Jay Rockey was the director of public relations for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition) and the founder of Jay Rockey Public Relations, later The Rockey Company, which became the leading public relations firm in the Pacific Northwest. The idea of a world's fair did not have much traction with the public at the point when Rockey joined the effort, but he developed a highly effective public relations strategy that garnered international coverage for the fair and was crucial to its success. Rockey was president of the Public Relations Society of America and was honored as a pioneer of the industry in the region. He also served on the boards of a range of organizations, including his alma mater, Washington State University.
Jay Rockey was born in 1928 in Olympia, in Thurston County, the second of three sons of McClellan "Chick" Rockey (1898-1984) and Celia McDowell Rockey (1898-1992). His father was born in Charleston, West Virginia, and was a noted basketball player before becoming athletic director at Olympia High School, a job he held for 40 years. Jay's mother was born in Molson, Okanagan County, where her parents homesteaded and farmed wheat. She attended Washington State College, earned a degree in pharmacy, and taught school before quitting to raise the family's three boys, Ward, Jay, and Dean.
According to a history written by writer and filmmaker Kathryn Hunt for the Rockey family, Jay Rockey's childhood was marked by a happy home life and a love of sports and the outdoors. He "liked the idea of being a leader," according to his older brother, Ward (Hunt). During his teenage years, he and his two brothers worked as fire spotters in the forests of the Olympic Mountains, sleeping in fire lookouts and building trails along the Hamma Hamma River. They also enjoyed picking oysters on Hood Canal and going fishing with their father. The Hood Canal area remained important to Rockey all his life, and he has kept a vacation home on the canal near the town of Union.
College and Early Career
Jay Rockey graduated from Olympia High School in 1945, joined the U.S. Navy, and was stationed in Hawaii. After leaving the navy he followed in the footsteps of his brother Ward and enrolled on the GI Bill at Washington State College (now Washington State University), graduating in 1950 from the speech department.
Immediately after graduation, Rockey was called upon by the navy to serve again, this time in Korea. While waiting in line to be shipped out, he was recognized by an officer who was a family friend and was aware of Rockey's athletic pedigree. The officer extracted him from the line and had him assigned to the navy's championship basketball team, which at the time was based in San Diego. Rockey was later stationed at the navy's press office in Honolulu, his first taste of the calling that would become his career.
Communications work was a good fit for Rockey. He moved back from Honolulu to work for The Olympia News, then joined United Press International (UPI) as a legislative reporter and night bureau manager. His next job was a position in public relations with the aluminum company Alcoa based in Vancouver, Clark County. It was here that he met his future wife, Retha Inghram (1928-2009.) The couple was married in 1954, and not long after that Jay Rockey was offered a job managing Alcoa's public relations department in New York. As he later recalled, "It was really the best job in the world because I had the whole of New York and could do whatever I wanted. I loved New York" (Rockey interview). The couple remained on the East Coast for seven years, during which their three children were born: Helen (b. 1955) in Pittsburgh, Susan (b. 1956) in Bronxville, and David (b. 1958) in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The thought of raising a family far from their original home in Washington gave Jay and Retha pause, though. As he remembered in a 2010 interview, they'd go back and forth about whether to return to Washington, but could never really come to a decision.
A Scouting Trip Back West
As a way to bring some clarity to things, Rockey decided to visit the Northwest and check out job opportunities. He had his eye on either Boeing or Weyerhaeuser, but things took an unexpected turn when he arranged to catch up with a friend and former colleague, Jim Faber.
Faber had been a broadcaster and a print journalist with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He and Rockey first met when they both covered the state capitol in Olympia while Rockey was working for UPI. By 1959 Faber was public-relations director for the fledgling Century 21 Exposition. The two had arranged to meet at Faber's office, but when Rockey got to the reception desk he was told that Faber had resigned the previous night. The receptionist called the fair's general manager, Ewen "Ding" Dingwall (1913-1996), who invited Rockey into his office. The two talked, and Dingwall offered Rockey the position of information director for Century 21.
Rockey at first declined, telling Dingwall that it "wasn't really my cup of tea ... . What I wanted was the same job I had in New York, but in the Northwest" (Rockey interview). Weyerhaeuser or Boeing still seemed like better bets, but Dingwall persisted, and after a couple of months, Rockey agreed to take the job. The dilemma that had been preoccupying him and his wife was resolved; the family loaded up their Ford Falcon station wagon and headed home to the Pacific Northwest.
Selling Century 21
Rockey started work as information director for the Century 21 Exposition in May 1960 and became public-relations director in September of that year. The prominence of the fair in accounts of Seattle's past can sometimes obscure the fact that it was greeted initially with some skepticism by the local press, and even by many in the city's business community. In a 2010 interview, Rockey remembered that one of the key personalities behind the building of the Space Needle, Ned Skinner (1920-1988), had doubts about the entire enterprise. However, as it became clear that something was definitely going to happen, Skinner wanted to be involved in shaping its course. Rockey also spoke about a sense of "desperation" in those early days of planning for the fair (Rockey interview).
In taking over from Faber, Rockey inherited a project that already had an established identity as a space-age exposition. To Rockey's ear, though, the word "exposition" was problematic, and he believed that it was difficult for people to relate to such an abstract idea. On the other hand, "Everyone knew what a fair was" (Hunt). So one of Rockey's first moves as information director was to persuade his bosses that the Century 21 Exposition should have a different name. When it gained the official stamp of approval from the Bureau of International Expositions in late 1961, the Century 21 Exposition became, officially, the Seattle World's Fair (Final Report ...).
The PR Machine Gets Rolling
Exposition or not, an assessment prepared in mid-1960 identified a range of problems facing the Century 21 team, as later set forth in the final report submitted by the fair's public-relations division after the fair closed:
"(1) widespread public apathy in many areas and even outright opposition to the Fair in Seattle; (2) the onus of the unsuccessful Portland Centennial of 1959 which was assumed by most to indicate similar failure at the gate by Century 21 Exposition; (3) a strict and limited public relations and advertising budget; (4) the lack of a nationally well known personality associated with the Fair; and (5) a total lack of interest on the part of editors, writers and broadcasters of the metropolitan and national media" (Final Report ...).
To remedy these shortcomings, a dramatic realignment took place within Century 21. By the time of the fair's opening, 100 public-relations and promotional staff had been hired, in addition to representatives in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Spokane, and Vancouver, B.C. Rockey supervised the development of a PR operation that ran full-tilt from late 1960 until the conclusion of the fair on October 21, 1962.
The PR division's final report details the comprehensive nature of the operation. To take a few examples: New York City was an initial target for the fair, so the PR division mounted a press launch and luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria for 200 media invitees. Each editor and broadcaster who attended was contacted in a follow-up effort. Similar programs were mounted in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle itself.
The PR staff also prepared a newspaper for the event, dated January 1, 2000. This newspaper from the future, which reflected the major concepts behind the fair and "told a realistic story of developments since the Exposition," was sent with accompanying press materials to "thousands of editors all over the nation; a mass contact program was on, and it would be kept up with a steady stream of new material and photographs until after the Exposition" (Final Report ...).
Volunteers were enlisted for a speakers' bureau and delivered more than 3,000 speeches in communities across the state, often using scripts and color slides provided by the fair. The advertising industry was targeted and encouraged to use the fair as a vehicle for national ad campaigns. There were printed promotional materials distributed nationally in airports and department stores, and contests organized through newspapers, oil companies, and department stores, among others.
It was effective, as historian Murray Morgan (1916-2000) noted in his book Century 21: The Story of the World's Fair, 1962. "In the six months before the fair opened, Anne Swennson, the co-ordinator of magazine publicity, logged eight hundred seventy-six stories in magazines with a total circulation of more than 200,000,000" (Morgan).
Public-service Broadcasts and Life Magazine Covers
The aggressive advance campaign was not the end of the operation. After the fair, which ran from April 21 to October 21, 1962, was underway, the public-relations division continued rolling. It produced TV and radio news segments for national and local outlets and supplied this material free of charge. Washington Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989) was chairman of the U.S. Senate's commerce committee at the time and he wrote to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging him to designate world's-fair-related programming and announcements as public-service broadcasts, which the FCC head did. This meant that stations could use them to help fulfill their public-service obligations.
Among the many other successes of the PR division were two covers of Life magazine that featured the fair, one with the headline "Fabulous Fair in Seattle" alongside a photo of the upper half of the Space Needle under construction. It was taken on a bright, sunny day -- the sky is blue and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains are visible on the horizon. It's an image that seems to crystallize the idea of a technological future, all optimism and possibility.
After the Fair -- Starting a Company
Recalling his work for the world's fair, Jay Rockey later said:
"Actually, it was not much fun at the time. No one knew if the fair would succeed until advance ticket sales started coming in. It was a great opportunity to succeed -- or fail. It was a period of unbelievable challenge, uncertainty, and fear" (Hunt).
Uncertainty or not, the staggering success of the Seattle World's Fair publicity machine meant Jay Rockey's reputation in the PR industry was assured. On October 22, 1962, the day after the fair closed, he started his own firm, in part at the urging of the fair's director, Eddie Carlson (1911-1990). Rockey later wrote, "After the World's Fair, Eddie urged me to start a consulting business here, when the job offers were in New York and Los Angeles" ("Jay Rockey's Secrets ...").
Jay Rockey Public Relations began life as an affiliate of Kraft, Smith and Ehrig, the company that had been the advertising agency for the fair, and its first client was the Pacific Science Center. Jay's wife, Retha, worked as comptroller for his firm, and she continued in that capacity for 38 years. Along the way she came up with "Bumbershoot" as the name for the festival that now takes place each Labor Day weekend at Seattle Center, which was developed on the former site of the world's fair.
Retha Rockey had a down-to-earth personality that contrasted with the conventional image of someone in the public-relations industry. As for Jay, Seattle advertising executive Don Kraft remembered his management style this way:
"Jay led by example, he was very hands on … he knew what he wanted but didn't throw his weight around. He joked, he was fun to be with. And when he needed to he'd sit down at his old Royal typewriter and bang a story out" (Hunt).
Selling Public Relations
One challenge that The Rockey Company, as the firm was renamed, faced was that many potential clients didn't really know what "public relations" meant. Explaining the need for the service it offered was key to the company's success. "When I was starting out … so much of it was missionary work, convincing people that public relations was the answer to their needs" (Hooper).
Speaking in 1987, Retha Rockey described her husband as "a little more aloof than some people would like. He's not that way with his family and he's very good in social settings. But at work, he feels he's the leader and he wants to do things his way" (Hooper). A certain reserve may have been a quality that was appreciated by Rockey's business clients.
Building the business was a passion that took up much of Rockey's time. When asked about work-life balance, his daughter Susan Rockey Martin replied that for her father, work and family were intertwined. Such was his easygoing personality that he seemingly had no difficulty in maintaining both aspects of his life with equal success.
Over time The Rockey Company acquired small firms throughout the region, with the mission of remaining a Pacific Northwest regional company but one having the capacity to take on national and international projects. At its height it had 50 employees and offices in Portland, Anchorage, San Francisco, Spokane, Washington, D.C., and New York. Rockey attributed the longevity of the company to the diversity of its client base. It was able to weather the ups and downs of the economic cycle because it worked with companies large and small, from Boeing, British Airways, and Washington Mutual to Port Blakeley Tree Farms and the Whatcom Medical Bureau.
The Alaska Pipeline
Beginning in 1972, one of the more controversial campaigns Rockey undertook centered on the construction of an 800-mile-long oil pipeline in Alaska for the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Oil companies ARCO, British Petroleum, and Humble Oil had formed Alyeska in 1968. The environmental concerns surrounding the project made it particularly sensitive. According to public-relations industry reporter David Hooper, the campaign came to be seen as a classic successful PR operation.
In Hooper's account, Rockey realized that to persuade Congress to approve the pipeline, the oil companies' lack of credibility with the environmental lobby had to be met head-on. Their promises about safe construction weren't being taken seriously. Rockey's tactics echoed those he had used 10 years earlier for promoting the world's fair. He initiated a national program of media contacts and a national advertising campaign, gathered large amounts of background information, formed a public support group and a speakers bureau, and, last but not least, engaged in strenuous legislative lobbying.
Rockey's involvement with the project lasted several years; the first oil would not flow through the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline until 1977. The opposition was intense. Looking back on the campaign, Rockey claimed that he had been "influenced considerably by the environmentalists' concern … I think that history will record that it was done correctly" (Hooper).
Sale of The Rockey Company
By 2000 The Rockey Company was ranked as the 14th-largest PR firm in the United States. Strategically, that put it in a tricky position, with more overhead than the very small companies but not sufficient muscle to compete against the big beasts in the industry. In June of that year, The Rockey Company was sold to what was then the world's second-largest PR company, Hill and Knowlton.
"Jay Rockey's Secrets to Success," an article that Rockey published in 1991, effectively sums up the key points in his philosophy and gives a taste of the PR style of the time:
"It's always fun to look back on the good times. But the essence of success is rooted in meeting the next challenge, not the last. Today, it's tomorrow that counts … . A succession of highs and lows is the natural pattern. And through it all the successful professional must be resilient and under control -- which brings to mind the old locker room line: 'To finish first -- you must first finish'" ("Jay Rockey's Secrets ...")
Rockey had one further piece of advice: "Success, too, leans on ethical commitment. 'Always try to do the right thing' is a good starting point" ("Jay Rockey's Secrets ...")
In the 1970s Jay Rockey had served as president of Public Relations Society of America (PRSA.) The Northwest chapter of PRSA established the Jay Rockey Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 in recognition of Rockey's influence on the growth of the industry in the region. Rockey also served on many boards throughout his career, including those of the Museum of Flight, Ryther Child Center, Keep Washington Green, and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
From 1990 to 1992 Rockey was chairman of the Washington State University Foundation. He was also a founding member of the Professional Advisory Board of the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at WSU and a member of the university's board of trustees. In 1993 he was awarded the WSU Foundation Board of Trustees' highest honor, the Weldon B. Gibson Distinguished Volunteer Award. Jay Rockey died in 2018.