Interview Segments on Topic: Selecting a PR Career
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.
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.