Tim O’Brien, APR, formed O’Brien Communications in 2001 after serving as Communications Director and the Chief Investor Relations Officer at Tollgrade Communications, a NASDAQ company.
At Tollgrade, he was a member of the company’s Executive Committee, responsible for all internal and external communications, serving as primary spokesperson. From 1997 through 2000, Tollgrade grew from $37.4 million in annual revenues to $114.4 million.
Before Tollgrade, Mr. O’Brien spent ten years at Ketchum, where he was a Vice President, a member of the Pittsburgh office’s Management Committee, and a leader in Ketchum’s national Workplace and Crisis Communications practice areas. At Ketchum, he managed corporate, employee and media relations, in addition to crisis communications programs, community relations and marketing communications initiatives.
Prior to Ketchum, he served in account service at Pittsburgh-based public relations firm Mangus/Catanzano. Before that, he spent two years in advertising. He started his career as a producer/news writer at KDKA TV & Radio in 1981.
Mr. O'Brien earned his bachelor’s degree with majors in Journalism and Speech Communications at Duquesne University. He is an accredited (APR) member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), a member of its Counselor’s Academy, and he has served on the PRSA/ Pittsburgh Board of Directors. He is a member of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, and the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania.
He is a regular contributor to PRSA’s publications PR Tactics and PR Strategist, and has written for several trade publications on communications topics. He has lectured before college and trade audiences, contributed to the "PR News Crisis Management Guidebook" and was featured in Harvard Business School Press’s "The Essentials of Corporate Communications and Public Relations." His writing work has been recognized in several competitions, including the PRSA Renaissance Awards; the Association of Business Communicators; the Dalton Pen Communications Award Program for Excellence in Annual Reports; the NFPW Communications Awards; the International Academy of the Visual Arts’ Communicator Award;, and the Pennsylvania Press Club.
March 23, 2010
Interviewer: Denise Bortree
Videographer: Karen Bryan
Interviewer: We’re sitting with Tim O’Brien, the owner of O’Brien Communication based in Pittsburgh. He has over twenty-five years of corporate communication experience, including a senior post in communication and investor relations with Ketchum Public Relations. He’s agreed to share some of his experiences and thoughts with us today, so welcome. Thank you.
O’Brien: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Interviewer: Let’s start by talking about how you got started in public relations.
O’Brien: I didn’t take a public relations course in college. I went to Duquesne University and I wanted to be a Journalism major, a pure journalism major. My goal was to get into broadcasting - radio and television. While I was in college, I was fortunate enough to start working at some local radio stations. That led to a job at KDKA, where I worked as a producer and a writer through college and after college. While I was at KDKA, I was exposed to public relations and advertising. I handled a number of things at KDKA, one of them being that I produced radio commercials and I produced some television. An ad agency hired me to do copywriting, so I was an advertising copywriter right out of KDKA, and I didn’t like that. I didn’t know for sure whether I would stick with it or not, but I knew I didn’t like it at first.
As most people do in their early twenties, you try to find out what’s best for you. So I worked at a couple of smaller ad agencies and I worked as a copywriter and also as a client service person. But what I missed from my days as a producer and a news writer at KDKA was the news. So I ended up taking a job in 1985 with a local PR firm in Pittsburgh. I did some work there that was noticed by some other people in town and in the field, and in 1987 I ended up starting with Ketchum.
I worked for ten years with them, and while I was there, the work was all public relations, all corporate public relations. Even more specifically than that, a lot of it - I would say by the end - the majority of it was crisis communications. I worked with some big companies across the country. Ketchum had a national client base. The crisis communications group was spread across all the offices, but wherever the crisis was, you went to that crisis. So for a good bit of time while I was at Ketchum, I travelled to different parts of the country working with companies. Also I worked with a lot of clients in the Pennsylvania – Western Pennsylvania –region as well. For the sake of career, when you work in a PR firm, you not only work for clients, but you work for the agency. So you do all the administrative things that maybe in another company they have special departments for. While I was at Ketchum, I was in charge of hiring all the interns, all of the entry level people. I had teams that I managed.
We had responsibilities to market the agency, so I also not only worked to market the Pittsburgh office, but I was the ghostwriter and administrator of the visibility program for Ketchum senior executives. I worked with the chairman and the CEO of Ketchum Public Relations and at that time, we were self-owned. We were an independent agency. It was Ketchum Communications based in Pittsburgh, which owned Ketchum Public Relations. So I worked with the chairman and the CEO of the larger company doing ghostwriting and a lot of other things. That experience … I worked there for ten years and I probably got twenty years experience in that time, literally, in the number of hours I’d spent working.
After Ketchum, I went to work at a publicly traded Tollgrade, a telecommunications equipment company. I went there at a good time. It was right before the dot-com bubble, before it even happened, let alone burst, and we had fifty employees, $37 million in revenue when I started there in 1997. By the time I left in 2001, we had $114 million in revenue and 400 employees. Our stock was extremely visible on the market, so those were a good four years.
At that point, I decided to start my own agency in 2001, my own solo practice. It’s a dream I had long before I ever went to Ketchum. I had the opportunity to do that in 2001, so that’s what I did. My business, O’Brien Communications, has been in business since June of 2001. My focus is similar to what it’s always been, corporate communications. I do some crisis communications, but it’s the full range of corporate communications, which means anything that affects the corporate aspects of the company. So if you were to just look at a company and say we have a corporate communications department that would be the niche in the service group that I would work within. I’m an extension of that department, not so much marketing communications … though in some areas I do a lot of marketing. Professional services marketing falls within corporate communications, so I do some of that with accounting, wealth management law firms, and those types of firms. That’s a quick summary of where I’ve been through my work.
Interviewer: Tell me about the transition from working for an organization to running and establishing one of your own agencies. What’s that experience been like?
O’Brien: It’s been great. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s everything I hoped it would be and more. When I worked in broadcasting, I saw huge turnover in the staff. I saw what we call announcers – “talent.” I saw talent get fired for no good reason in my mind. I was in my early twenties, so I didn’t understand the economics or all the reasons that people were let go. Sometimes they weren’t good reasons anyway, but I saw the turnover and I saw how some people handled it. The ones I admired when they were either let go or they decided to move on … they started their own businesses and there was something about that independence that they seemed to have that appealed to me. That was sort of where the seed was planted for me. So I went through my career after that moving into advertising and public relations always thinking that I wanted to have the skills to run my own business. I wanted to be able to run my own business and be independent some day. So when I decided to do that in 2001, I was very prepared.
I have told other people this story, but being a crisis communicator, I had my own personal crisis communications plan. I always sort of thought, ‘I had a wife and I had two kids.’ I thought what would happen if I lose my job? I would need to do something, the next day, hopefully. So I had a plan in place that if that would ever happen, I would start my own business that day. I would not feel unemployed, and that contingency plan turned into an action plan for me over the course of the years. It became a dream and then something I really wanted to do. Fortunately my career progressed. I was promoted and I achieved some things. So I never had to act on it as a contingency plan.
When the time came in 2001, it was just something that I felt at that point in time that I had to do, and luckily I had the support of my wife. She knew what I wanted to do for a long time, so we agreed on it. I started my business and it did as well as anybody told me it would do in the first six months. It takes time to start a business, but after the first year it actually grew to the point where I had to decide: do I want this to become a larger agency where I hire staff or do I want it to become a solo practice? I decided to keep it as a solo practice where I would draw in contract employees as needed. So that’s the business that I’m in, and I like it because I like the independence.
Interviewer: So what is the biggest challenge that you faced during your career?
O’Brien: The biggest challenge … I would say the biggest challenge would be work-life balance. As I mentioned, especially in my twenties and thirties when I spent so many hours working in agencies; working for clients; working for the good of the agency; getting valuable experience; the price I paid for that experience was basically spending much more of my time at work than I did at home. I would say the biggest challenge, and I fortunately recognized it early enough, was to try to find ways to achieve work-life balance, when to go home, when to do this, when not to join a committee. Those types of things, because you can overextend yourself if you are as committed as I was to my career. So that was my biggest challenge, to achieve a work-life balance. Even starting my own business was part of that, so even though I work more hours, or as many hours as I ever have, it’s not the same type of hours that you put in. So I still am able to achieve some work-life balance this way.
Interviewer: Who would you say has had the most significant influence on your career and why?
O’Brien: I would say there are two people, both of them from Ketchum, who had the biggest influence. One would have been our president at Ketchum Communications. His name was Jerry Voros. He is still pretty active. He’s retired, but Jerry is a retired Marine. He was in the Korean War, and he was really tough. He’s everything you think of when you think of an X-Marine who fought in the Korean War, and he was our president. He was very active in the community and he was involved in any number of nonprofit organizations. While some people do this for business reasons, you could always tell with Jerry that he did it because he thought it was the right thing.
Larry Werner was the director of the Pittsburgh office of Ketchum when I worked there. Larry was another person, same type of person as Jerry (but they had) two different personalities … Jerry was somebody that I did a lot of work with and on behalf of, and I knew earning his trust was key because he doesn’t trust many people. I was able to do that and he was able to assign me to do a lot of things. He was very blunt, very demanding, and very hot-tempered, and I was able to not only face it but manage it. After working with Jerry I felt his example … he was a good person to try to follow his model. But at the same time I felt if I could have worked with a client, if I could satisfy Jerry’s high expectations, I could work with any client. So it gave me confidence working with Jerry, and he was good at giving me that feedback.
Larry was the director of the office. He and I worked together on many clients and we worked in many situations, and in every instance, Larry was a very ethical person, always did the right thing, and when it came to the quality of your work he always said, “There’s no such thing as a B in my class. There’s an A or an F.” So that’s a standard that even though I’ve started my business in 2001, and I’ve been in business, I still feel that I carry on that tradition.
Interviewer: So what are the most important issues or the enduring truths that you have learned in your career that you could pass on to the next generation?
O’Brien: The most enduring truths … I’ve said this before and I’ve even written about this in some PR Trades. There’s a term in PR called “perception is reality.” It’s a very common term, and people believe it. The thinking behind the term is that it doesn’t matter what’s the truth, it matters how people perceive the truth. That is something I’ve always sort of had an issue with. My feeling is reality is reality, and you can’t change reality. We in public relations can’t change reality. So what we have to do is work with reality, the truth. We have to tell the truth, but we always have to remember that the truth and reality do not change. That is an enduring thing and I think that when we teach and train young people, I think that’s the thing that I’ve always had to remind people, that at least when you’re working with me, we are not going to deviate from the truth. I don’t want to say too much, but we are not going to deviate from what we know is reality. The facts are the facts and they won’t change and we can’t plead ignorance and we can’t give ourselves that out. Where some people, I think, and the field think, that you can play with factual data and create perceptions that may not be fair, and I don’t agree with that.
Interviewer: Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
O’Brien: I would say the four years that I spent at Tollgrade were really something that I was proud of. The reason is once I became the director of communications at Tollgrade and the investor relations director there I was able to do everything that I always thought should be done the way it should be done. I didn’t have the constraints of working with other companies. My only boss was the CEO and the board of directors. As long as I was working hand in hand with them I was able to pretty much decide how communication should be handled. So that feeling going in was a nice feeling and it was rewarded over the course of time because when I went to Tollgrade, there were things that I wanted to do from a public relations standpoint, from a marketing/communications standpoint, from an investor relations standpoint, strategically and tactically that I was able to do and that I had the freedom to do thanks to the CEO. He trusted me. There were times we had crises, and it was the same situation then where he trusted me to put a plan together. I did. I convinced him and the board of directors how to do some communications, they agreed and it all worked out for the best.
The result for the company was that I was able to contribute and I felt like I was a valuable contributor to the company’s growth, to its rise in prominence in the stock market and its rise in awareness in the business community and in the region. I was very proud of the work I did there, and we also did some things that just had not so much to do with business but again, the right thing. I started a program there called Tollgrade Cares, which formalized all the volunteer activities that the company did and it encouraged volunteerism, simply by funding softball teams for charity softball tournaments, or encouraging employees to get involved in things like Habitat … those kinds of things. It helped with the culture of the company. It was not only a good thing to do for the company; it was good for the company’s name. But it was also a morale builder for the employees.
Interviewer: What changes have you observed in the practice of public relations during your career?
O’Brien: I would say the biggest change that I’ve noticed is journalistic integrity. By that I mean that twenty years ago when I was in public relations working for a client, there was a consistent behavior that the media followed when it came to covering people and you knew that. You knew that no matter who the client was or who the individual was, they were going to receive the same level of scrutiny on any issue. That was so consistent that you knew that you would be proven right on your counsel to clients. So they would have to listen to your advice whether they liked it or not because they knew it was true and there was a certain consistency, continuity to coverage that reflected that journalistic integrity … things like objectivity, accountability, a real effort to be objective, or if not objective to interpret the facts before them in a very responsible way, a very non-advocacy role. I think that’s what changed by today. Today what we used to call journalistic integrity is not the same. It’s been replaced in many places by journalistic advocacy. I have run into that a few times and we can see it every day when we turn on the television or we read the newspaper or even visit some Web sites. What’s happened is that you will have major media taking sides.
When I was involved in a crisis situation one time, it was a six-week long period of volatile media coverage and at one point, a very major national newspaper daily came to us and he covered the story. He was a little bit more with the other side than the company that I was representing. My role as an advocate is to advocate for my client, but it took me by surprise that a reporter seemed to be playing the role of the advocate for the other side. So after one of the meetings that we had with this reporter, I asked him off the record, “Why do you take sides on stories like this?” He wasn’t bashful about his response. He said we look at the way the world is and we think of it the way it should be and that’s the way we report. I always remembered that … working with him and his publication after that. It became very good advice from him, because any time I had run into that publication again, thinking of that mantra of his helped, because all of their reporters tended to behave that way.
Whether we like it or not, what we now know in public relations, and it is a big change, is that you will have advocacy media. So it depends on what side of the issue you are as to whether you’re going to be highly scrutinized or not, or even unfairly ridiculed, where the facts will not matter to certain reporters in certain cases. We just have to know that.
Now why does this happen? Economics is a big reason. Newspapers have learned that you can’t be neutral and sell newspapers and sell advertising. In an environment where we have the Internet and so many media options, and younger people aren’t even using the old-fashioned mainstream media, they’re going to the Internet. They are getting information so many different places that it’s very tough for publications to get the attention that they need to run their businesses. What they’ve learned is that by taking a side on the issue, it’s not quite sensationalism, but by taking a side, the appeal to that side of the argument, and at least that’s their base and that’s their business market for their publication, or their viewership. So you have that … I’ve run into that in business in public relations as well. You will have one newspaper take one side of the issue and its competitor take the other side of the issue, and the two newspapers will compete with each other by taking two sides of an issue. So that’s what’s changed. Where both newspapers aren’t striving for neutrality, they’re striving to fulfill a certain mission that isn’t necessarily neutral.
Interviewer: So how has the change in journalistic integrity impacted public relations and how do you practice differently in that kind of environment?
O’Brien: I think we have to be much more realistic on how we counsel clients. We can’t blindly go back to the old notion that every reporter is going to give you a fair shake. That doesn’t mean that you ignore that reporter; that doesn’t mean you don’t deal with publications that are maybe what you might think as unfairly critical. You still have to deal with all media and you have to deal with them on their terms. That’s the hardest part about our job. We have to do that, but there are ways to deal with it. For example: if you feel that a TV station is going to edit your most important comments out to create the wrong perception, what I would counsel a client to do is, don’t do a taped interview - do it live. That way you can at least be assured that yes, you will talk to that media outlet but you’ll do it live so that if you feel you have an important comment to make, it won’t be edited out of the interview. I’ve learned that from other PR people who do that as well. Is this a problem for the media? No, I don’t think so. I think the media wants the story however they get it and that hasn’t changed. I think that we have to know what their ground rules are and we have to follow them, and we can never walk away, we can never say, “No comment.” We have to know what we’re dealing with. The most important thing for any PR person is to do (his or her) research. Just do as much research as possible on the media outlets that you’re dealing with.
Interviewer: We’ve spent a couple of minutes talking about ethical public relations and in a way we’ve already started to step into ethics as an issue here. In your professional opinion, what constitutes ethical public relations?
O’Brien: That’s a good question. When I hired people over the years, there was an interview question that I had for interviewees. It seemed that all candidates for jobs were prepared for the questions like, “Where do you want to be in five years and why do you want to do public relations for a living?” But one of the questions that I always hit them with, and I didn’t do it to throw them off, but I did do it to get a glimmer of who they really were. At some point in the interview, I would say, “What do you stand for?” They would say, “What do you mean?”
Almost every candidate would say, “What do you mean by that?” I would say, “What do you stand for? What values do you have that are so non-compromising that you wouldn’t want this job or that you wouldn’t want to work for a particular client?”
I would tell them that this isn’t going to count against you. If you tell me that you want the sky to be purple and that’s a value that’s important to you, I’m not going to judge that. But I need to know, do you have anything in your life that is so non-compromising that you can’t do the work? It was a 50-50 proposition. Most people didn’t have very good answers because they never expected the question. They maybe never even thought about how they might answer a question like that. Younger people when they’re coming out of college looking for internships, all they’re worried about is getting a job. They’re not thinking in those terms. There were a few who did. There were quite a few that knew where they stood. They knew what their values were and they weren’t bashful about saying it in an interview.
I really admired those people because that is what you need when you do this profession and tied to that, it goes to advice I received from someone at one time. That person said, “If you’re not willing to be fired for what you believe in, you don’t have enough passion about the business.”
I felt that there are times when we counsel clients that we cannot back away from a certain issue or fact or strategy, something that they need to do, a recommendation that is so important to the success of preserving their reputation that if they can’t do it, then we’re getting into an area where we just can’t proceed. I always looked at hiring people who had those same values and while we can’t always be judgmental of clients or can’t be judgmental of companies, I think having a core value system, knowing where your center is, is so important to do in this field.
Interviewer: How have recent ethical lapses in business, ENRON being an example, affected the practice of public relations?
O’Brien: I would say from a business standpoint that there have been disclosure rules changes. The SEC has come out with disclosure rules like Sarbanes-Oxley. They came, I believe, as a direct result of ENRON. That governed the way companies disclose information. People have to be much more transparent. I remember when I worked with analysts and investors and we would go to analysts meetings and you would be at these large conferences where many companies presented their stories to analysts. The custom at the time was to sit down with your analysts and tell them how the company was doing. You might have four or five analysts covering your company. So you’d sit down with them one-on-one and tell them how the company was doing and they would take that information and put it into a report that they were going to publish. Then a few days later, around the time that you disclose something like earnings they would release their report and either upgrade you or your status – “buy,” “sell,” and “hold.” It all seemed to work a certain way, but there were abuses within that system by some companies where there was a gray area between who was getting insider information and acting upon it. Then ENRON came along and all of a sudden ethics became the biggest issue in disclosure. Sarbanes-Oxley changed all that so now when a company talks to anybody it has to do it evenly and fairly and openly. Analysts now get the information at the same time that the general public does. At the very same time; they get no warnings, no heads up, and so there’s a much more hard-line of zero tolerance for anybody that would leak information prior to it actually being disclosed publicly. That was a major change … and that was a major change in the way publicly traded firms are regulated. That hasn’t filtered down into the rest of the business community, non-public, and private organizations.
The public relations business is not just centered on business. The public relations business also works for non-governmental organizations and those types of groups, special interests. I would say ENRON and those types of things did change things for public traded companies, but there are still ethical issues in the way public relations is handled in places where public relations doesn’t have to be as accountable, and that would be in places like special interests. And that’s the case.
Interviewer: Do you think that organizations are held to a higher standard now in the media due to what happened with ENRON or do you think that hasn’t really had an impact?
O’Brien: Companies are, definitely. Publicly traded firms are held to a much higher standard than they used to be. It’s just a whole different environment for business. Even then we have had the recession for the past two years. It came as a result of problems in the housing industry, the mortgage industry, the finance industry, and some Wall Street issues. So Sarbanes-Oxley didn’t solve everything. After ENRON it’s not like the whole business community totally became more transparent. I would say that the past two years have done more to start to change that. But at the same time, I think that the public relations business has to focus a little bit more on the rest of the public relations industry, the non-business related entities that we represent because that’s where I think that in the long run as a profession, if we are going to have a consistent application of public relations ethics we need to apply it not only for the publically traded firms we’ve represented, but also every firm we represent including non-profits, non-governmental organizations, agencies, and special interests.
Interviewer: What do you see as the influences of the media on contemporary ethical decision making in public relations? Then we’re going to move from that into new media, but maybe just starting with traditional media, what is their influence on the contemporary ethical decision making in public relations?
O’Brien: I think that the explosion of information forces us to be more, forces our clients and organizations to be more transparent. That’s where the scrutiny is now coming from. That is where every blogger might have a bias, but there are so many bloggers out there from different points of view that companies are forced to be more accountable to the blogosphere. Blogs become content for social media, Facebook, Twitter, so a lot of times links go back to these various blogs and some blogs are very influential this way. So I think that the new media is really doing what the media has always done, and that’s keep organizations accountable. It’s just that there is so much clutter out there that no one new media outlet has so much power to dictate the fortunes of a single organization.
That sometimes is a double-edged sword for people who are targeted by people in the blogosphere because there may not be enough pressure on a company to do things a certain way if only one blogger is following that story. But if momentum starts to kick in and three or four bloggers start to cover that company and it becomes viral on social media, eventually the mainstream media picks it up and that’s where a lot of stories are flowing now, into the mainstream media they’re coming from the new media. That’s where they get their seeds planted and they grow into the large media. But still one thing that hasn’t changed, the mainstream, the old media still has the most clout, still has the most power. So when they jump on a story, it becomes “the” story. A good example of that would have been last year when the National Enquirer covered the John Edwards affair. Nobody paid attention at first, but they pushed the story. They did some things the way old-fashioned investigative reporters would have done. They legitimized the story and proved that yes, this is valid. The mainstream media picked it up later. So they followed the lead. The National Enquirer is not new media, but it was tabloid media and sometimes stories now are coming from these unlikely places. They don’t really develop momentum or even credibility until the mainstream media embraces the story. When they do, they bring all the power and clout that mainstream media has.
Interviewer: So let’s talk a little bit more about new media. Has new media, including the Internet and social media, made the public relations industry more or less ethical? And then following up on that a little bit, are journalists still the watchdogs of business?
O’Brien: I would say that it’s a mixed answer to that, that they’ve made public relations more or less ethical. But I believe I would lean towards more ethical, but not greatly. I would say that they made us more ethical for the same reasons I mentioned about anybody. There’s so much out there in the new media. There’s so much out there that you have to be accountable and you have to be transparent because there are just so many people covering you. At the same time, because companies and individuals have direct access to the new media, they can advance their own agendas without very many checks and balances. An individual with an agenda can go online and start pushing that agenda with nobody filtering that. If the person involved with that is a public relations person then I would say that the new media hurts our ethics. So I think what we need to do within our profession is make sure that even if we’re involved with new media, just because there aren’t as many filters doesn’t mean that we don’t have to have our own codes of ethics, our own guidelines that dictate how we behave no matter what kind of media it is and no matter how many freedoms we have to gain access to that media.
Interviewer: Do you think that the channels of communication that organizations are using, their own social media channels, do you think that these channels are creating a more ethical communication, that organizations are being more ethical in their communication through these channels? Or do you think that it’s the same kind of communication that you would see in your traditional media, like your news releases?
O’Brien: I would say that, and this is a dividing line for me. I guess it’s a theme in this interview. There’s a major difference between public relations for publicly traded firms and public relations for everybody else because I do think publicly traded firms are continuing to follow those rules. It can actually be a hindrance using new media because legal wants to sign off on every blog posting before it’s posted. That takes time. It takes time for approvals and it becomes a disincentive to really live the spirit of new media. So if something happens today in the news and a CEO wants to write about it, he might write about it this morning, want to put it on his blog, but then legal wants to review it and they’re overburdened with other legal work that it doesn’t get approved for two or three days. All of a sudden that blog post loses its timeliness. Now the CEO might be able to accelerate that a little bit with his position, but it doesn’t matter. In a corporation there are approval processes and filters prior to anything being disclosed publicly, new media or otherwise. So that kind of slows things down, but it also makes sure that everything is being done responsibly. I think more and more companies are embracing new media; they’re starting to use blogs; they’re starting to use social media; legal departments are learning to be more flexible. They are starting to actually assign … I know one company that has a compliance officer who is within the legal department whose job it is to just keep an eye on what’s going on with the company’s output on social media. That’s just one company that I know. I know it’s common within certain industries right now.
Interviewer: The new media channels; are organizations communicating more ethically through it? Is it a way for them to engage more ethically as opposed to just blasting out press releases and that kind of thing?
O’Brien: OK, the second part of that answer would be what about the non-publically traded firms? What about those firms? Is new media causing them to be more ethical? I would say generally, “no” because there are fewer filters; there are fewer barriers to putting something into the public domain and if you’re not be held to the same regulatory scrutiny that publicly traded firms are, and you have direct access to the public. People will act upon that and if their only concern is that they may get sued for it, then that might be the only limitation on what they might do online. So we in public relations, if we are involved with new media with non-public firms, then it’s up to us. We have to be that filter; we have to be the responsible party that makes sure that everything is being done as ethically as possible. By that I mean we have to make sure that people are not violating copyrights or trademarks and we have to make sure that any time we put something online that we aren’t endorsing any sort of libelous activity or slanderous activity. We’re the ones who have to make sure that confidential information is kept confidential if it’s within that organization. So we’re the ones that have to be the regulators of how our organizations handle social media. That’s the case if it’s not a typical company that has a legal department that is going to watch that thing.
Interviewer: Are younger workers today prepared for informed ethical decision making?
O’Brien: I would say that younger workers have never been prepared for that, today or twenty years ago. I don’t think it’s something that they think about heavily as a group before getting into the profession because they haven’t been confronted with it yet. That’s why I used to ask that question in job interviews. Most people who are younger go to college. If they’re fortunate enough to study ethics in college, they might have contemplated it. But if they haven’t studied it, if their studies have been focused on marketing communications and even things like crisis and issues management is being taught more in college. Why would they think of the ethical application of public relations before getting into the field? What ends up happening though is once they get into the field they do, just because of the way life is. Sooner or later they have to deal with it. “Is this the right thing to do or not?” … to think of ethical questions. So I think most people don’t before they get into the field, but after they do, they have to.
Now it goes back to that ‘perception is reality’ thing. One of the things that goes along with that thing is ‘reality is reality.’ You cannot accept information on face value. This is something that I’ve told almost every younger PR professional at some point early in their career. We cannot accept information on face value. There are people who do it throughout their careers, but I don’t think we should. What that means is just because we’re paid by an organization to build their reputation, create a positive image for them, help them sell products, that doesn’t mean that everything that we are told is true or right. So what we can’t do is just accept the information on face value. So if a company says we are the leader in this product line in Europe and they want us to put that in a press release, the question we have to ask ourselves is, “Is that true and how do we know it’s true?” There’s a certain amount of information that we can get directly from within our companies or from our clients that we can accept, but it has been verified …that it has to be used.
We have to be mindful that our credibility is the most important thing we have when we communicate for our companies. What I used to say to young people is if you accept a lie, you will tell a lie and if you tell a lie it will hurt you and it will hurt your organization and it will hurt your client. So that’s the progression if you accept a lie. Sometimes it’s not always intentionally deceiving. We get that information just because people haven’t checked it out or verified it. It could be numbers that just haven’t been added up correctly and if we just accept information as it is given to us and regurgitate it, then we’re not doing what professional public relations people should do. What I think that we should be doing is we need to be internal journalists. We need to test the information we get … we need to verify it. Sometimes we need to research it some more, even though some people expect us to take it on face value.
Then we put it out and we know that it’s sound information.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about mentoring. How important is mentoring for young people and I guess even mid-career professionals? How important is that to fostering ethical decision making in the workplace?
O’Brien: I think mentoring is how we really develop as professionals more than any other method of development. You have books people can read. You have all sorts of information out there, but mentoring is where people learn from the example of an accomplished professional, somebody who can teach them all the intangibles; all the things that aren’t in textbooks; the things that they don’t teach you in public relations school, and a lot of it is ethics. Sometimes the ethic is a work ethic; sometimes it’s a true ethical issue. Other times mentoring is just, they call them the soft skills, but it’s the important skills to do well in the profession, things like showing up early for meetings, little things like that. Things like when to ask questions, when not to ask questions, when to speak up, when to sit back and that’s what a mentor teaches someone who is being mentored and it’s something that I’ve been involved with over the years. It’s something that I think is extremely important. I would venture to guess that any accomplished professional can point to a great mentor that they had at some point in their career. So if you want to be a great public relations person, it’s a good idea to find a good mentor.
Interviewer: The aim of the Arthur W. Page Center and the Page Society is to help individuals become counselors to leadership, both internally and of course externally as an agency. How can individuals best prepare themselves for this role as a counselor?
O’Brien: I think that’s a good question from an ethical standpoint because it does go back and these are kind of mini stands we take in life that make us a counselor. When you’re first learning public relations you should be a good writer, so you should learn to write with proper grammar to have an attention to detail to make sure that you spell everything correctly, to make sure that you proof things. That’s a mini-victory when you can do that. As you go through your career you learn how to effectively pitch a story to the media; how to effectively come up with a communication strategy for a program; and how to sell that strategy to a client or senior management. These are all things that we do to develop as professionals and each time it’s a mini-victory.
I think as counselors, the key thing is after you have each one of these victories, once you’re able to master each of these skills, the point is to be so confident in your abilities in that area that you will not back away from any advice you might give on certain areas. So you might have … I still do this to this day and this is an example … but if I write a press release for a client and one of the people on the client’s side want to change a word or two or they want to change the way titles are done, I don’t challenge that if it’s their preference as long as we’re doing it in a quality way and very consistently. So you have to be flexible - you have to pick your battles. But there are times when people want you to sacrifice quality because it’s just something that they want to do or maybe they don’t think about it, they just want to do things a certain way not thinking that there’s any other way to do it. If we have higher standards, we have to enforce them. We have to take a stand for those higher standards whether it be the style of a press release, the way a strategy is implemented, or the way a situation is handled. But at some point or another, as counselors, and that’s where I think we earn the title counselor, it’s where we will give a piece of advice and offer up a particular strategy and again if we’re willing to stand by that strategy to the extent that we’ll put our jobs or our careers on the line, I think that’s where you really earn the title counselor. I haven’t had to do that in my career that often, but I was willing to do it every time.
Interviewer: So our last question, briefly put, the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State is committed to fostering integrity in public relations. Would you suggest a few ways that a program like this could be made even more effective as it is today?
O’Brien: I don’t know much about the Center to know what it should be doing, but from what I know, what’s being done right now, the lecture series and having the Center here on site, having a program, having Dr. Parsons take responsibility for his part of the program, the whole Don Davis school is just, it’s a great statement. It’s really good to give students access to ethical training and a constant to start thinking of these ethical questions before they get out into the real world. When I was in college, I took journalism and I took speech. When I took speech class, it wasn’t public speaking so much as it was argument and debate. So my fellow classmates in my speech major were pre-law majors and in the course of that major, we argued the ethical questions and we were always dealing with ethical issues. It wasn’t an ethics major, but ethics came up quite a bit.
I didn’t really tap what I learned in college on the speech side of my major until I was probably in my thirties because that’s when I rose up. That’s when I became a vice-president. That’s when I became a leader in various account teams. That’s when senior managers were asking me for advice and all of a sudden the training I had back in college where we argued ethical issues in my speech and debate classes, all of a sudden that started to kick in and it still applies. So I would say that if you learn ethics in college you may not need that to get your first job and you may not use it when you’re working as an assistant account executive somewhere when someone only wants you to do what we would call grunt work, putting mailing lists together and helping set up special events, but as you progress in your career, if you took a good ethical curriculum in college, when you’re a vice-president and in your late twenties and thirties and you start to really move to become a senior public relations professional you’ll be amazed at how you use it. You might even go back to your books that you had in college and start using them as reference guides for the situations you’ll face when you start to progress in your career.
Interviewer: Well, on behalf of the Arthur Page Center, we want to thank you for the time that you’ve given us and your insights. Thank you very much.
O’Brien: Thank you. It was good to be here.