Fairs being fairs, even Century 21 had to end. And that meant that on September 1962, a little more than two years after taking on the publicity (and ticket sales) for the Seattle World’s Fair, Jay Rockey was out of a job.
It’s not as if there weren’t any other jobs in Seattle. But public relations was what Rockey loved and what he was good at. However, “There wasn’t much public relations around here then,” he says.
There was Sid Copland, an ex-journalist. Cole and Weber was just that, two guys named Cole and Weber. There was one guy at Boeing, one at Weyerhaeuser, and that was basically the Seattle PR industry. The whole Puget Sound chapter of the Public Relations Society of America could have sat around this table, he says. It’s not a big table.
So Rockey did the only thing he could do, short of heading back to New York. He started his own company. Things could have been worse. Even though it had to close, the fair wasn’t going to go away. You don’t just tear down the Space Needle. The Seattle World’s Fair became Seattle Center, and the day after the fair closed Rockey announced the opening of the first client of Jay Rockey Public Relations, the Pacific Science Center.
So that was the happy beginning of a long, happy story. But what about the next 45 years?
Well, here’s Randy Pepple: “I view Jay as the founder of the PR industry in the Northwest.”
Pepple might be a little biased, seeing as he’s CEO of what is now Rockey Hill & Knowlton, which is the result of Hill & Knowlton’s buying The Rockey Company a few years ago. But Pepple swears he never spins. And besides, everyone else says the same thing. Then there’s the fact that the Puget Sound PRSA lifetime achievement award is called the Jay Rockey Award.
But “the founder” of Seattle PR?
“PR is still a relatively young industry,” says Pepple, who started as a journalist with the Seattle Times and moved through public affairs and politics before settling in at the Rockey Company just before it joined Hill & Knowlton. “John Hill, the founder of Hill & Knowlton, is seen as one of the founders of the industry in the United States. Hill & Knowlton celebrated its 50th anniversary five years ago.”
The industry does have deeper roots, but not much. And public relations in its early days took a slightly different approach than many are comfortable with today.
Edward Bernays, the profession’s first theorist, drew heavily on his uncle, Sigmund Freud’s, ideas about the unconscious motives that drive human behavior. Brilliant though he was, Bernays got the profession off to a less than savory start. He had little respect for the average person’s capacity for dignity, leaning blatantly toward propaganda to drive people’s “herd-like” behavior.
You might say that Jay Rockey made a career of being Bernays’s antithesis.
“I would describe his style as, he’s the ultimate gentleman,” says Jennifer West, director of the Spokane office of Rockey Hill & Knowlton. Rockey bought Jennifer West Public Relations in the late ’90s. “And he’s extremely honorable, in every facet of his work with people. He’s very gracious and humble, but at the same time he’s a brilliant practitioner.”
“I think the agency approaches PR in a little more old-school fashion,” says Simmi Singh ’00, until recently an account executive with Rockey Hill & Knowlton. Old-school, I might point out, as in the genteel 1960s, not the roaring ’20s of Bernays. “We don’t think we need giant media stunts,” says Singh.
Rockey comes from a day when methodology was defined by the fax machine and the press release, says West. The PR toolbox is a lot bigger today.
Singh’s methods, for example, lean toward online communication—blogs and so forth.
Discussing a recent client, “Christian [Brown ’98] and I were brainstorming about what to do about a situation without bringing further negative publicity,” says Singh. “We’re talking about a client working in blogspace, generating content online.” They decided to ask Jay’s advice.
“He’ll tell you straight out, ‘I don’t understand anything you do,'” she says.
However, “He brought a perspective to our thinking that was so dead on. That’s what PR is, you have to have a relationship—with your client and the media.”
Erika Schmidt, who is with the Frause Group and is president of the Puget Sound PRSA, bemoans another current PR trend in defining what Rockey is not. “A lot of firms out there now, the principal is the spokesperson for the company,” she says. “That just blows my mind. I’m here to advise, to get my client out there, not myself.”
Schmidt describes the Rockey style as “more calculating and cautious, less promotional, more behind the scene.”
In spite of nearly universal name recognition and a client list that runs through the Pacific Northwest alphabet, from Airborne Express through Weyerhaeuser, Rockey himself rarely shows up in the press. In this age of Google, it’s unnerving to go looking for someone who you know permeates a civic and business culture, and he just isn’t there.
I mentioned this to Rockey. “That’s my job,” he said, smiling.
Rockey et al. helped lead Alaska through three governors in promoting tourism and economic development. They’ve advised the City of Bellevue on growth initiatives and Daishowa America on community relations. They led the effort to rebrand Egghead from a brick-and-mortar operation to e-commerce and helped Evergreen Healthcare win a voter levy for emergency facilities. They’ve advised Hancock Timber, King Broadcasting, Microsoft, Riverpark Square in Spokane, Sealaska Corporation, the Mariners, Boeing, and United Airlines. The list goes on.
But one of the jobs that makes Rockey proudest is the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. Rockey’s firm was the public relations agency of record for Alyeska for seven years, through permitting, design, and construction on the pipeline.
Rockey has a persistent tendency to change the subject to Washington State University. Naturally he is pleased with the way the University has drawn more attention to itself.
He was president of the WSU Foundation in 1991-2, early in the University’s first full-blown campaign.
“He put his professional acumen to work for the Foundation, how to develop a higher profile,” says Sharon Morgan, a senior member of the Foundation who has worked with Rockey for years. “He’s a philanthropist in the best sense of the word.”
He has also long had a close relationship with the Murrow School, serving on its advisory board.
“His support of the program runs the spectrum,” says Bruce Pinkleton, a professor of communication, “from words of encouragement to interns and hiring grads, to supporting scholarships. The more you learn about Jay, the more you learn about public relations.”
The student chapter of the Public Relations Society of America is named the Jay Rockey chapter.
In 1989, The Rockey Company was the #1 public relations company on the Puget Sound Business Journal’s Book of Lists. But by the late 1990s, the Seattle PR scene had changed dramatically. The dotcom bust was yet to come. The perception on the Rockey Company management team, says Pepple, was that it could no longer compete with the small one- and two-person shops, which lacked Rockey’s overhead.
They faced a decision: either get smaller, to compete with the smaller shops, or get larger, to compete for the larger accounts. Or join a larger firm.
Rockey had a history of interaction with Hill & Knowlton, including work on the public relations for the New Carissa, a ship that ran aground off Coos Bay, Oregon, and broke up over time. When The Rockey Company decided on the third option, Hill & Knowlton was a natural.
Today, at 79, Rockey still comes into the office every day. His official title within the firm is “Founder.” He gives advice when asked. He never intrudes. He continues to practice, it seems, public relations, all the time. Public relations is his life and philosophy. Jay Rockey is proof that nice guys do not finish last. He has built a career and an industry on graciousness and . . .
“Charm,” he says, when I ask him to specify the traits that had brought him success.
So is charm everything?
“Yes.” Then he laughs.
“I worked hard,” he says. “And I tried to work with people I respected.”
“He has this low-key quality about himself that tends to be very effective,” says West. “His way of engaging people is very inclusive, and therefore he gets a lot of people on the same page and gains a tremendous amount of respect, as a result of that style.”
The key to understanding his success, she insists, is understanding his character.
So is this guy for real? I had to ask.
“He is,” says. “Isn’t that amazing? Wouldn’t it be great if there were a lot more like him out there?”