PRSA’s First Latino President Luis Morales

Modesty and dedication mark the career
of PRSA’s first Latino president (2002)

This article received The Communicators Award of Excellence in Feature Writing in 2003.

When I called Luis Morales, APR, Fellow PRSA, the intent was to schedule a time for an interview. “What about now?” he said. Then again, isn’t that what a good public relations professional does, hook up a writer and a subject quickly?

In an almost 40-year PR career, Morales has dedicated himself to increasing the professionalism and standards of the field as well as recognition of PRSA, while displaying much modesty. The path has taken him through several positions on the Philadelphia PRSA chapter board to President of the local chapter to the higher echelons by serving on the national board and then as the only Philadelphia chapter member to ever serve as National PRSA President. It is only an afterthought that he was also the first Latino to serve as local and national president.

I am proud of the fact I am Latino,” said Morales, whose father was Puerto Rican and his mother Italian. “I never felt any discrimination. I went through the ranks. I was proud to represent Latinos.”

Morales undertook initiatives to increase minority membership locally and nationally, although his accomplishments extend beyond that. As local president in 1985, he and the chapter organized an evening reception where they invited minority public relations practitioners, resulting in new members. On a national level, he assisted PRSA in establishing a relationship and partnership with the Puerto Rican Association of Public Relations Professionals, by traveling to Puerto Rico to make presentations. Many Puerto Rican PR professionals are members of PRSA, he says. In 1997, he received an award from PRAPRP for service to the profession.

Though Morales is modest about citing his accomplishments, his standards of professionalism and good nature have influenced a spectrum of people. Laurel O’Brien, APR, worked briefly for Morales at Robert Morris Associates, an international trade association of banks, and later in Philadelphia Chapter activities. It was Morales who “nagged” O̱Brien to join PRSA in the 1990s. In 2001, O’Brien was Chapter President and is Assistant Vice President of Public Relations for Nuveen, an investment management company.

“Luis was instrumental in my career and shaped my thinking,” said O’Brien. “He was a good mentor for me and the Chapter particularly. He feels it’s very important that PR professionals understand the financial side of business and learn how to read the balance sheets. I have to agree with that. Understanding about business and the financials are imperatives. You are better able to be a true counselor to senior management. That is something Luis taught me and it has served me well.”

Stressing the importance of understanding the business side is not so unusual when one considers that Morales’ involvement on the Philadelphia Chapter board began with him being called upon to solve the mystery of the missing check book. When Anne Klein, APR, Fellow PRSA, was chairing the nominating committee in 1977, she called Morales not because he was Latino, but because the Chapter needed a treasurer. Morales was working at Robert Morris Associates.

“The chapter was almost bankrupt and owed tremendous bills and the check books had disappeared,” said Morales, who joined PRSA in 1972. “I served two years and together with two cooperative Chapter presidents, we put financial discipline into the chapter. We controlled spending and held people accountable. We had $8-$10,000 in the bank at the end of two years.”

Following those two years, Morales served as secretary, president-elect and finally president of the Philadelphia Chapter in 1985. He remembers an active chapter that offered educational conferences that drew up to 150 people and was a good source of revenue for the chapter; an annual Communicator of the Year Award that went to a national media figure but was presented by the Philadelphia Chapter. Ted Turner of CNN received the award one year. During Morales’ term as President, he combined the Communicator of the Year Award event with one to honor Past Presidents of the Chapter. There were 33 living Chapter presidents and between 25-27 showed up. Fortunately, one of the Committee members was the PR director of The Four Seasons Hotel and the event was held there. Another event he organized was a luncheon for the secretaries of the Chapter leaders to facilitate communications among them.

In addition, under Morales, the Chapter conducted the first formal membership satisfaction/needs survey; improved the professional level of the programming; was aggressive in recruiting new members in general, instituting such novel approaches as waiving their first year’s chapter dues. There was a 23% increase in membership from 1984, and the chapter ended 1985 with a record amount of funds. “My leadership in enhancing the chapter’s value to our local members contributed to greater participation of members in our activities and a greater degree of professionalism in the Philadelphia PR community,” he wrote in his PRSA College of Fellows application. Although Morales doesn’t consider anything “spectacular” about his term, the Chapter received its first PRSA National Chapter Banner Award that year, which recognized outstanding Chapter achievement.

After completing his term as President, the urge to serve PRSA was still with him so he set his sights on the national level. “After chapter service, I asked myself where do you go from here?” he said. “I liked PRSA, and saw its value. I worked for a trade association, that relied on volunteers to get things done. This was in my blood. I was impressed by the leadership of PRSA and wanted to join them.”

He devoted himself to what would become another passion — accreditation. He served on the National Accreditation Board, chaired the Association Section and the Eligibility Committee, was elected to the Board of Directors, and held the posts of secretary, treasurer, president-elect and finally president in 1996.

“When it comes to Luis Morales I’m the expert,” says Joseph Vecchione, APR, Fellow PRSA and 1994 national president, with a laugh. “I was on the Board when he was national President and watched him as President. Luis is one of the best professionals I’ve ever met. He follows through on everything. He has a high degree of professionalism. He studies different opinions and does his homework. When he makes a decision he stands by it.

“Every President has the desire to move the Society forward. Luis did this admirably. He ran board meetings in a professional manner, but personally. The board became a closely knit group and those relationships have continued. That was because of his administrative talents. His wife, Maria, was a wonderful First Lady.”

The major initiative Morales attempted while President was to have PRSSA students take the multiple-choice part of the written portion of the accreditation exam just prior to or upon graduation. “This could help cement the PRSA relationship with students early as they are about to graduate from their program,” Morales said. “I pushed hard. The Board approved it. The Accreditation Board was lukewarm but went along. The problem was we rushed it. Students weren’t prepared for the morning part (multiple choice of the written exam) and we didn’t prepare them well. I wish we would revive it. If they pass the written part, they could get some initials by their name which would indicate that, then take the oral later. It would get students into the APR pipeline early and into membership of PRSA. With a college education students should pass the multiple choice part. Students were enthusiastic, and it had a lot of support. We needed more time to put it together.”

As President, he also addressed many student PRSSA chapters, highlighting a number of personality traits, work habits and principles that would help the future PR practitioners be successful in their future professional careers. He also promoted adherence to PRSA’s Code of Ethics.

Perhaps, Morales undertook this interest in the future public relations leaders because he recognized that his experience getting into public relations was different than for young people now. “PR majors now are better prepared then I was,” he said. “PR was not as sophisticated then as it is now. Training is important. I read books, went to chapter seminars, the convention. I worked at it and realized I had to hone my skills.”

Morales was born in Richmond Virginia and attended Benedectine High School, a day military high school. He matriculated at the University of Richmond, working his way through college by working for Richmond Newspapers in one of the service departments for the advertising department. Morales was business manager of the student newspaper and also received a number of honors. He graduated in 1960 as an English major, with a minor in Spanish. During college, he also enrolled in a Marine Corps officer program and after graduation entered the Marine Corps as a Second Lieutenant. He served in the Corps from 1960-63.

“Oddly enough, I was always interested in media,” he said. “Although I was not on the editorial side of the newspaper, I was always interested in that side. In the Marines, I saw the value of public relations. We did a lot with the local Boy Scouts and other community groups.”

After leaving the Marine Corps, he joined Robert Morris Associates and began to build a PR program, while also handling marketing and publishing. In 1965, he moved to Puerto Rico to work as an administrative manager for his father-in-law. who owned AM/FM radio stations. Though not part of the job description, he instituted a “modest” (theres that word again) PR effort for the stations — although he estimates that 60% of his time was spent on public relations.

Morales returned to Philadelphia to become Director of Public Relations at RMA in 1970. “PR had really taken off there,” Morales said. “A lot of the foundation I laid had been expanded. I was really excited to take that and expand it further.”

Expand it he did. He initiated annual media tours for the new volunteer elected president; converted a bimonthly external membership newsletter to a monthly; turned the Annual Report into a more corporate looking publication and published “corporate” literature for the Association. He was also able to convince management to hire a full-time public relations manager and external newsletter editor.

This was just the tip of the iceberg. Morales created an internal public relations program involving communications, lifestyles, recognition and award programs for employees; and enhanced the awards and recognition programs for the members. During his 26 years with RMA, the Association’s revenues increased from $400,000 to $16 million and membership grew from 1,200 institutions and 4,500 individuals to 3,100 institutions and 18,300 individuals.

Most significant was he assumed responsibility for RMA’s nationwide network of approximately 80 chapters and realized the need to improve RMA’s relations with the volunteer leaders of the chapters.

“We had to improve the way we communicated with them and trained them for their RMA leadership roles,” he wrote in his PRSA College of Fellows application. “All were busy officers in their respective banks. Each year, we held a meeting for our chapters’ incoming top leaders to help prepare them to assume their local unit’s presidency. I was instrumental in converting the meeting agenda from one where national association representatives ‘preached the party line’ to the assembled group to one consisting of presentations on all aspects of chapter administration. We recruited past exemplary Chapter Presidents to do most of the presenting.

“The formerly spotty attendance increased to almost 100% of the chapters sending both their incoming presidents and presidents-elect. Most importantly, the strength of the Chapters in terms of the services they provided our members as well as their communications with their members and with the national office increased also to high and effective levels. This was an exceptional accomplishment in that the enhancement of the relations that the national office and national leadership had with our chapter leaders created a direct and positive influence on our members at the local level. This, in turn, contributed to increases in our new members and in member satisfaction.”

Here are some figures to shock current PR practitioners. From 1986-1996 as Director of Marketing and Communications at RMA, Morales had a staff of 24 people and was responsible for half of RMA’s total income, his half being $8,000,000. Morales stayed at RMA until he took early retirement in 1996.

“Luis is an extremely thoughtful person,” said O’Brien. “He really wanted to explore the reasons to do the right thing. With his PR programs he wanted to make sure they had an impact on volunteers and had a tangible outcome for volunteers.”

In 1972, he joined the Philadelphia PRSA Chapter. “If you’re in PR, this was the organization to belong to,” he said. “The leaders of PR in Philadelphia were all members. PRSA offered a chance to increase my knowledge of the field and was very helpful.”

He sees public relations as quite a different field now than when he was coming up through the ranks.

“The biggest changes have been technology, the speed of communications, crisis communication, reputation management,” he said. “There’s a lot more openness than 40 years ago. The media digs deeper and the public is more educated and demanding. This creates a different set of responsibilities for PR professionals. Companies are scrutinized more and the public is not as trusting. The bottom line is to tell the truth and do the right thing. In the old days not as many people heard about trouble. Now it’s almost instantaneous for news to get on the Internet.

I am a big advocate of reputation management, building a reservoir of good will that you can draw on when you have a problem. When Johnson & Johnson had the Tylenol (tampering) scare, J&J got on it quickly. They didn’t suffer so greatly because they had built up a history of good will and took immediate action to take the product off the shelves and steps to assure tamper-proof packaging in the future,” said Morales. “People believed them. When Chrysler was caught putting engines from test cars in new cars off line, Lee Iacocca made ads saying ‘I’m sorry. We’re going to correct it and it will never happen again.’ I’m an advocate of telling the truth. If you do that, in the long run you’ll be fine. People will forgive mistakes because they realize people are imperfect.”

Morales is also not some crusty old veteran willing to sit back in retirement and act like the expert. He has a few PR clients and as a hobby buys and sells antiques and collectibles, specializing in Native American art. And, he still stays involved with PRSA.

Good buddy Joe Vecchione is even more indebted to Morales this year. Vecchione is this year’s Gold Anvil Award Winner, the highest honor in PRSA. Morales nominated him.

“Despite his many years on the Chapter board, he’s remained involved in chapter activities,” said O’Brien. “He’s a champion for APR. We were both judges for the orals this year and that’s just one of the ways he stays involved. He’s someone you can always call on for help.”

He definitely is a champion for APR. By the end of the interview, he was encouraging me to pursue the APR. I thought I was doing the interview.