by Anne-Marie Cotton
Lector Communicatiemanagement & Mediaplanning, Arteveldehogeschool, Belgium,
EUPRERA president 1999-2000, EUPRERA secretary general 2003-2010
In commemoration of EUPRERA past president and founding father
passed away in 2017
Vision – Daring – Future-oriented thinking – Strategy – Diplomacy – People skills – Eloquence
And above all, trust
These are just a few keywords that sum up how Jos – or ‘Mr. Willems’ – has achieved so much.
As Jos passed away April 2, 2017, I invite you on a 25 year journey of dialogue, a back and forth of extensive meetings, deciphering handwriting, (re)writing reports, negotiations, debates, arguments, presentations, inspirations… yet I also invite you to look back on many incredible shared emotions, “for better and for worse”. The story of our association.
May 1992, where my story begins, featured my switch from the world of advertising to HIBO (Hoger Instituut voor BedrijfsOpleiding/ Higher Institute for Business Programme), which was Belgium’s only non-confessional university college providing a field of study in communication.
HIBO was a peculiar group of individuals who introduced a practical approach in higher education. It was Jos’s vision for non-university higher education: “to prepare young adults for a professional career by confronting them with the experience of those who actually went through it”. His innovative vision was created through close contacts with CEOs and CCOs of companies in all fields and communication agencies. His aim was to accentuate the social relevance communication has towards society.
Strengthened by other pioneers such as Charles van der Straten-Waillet, Axel Grijspeerdt and Jan Robberechts – in the 70’s our profession was still in its infancy-, Jos spent countless hours working out the fundamentals of a programme in our field of study. Communication management became his life’s work. Jos’s vision, now shared by many as “l’organisation communicante” (the communicating organisation), was: “Because communication is embedded in all kind of organisations, our students require a wide-ranging background”.
And “wide-ranging” in Willemsian phrasing -Jos Willems’ language- meant as much as: history, economics, psychology, sociology, law, and ethics, and all the necessary communication theories on top of languages. From the many conversations we had on education, one vision stood out: “Whoever does not have a general background, can’t start to work in communication. You need this to fully grasp what communication is about.”
April 1994. I am ushered in the Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat 160 (where Jos’ school was founded, in the heart of Ghent) on the next to highest floor. I am greeted with a warm welcome. Before I had a chance to sit down I was asked if I would coordinate MARPE (Master in European PR). And before I had a chance to answer Jos already said I would do a fabulous job. We would go to Lisbon together in the following week to meet up with the other MARPE colleagues: Barbara Baerns, Bertil Flodin, Sue Wolstenholme, Americo Ramalho, Susana Carvalho, Véronique Richard, Jan Moescops. I also received a neatly organised binder with a lot of documents. It was Jos’s winning combination: work and recognition.
Lisbon, the week after. I had a quite close look at the binder with documents, I hadn’t figured out every single piece of the puzzle yet, but one thing was crystal clear: entrepreneurial skills and Jos went hand in hand.
I used the word daring…
Daring to create a successful private university college from scratch is a strong feat. It required future-oriented thinking to shape a private initiative into Flanders’ benchmark. That was IHNUS (Institute for Non-University Studies) which became HIBO after its formal recognition by the Ministry of Education. And “daring” and “long-term vision” were often in stark contrast to what narrow-minded Flanders was familiar with. From that background and Jos’s cross-boundary aspirations, Europe was already peeking from around the corner.
So yes, it’s a matter of daring to go to a European PR professionals’ conference, to look up the members of the board and tell them that, even though it is a worthy initiative it still is a pity education is not part of the association… and to offer to take care of the issue. The result was CERP Education, founded on 3 November 1989 as one of the most successful pillars of CERP, the European Confederation of PR. Jos’s future-oriented thinking laid the groundwork for our association, EUPRERA, we know today. With over 500 members from more than 40 different countries, our European Public Relations Education and Research Association grew from that one idea.
In November 1990, he organised the very first CERP conference on Education in Bruges. “Public Relations in the Future: from theory to practice”. His intention was to add a new European related dimension to PR.
The second conference was hosted in Prague, May 1993. The location Jos chose was to unite the West and East pan-European vision of CERP Education. The central theme was “The Role of Public Relations in Organisational Communication”, which in French translates to “Le Rôle des Relations Publiques dans les Organisations”. Jos was also a diplomat: he understood our PR-community’s members’ academic and cultural sensitivities. To him it was far more important that meetings and moments of exchange took place rather than the seemingly endless bickering over what he coined as “the gender of angels”. This became the role of PR in organisational communication for the Anglo-Saxons, and the role of PR in organisations for the French. These two first conferences have proceedings: “to teach teachers, researchers and practitioners”. Much like his IHNUS – afterwards HIBO– that he had built with first-hand experience from practice, so did Jos build bridges between the academic and professional PR-world at a European level.
Even in between European educational institutions Jos forged bonds. In our hyper-connected society, we often don’t take a moment to appreciate this Herculean task. In those days, there wasn’t any World Wide Web where every piece of information is free for the taking. No: we are talking snail mail, telephone, telex and fax to gather all information for a yearly update of the “Survey of Public Relations programmes in Europe”. The first survey was published in April 1991 and – to use Jos’s words – “it was the result of a 3-year research and a great number of visits on the spots”. Jos always preferred personal contact over telecommunication. He visited countless of educational institutions all across Europe to return with books and ideas, which in turn led to a clear inspirational focus -or secret influence- of new ideas and projects delegated to the members of the Board of Directors.
May 1994, one month after Lisbon. The third CERP Education conference takes place in Paris. Maastricht is next in 1995 and in November 1996, we met in Copenhagen under the auspices of our association’s new name: CERP Education and Research. Jos understood how essential it was to add “research” to increase the academic credibility of our conferences and to gain legitimacy.
As Mark Phillimore wrote to me: “That is the legacy of great visionaries that they help shape the ordinary and commonplace out of something which was very -very- radical and innovative many years before.”
To me, Brussels 1998 will always be a turning point. A conference with an attending audience of some 20 participants. There were some hefty discussions on terminology – is it PR, corporate communication, organisational communication? – and Jos who, from behind the scenes, manoeuvred in such a way to “find” the next president of the association… Because after his run from the late 80s up until 1994 as president of CERP Education, he was succeeded by Sonja Kleijne, who, in 1998, was near at the end of her term without a clear successor. The honour passed on to me in 1999.
What a year it became and how I have learnt from Jos! He was “my” Secretary General, which was my conditio sine qua non for becoming president, and he taught me the rules of the game; whether it was agenda setting, accountancy, statutes and bylaws, or how to show patience and initiate deliberation, heading towards cooperation and participation, whatever it was, we closely worked in a perfect tandem.
Vision, daring, and future-oriented thinking are crucial ingredients for a sound strategy. In Berlin, October 1999, we suggested to leave CERP behind us and start an independent European association. Jos and I have spent countless hours poring over letters and acronyms, when suddenly it dawned on us… EUPRERA!
Sue Wolstenholme wrote: “Jos did an amazing thing with CERP for the teaching of PR, and the creation of MARPE was genius but he also facilitated the bringing together of like-minded people from across cultural and many other divides so that he created a friendship group that has completely enriched my life.”
He had promised me he would stay on a Secretary General as long as I remained at the helm. In 2002, he thought that 70 was a decent age to retire. So, in 2003 I took over his job until 2010.
We agreed from the start that Jos would not play the ‘mother-in-law’, but that I could always drop by. And so, I did: for advice, for sage counsel, to discuss ideas, to find a sounding board, but also for solace especially in the last four years. Jos always knew what to say and how to say it. His eloquence was found in soothing, encouraging words, dotting i’s and crossing t’s as he went along.
I really don’t know what I miss the most, the way he looked at you or the way he smiled. His gestures or his long epistles. What I miss for sure, daily, is his visionary view on educational policy based on trust. But now, I too – much like you – have to miss the person that was Jos as well. He loved the French language, yet another thing we had in common, the French chanson and especially one dame, always dressed in black, called Barbara. One of Jos favorite songs of her was “Ma plus belle histoire d’amour, c’est vous”. I would like to paraphrase that song that most closely resembles who Jos was:
“Ta plus belle histoire d’amour, c’est nous…”*
*Paraphrasing “My most beautiful love story is you” into “Your most beautiful love story is us”