[Editor’s Note: With the world celebrating International Women's Day today, we thought it fitting to re-run a 2019 story about the founder of the brand you are reading, an extraordinary woman named Denny Griswold. The article's author is another special lady, Shelley Spector, co-founder of the Museum of Public Relations. We trust you will find this story inspiring and enlightening, though one tinged with sadness and a bit of déjà vu. Its sadness is obvious; the déjà vu is that women in PR still face many of the issues they confronted when Griswold started this publication, nearly 80 years ago.]
She was called the industry's grande dame and queen of PR. Her rival and admirer, Jack O’Dwyer, said she was the “closest thing we have to a celebrity in this field.” She was a lady of firsts. Griswold gave the industry its first newsletter, Public Relations News, in 1944. She also helped found its first organization of women, in 1946, and its initial PR handbook for business people two years after that.
Most important, she gave the PR field a sense of professionalism. This helped fuel its spectacular growth over the second half of the 20th century.
That she did so in a field that had maybe a half-dozen female professionals at the time of the founding of this newsletter is a testament to her talent, tenacity and verve.
Born Denora Prager in New York in 1908, she went by Denny her whole life. This confused many readers who thought she was a man. She thought this was a curse and a blessing. Considered a male may well have given the newsletter more credibility, she said.
In fact, at the time of PRNEWS’ founding, women leaders were so few and far between, that when she held the first meeting for Women Executives in PR (WEPR), she could barely find enough females to fit around her Upper East Side dining room table.
Griswold was a celebrity in an industry that discouraged its practitioners from seeking the limelight. Staying in the limelight, indeed, creating the limelight, Griswold gave PR the glow it so desperately needed. At the time, the 1940s, PR was struggling for recognition as a bona fide profession. This was 20 years after it formally came into being.
She would frequently throw black tie affairs at the Waldorf. But unlike today, these galas were not for PR people, but CEOs. As the NY Times reported in 1965, the 20th anniversary of PR News attracted the CEOs of Texaco, Western Union, the American Petroleum Company, Air France and dozens of others. We know from reports that Lee Iacocca of Ford attended at least one of Denny's parties. So did Chief Justice Warren Burger.
“Powerful men always wanted to stay on her good side,” Muriel Fox, who, in the 1950s, worked as Carl Byoir’s first female executive, said recently. “Reputations could rise or fall with Denny. The way she wrote about you in [PRNEWS]—or even if she wrote about you at all—was critical.” [Editor's Note: Ms. Fox is one of the guests during this week's Museum of PR salute to women (March 11, 2021, 6-8pm ET). More information here.]
Despite her ability to throw an elaborate party, Griswold was deadly serious about her cherished PR field, which was just coming into full swing in the 1940s.
100 PR Firms
When she started PRNEWS, with husband Glenn Grisworld, there were 100 PR firms and one dozen in-house PR departments. The field was growing fast, though.
“World War II labor shortages gave a number of women the opportunity to enter the field," Dr. Karen Miller Russell, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Grady College, said in an interview. “What’s amazing about Denny Griswold is that she retained her position as a leader in the field for decades through PRNEWS. She obviously identified a significant need and then filled it. Because of her, PRNEWS contributed to the growing professionalization of public relations.”
An Idea for a Newsletter
It was July 1944, at 3 a.m., that Denny had the idea to start a newsletter. As she told the Times years later, she woke up her husband, then publisher of Businessweek, and told him about her idea. “Start taking notes,” she instructed him. He agreed it was such a good idea that he quit Businessweek to work alongside her.
While PRNEWS was born just as the field was coming into its own, the newsletter not only chronicled the growth of PR, it also fueled that expansion. The weekly case studies would showcase PR solving real business problems. In addition, the field, by that time, was employing enough practitioners that comings and goings made interesting reading.
In 1946, Griswold founded the aforementioned Women Executives in PR, the first such organization of its kind. Diana Kalman, then a PR director for Monsanto, and founder of Women Executives in Public Relations Foundation, emphasized Griswold’s championing of women. Even though she initially found just five women in the profession to join WEPR, Griswold had a vision. She thought the organization could advocate for women to join the field.
“Founding Women in PR showed what a true visionary Denny was,” Kalman said. “She knew that while there may not have been many women in the field, this would one day change, and women would need one another to change it.”
Gertrude Bailey, an original WEPR member and a manager of PR for Monsanto, recalled in 1973 the paucity of women in the field when Griswold started WEPR. “Denny was asked to make up a list of women executives” to join WEPR and “a few were all she she could find.”
Bailey recalled Griswold’s tenacity. “Whenever we couldn’t agree on whether we were going to have a lunch or evening meeting, Denny would enter the fray. She would remind the ladies, 'We have a definite job to perform, to further the professional interest of every woman in public relations. We have to give a little bit more. Surely it is not too much to give one evening a month!'”
By 1955 there were 23 members. “Today (1973), we have more than 100 members representing 85 firms including 29 corporations,” Bailey said.
Over the next 45 years, as PR firms attracted more women, Griswold chronicled their rise to leadership roles, honored them during events and continued to champion the success of women communicators.
A Sad Ending
Beginning in the 1990s people stopped seeing Griswold at industry events. Some said she was living alone in her townhouse, with little family around. O’Dwyer wrote that she was in a nursing home, moved there in the mid-1990s.
And then O’Dwyer reported: “Griswold, the former Denora Prager, was held incommunicado at the Wilton Meadows nursing home for the last 5.5 years of her life. Her death at 92 on Feb. 7, 2001, was discovered by this reporter who tried to reach her on the phone. Her many friends should have gone to the police.”
The NY Times was more diplomatic. It reported her Feb. 7 passing weeks later, on March 24, saying the “founder and former editor of the newsletter Public Relations News,” died in Norwalk, CT. “She was 92 and in recent years had lived at the Wilton Meadows Health Care Center in Wilton, Conn.”
Unseen Since 1995
Several weeks after her death, under the headline, “Griswold Not Reachable Since 1995,” O’Dwyer reported that “numerous friends and family” attempted to contact Griswold since 1995, but were unsuccessful. Several PR pros ventured to the nursing home in Wilton, CT, over the years to connect with her. They were turned away. Phone messages to Griswold at the nursing home also went unreturned.
In that article O’Dwyer noted a three-person team from PRSA, including Harold Burson, met with Griswold several times. The talks involved turning her four-story NY townhouse, at 127 E. 80th St, into a museum of PR and a training center. A contract stipulated that Griswold would continue to live in the house for the rest of her life, O’Dwyer reported.
During the course of those talks Griswold suddenly “disappeared,”a member of the team told O’Dwyer. Its members were never able to regain contact with her. Her townhouse subsequently was sold, reportedly for $3.2 million.
“It is not known what happened to the antiques or all of the papers connected with PRNEWS, which Griswold edited for nearly 50 years,” O’Dwyer reported. Indeed, my search for early editions of PRNEWS for this article have been to no avail. [Update, March 8, 2021: An historian is donating early editions of PRNEWS to the Museum.]
By the time of her death, Griswold amassed 134 awards and honors for community and PR activities.
The author has a special connection to Denny Griswold, who once gave her a ‘Proud to be in PR’ pin, which is on display at the Museum of Public Relations.
During this 75th anniversary year (2019), replicas of the pin are among the items PRNEWS is distributing during events, including a September celebration of the milestone.
As Shelley tells us, “Denny’s success in PR helped her. But it also paved the way for hundreds of women in the 1990s to start PR firms.” Spector should know. In 1991, she started a firm that she continues to run.
“Denny didn’t just publish a newsletter,” Spector says. “Denny gave women the license to think that nothing was impossible anymore.”
Note: A version of this content appeared in the April 2019 of PRNEWS. For subscription information, please visit: http://www.prnewsonline.com/about/info