I’d not considered there might be a method school of public relations until speaking to Jean Valin.

‘I once did a radio interview stark naked. The topic was ‘nudism in an Ottawa public park’.’

That was when Valin was responsible for media relations on behalf of the National Capital Commission in Canada.

This gives an indication of his total commitment to the cause.

Yet unlike some polymaths who fall into the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ trap, Jean Valin is a high achiever. A former senior government communicator in his home country, Canada, he’s also an author of multiple books and reports and has made a major contribution to the creation of global professional standards.

So what drives him?

‘I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference. I’m also very curious so I’m not afraid of trying new things. I’m quite versatile: I cook, I play sports, I read books, I make music. I don’t want someone to stand over my tombstone and say ‘there’s so much he missed’.’

My second family is my professional family and I genuinely want to help them.

As is true of so many practitioners, Valin started out as a media relations specialist. But with seniority his work became more concerned with issues and crisis management. He recalls becoming the White House-style spokesperson on a controversial and politically-sensitive policy to licence all firearms owners and register firearms in Canada, appearing in many television and radio interviews to defend this policy. This was a proposed licensing and registration scheme, not gun restrictions, yet it faced fierce resistance.

‘I started receiving phone calls threatening me and my family. I didn’t quite take it seriously at first, but when I told my boss, a lawyer, he said ‘those are death threats. You’re good at this brief, but we’re going to have to move you within this department.’

The registration was introduced and was seen as successful, but the next Canadian prime minister decided to scrap the registry and destroy the gun licensing data.

He’s also proud of a comms plan around anti-terror legislation he produced in record time following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

‘I had to call in two comms teams: one working through the day and the other through the night to keep developing the comms pieces because it would normally have taken months. We did it in two weeks. At the end I received a letter from the Clerk of the Privy Council thanking me for the quality of the materials and the speed at which we had worked.’

Our conversation turned to global professionalism, and Valin’s contribution to the Melbourne Mandate published by the Global Alliance (the confederation of national professional associations) in 2012.

Copyright Global Alliance

‘Dan Tisch and I were asking ourselves how do we move on from the Stockholm Accords [of 2010]? What’s the piece that’s missing? We decided it was the impact that public relations brings to society as well as to organisations. To do this we need to define our place in the world. So we came up with the three pillars of the Melbourne Mandate and tested this around. We wanted it to be a collaborative document.

‘We had conversations on different continents going to test our approach and it was refined over time. In Melbourne, during the Global Alliance conference, we found time to work on the document as a group.’

Some have argued that it went too far in making claims for public relations and comms as the ethical conscience of the organisation but Valin defends this on the grounds that he wanted to make people think, to answer the question ‘why’.

Stop thinking you’re just there to ‘send out stuff’ and start thinking about how what you do matters.

This high-level thinking led to the more granular approach of the Global Body of Knowledge (GBOK) project.

‘I was no longer on the board of Global Alliance but opportunities kept presenting themselves. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) was reviewing the effectiveness of their accreditation programme, the APR. At the very same time IABC had announced that they were scrapping the ABC designation; they were going to align themselves with an ISO standard. I saw this as a golden opportunity to set a global standard.

‘What if I volunteer to lead a group representative of everybody in the Global Alliance and examine everybody’s credential schemes or education certification schemes to see what they’re measuring, and how they’re measuring it?’

This led to the GBOK – a long list of knowledge areas, skills, abilities and attributes. (Valin reminds me he’d used the same methodology to arrive at a global code of ethics back in 2003, updated in 2018).

‘The critique of this approach from the CIPR is that it didn’t follow a capabilities approach. So Anne Gregory volunteered to take it on and turn it into a capabilities framework.’

The next frontier is artificial intelligence (AI). ‘Why didn’t I see this coming? Of course it’s going to affect public relations.’

As a result of joining a CIPR panel and volunteering to turn its discussions into action, Valin authored a CIPR report on AI in 2018: Humans still needed. He used GBOK as a starting point to measure the impact of AI on professional practice.

‘This year they’ve asked me to update the report since it’s been five years. Now I’m looking at a list of common public relations tasks to explore whether there’s an AI tool assisting or replacing them.’

The consummate professional, Valin is already thinking of the next headline. ‘At the start of the project I like to envisage what the press release will look like!’