PR Pros: Betty Galligan of Newberry Public Relations and Marketing On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro
LEARNING: Stay sharp, keep up with your training and professional development, and always look for learning opportunities. Never stop learning! Better yet, teach something to other PR colleagues or to others. Why? It keeps you on your toes and up-to-date. Clients are paying for your expertise, and bosses are paying you to provide it. Learning demonstrates your professionalism.
Have you seen the show Flack? Ever think of pursuing a real-life career in PR? What does it take to succeed in PR? What are the different forms of Public Relations? Do you have to have a college degree in PR? How can you create a highly lucrative career in PR? In this interview series, called “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro” we are talking to successful publicists and Public Relations pros, who can share stories and insights from their experiences.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Betty Galligan.
Betty Galligan, APR is founder and president of Newberry Public Relations, a boutique firm based in East Providence, R.I. and now in its 25th year. A seasoned agency career veteran since 1986, she is accredited by the Public Relations Society of America, host of the PR Rocks podcast, and just launched The PR Finishing School — a 10-module online course curriculum for professional development. Betty also leads a double life as a singer and keyboardist in a hard-working rock cover band, among her other interesting and energetic hobbies.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Once upon a time, I was a second semester freshman in college (theatre major) taking an introductory course in PR. It took no time for me to fall head over heels in love with the very first class. At that moment, “PR” was tattooed onto my heart. The professor seemed so cool, working at a big firm, and I wanted to be him. I began the search for internships in the field that led to job interviews and eventually my first job right after graduation. I also ended up completing a double major in theatre and communications (there wasn’t a specific PR major at my college).
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Besides getting Alec Baldwin to do a very nice video message for my client for free, getting kissed (on the cheek) by Julie Andrews, getting pushed out of my sandals by Gen. Colin Powell’s giant hand while walking quickly alongside him trying to keep up, and having to give a very tough Mom-like pep talk to actor Bryan Cranston, I have had to handle many PR crises. I’d have to say the most interesting one involved a client who found asbestos in his daughter’s makeup. The story went viral internationally, resulting in a major retail chain declaring bankruptcy and the creation of federal legislation that regulates beauty products and protects customers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a young newbie, I joined my local PRSA chapter’s New Professionals Committee and was tasked with writing and sending out a news release for an upcoming event. To my absolute horror, I discovered too late that I left the “l” out of the word “Public” in the headline! I was beyond mortified! Besides the lesson I learned about the benefits of forensic-level proofreading, I learned a fabulous lesson about the value of media relations when you have a very good reason to call your contacts. Not only did I get through the gatekeeping receptionists by explaining on the phone that I have to personally apologize for a most embarrassing mistake, the oft-hardened media contacts I reached began to chuckle, soften considerably and then spend 10 minutes telling me stories about THEIR first mistakes. This ultimate human experience became the foundation of good media relationships over the course of my career. And I NEVER spelled the word ‘public’ wrong again. Ever.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Currently, I have just launched The PR Finishing School, an online course for professional development and training of new and experienced PR pros. During the pandemic, I spent my free time brain-dumping 36 years of my experience into 10 modules to create the course curriculum. It’s exciting and rewarding to not only see it go from a small kernel of an idea through to the launch, but to receive such positive feedback and interest from students, mentors, faculty, colleagues, and others.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I’m answering this from the perspective of those who know me as a leader, thinking how they would answer this question about my top three success traits.
First, people have said I’m a nice person. When I started my own PR business, I made a list of my core values and one that always rose to the top was “respect all.” This came from experience working for and with people who were not respectful to their employees or co-workers, barging in to their office without knocking, talking down to them, etc. Once I had a boss who opened up my personal mail which was obviously a bunch of sympathy cards sent to me at work after my grandfather died. I’ll never forget how that made me feel — untrustworthy and disrespected. By giving respect, you get it in return.
Second, it’s very important to have a good sense of humor. Not to clown around all of the time, but to be able to enjoy a genuine laugh with others — it can help make work fun and even diffuse some difficult situations when warranted. Humor can draw people closer because they will want to be around you and your positive vibe. In junior high, I won two awards, one for Best Sense of Humor and the other for Most Fun to Be Around. My parents made me decline the latter because they thought it made me sound like a brazen little hussy — ha ha!
Third, accountability is huge, in my book. Own up to mistakes, recognize your weaknesses, don’t pass blame, and practice speaking up with integrity. At my first Board meeting for a nonprofit I served on, I didn’t understand the treasurer’s report. As he droned on, I felt quite dumb knowing I’d have to vote to accept the report, realizing my vote would have zero integrity. Before the vote was taken, I respectfully asked if I could set up a separate meeting with the treasurer to go through the report to gain thorough understanding. Soon, another Board member said, “I’d like to be in on that meeting, too.” And then another member came forward. I secretly smiled knowing it was likely no one sitting around that table had a clue about what they were voting on — and they were long-time Board members and distinguished, experienced businessmen. Because I spoke up, we all learned a lot more about understanding and being able to vote on a treasurer’s report. Lesson: don’t ever decide on something you do not thoroughly understand.
I want to put a plug in here for my fantastic parents who instilled many good values in me. Every day, I do my best to be a role model for others, like my parents were for me.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you help articulate what the different forms of PR are?
I like to explain this to your readers by listing the different places where a PR pro can work, as well as the various disciplines within the field.
Corporate PR involves internal and external communications for employees and outside media within a specific industry segment and beyond. Perhaps you are writing a speech for your executive, handling investor relations with shareholders, working with the marketing department to introduce a new product release, running a trade show or other special event, creating a newsletter, conducting media relations, posting to social media channels, doing research, and preventing or managing a crisis with the legal department.
Agency PR, like corporate, involves all of the above except you serve multiple clients and not just doing PR for one entity (the corporation). You’re juggling all different types of clients that can range from entertainers and sports athletes to nonprofit organizations and coalitions to corporations and smaller entrepreneurial businesses. To me, this is excitement. Never a dull moment. Agencies are agile and require creative, self-starter people who can think big AND small, and multitask. It’s where I spent my entire career, on the agency side, except for two stints working for two clients as a part-time embedded PR person at a cruise line and at a high technology company — both of which were very awesome. The cruise line was my very first client outside of college, and became my first client when I started my own agency!
Government PR can involve working as a press secretary to the U.S. president or political figure to working for a local municipality. Typically this involves internal communications and strategy as well as public service and public affairs outreach. PR work can include running focus groups, surveys and polls, special events coordination, and more.
Nonprofit PR is handling internal and external relations, public affairs work, grant writing, and more for an organization that is tax-exempt. Tasks and responsibilities can include all of the above except for investor relations.
Another form of PR can be in the education realm, working for a school, university or place of higher learning’s communications department, or teaching students about PR.
No matter what, all public relations activity should follow a strategic PR plan that includes goals and objectives, research, messaging for various audiences, strategies and tactics, and measurement metrics and evaluation methods for determining success.
Where should a young person considering a career in PR start their education? Should they get a degree in communications? A degree in journalism? Can you explain what you mean?
College is where it should start. Be diligent in your coursework to learn all you can. Do internships to experience real-life in various work scenarios and build a portfolio. I’ve had job candidates send me links to their own blogs or portfolio websites that showcase their work in writing, social media posting or running an event such as a fundraiser or school or community project. Join PRSSA and get involved in your local chapter.
PR people are essentially journalists for their own clients or employers, so having a degree in journalism proves to me that you can interview and write a story, and understand the news media. Having a degree in communications, to me, demonstrates a broader understanding of internal, external and mass media communications while covering the importance of writing and planning as well. A degree earned in any field of study demonstrates discipline and achievement and can help you stand out over other job candidates, but it’s not enough.
Your career begins the day you start college, so consider what will be on your four-year ‘resume.’ Join a communications club (or start one), be an officer in your PRSSA chapter, get nominated for an award, build a portfolio of writing, attend seminars and conferences put on by your local PRSA chapter, organize and promote a special event, volunteer for a nonprofit organization doing PR tasks….the possibilities are endless for gaining experience as an undergrad.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
Everyone was born with two ears and one mouth, so the best tip for great networking is genuine listening to others. Break the ice by asking questions of the other person, even if it’s just “do you know what kind of cheese that is?” while at the food table, and then looking at their name badge and asking what organization they are with or what their role is there. Find conversation starters that work best for you. It shouldn’t be an interrogation!
Another tip is to talk to anyone without judging if they are ‘worthy enough’ to network with you. I often made the mistake of quickly scanning the room to find a potential client, ignoring all of the non-business owners and making a beeline for the top prospects. Actually, I did this for many years until I learned how to network professionally. You see, the plumber standing right next to you may be married to the CEO of a company you’ve had on your prospect list for years. The spouse of a salesperson may own a business that needs your services, or have a sister who is a reporter for a large newspaper. Talk to everyone without pre-judgment to open yourself up to the possibilities. The person you just snubbed today may be the client or employer you face tomorrow — it doesn’t just happen in the movies. Never burn a bridge and be nice to everyone.
If you’re on the shy side, never fear. Join a Chamber of Commerce and volunteer as an Ambassador. I did this early on in my career, and my role was to seek out those in the room who looked lost or alone and introduce them to people who could do business or help them in some way. I can’t help doing this today when I’m at any event!
Last tip: follow up. If you promise to email a brochure or helpful article to a person you just met, do it the next day. Do a virtual introduction via email to connect them to someone else. Ask if you can put them on your newsletter mailing list. Connect on LinkedIn.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
The best strategy is my motto: “Do good work, clients will follow.” Your work and your reputation for excellence should precede you, and generate referrals. It’s more important to get warm referrals and hot introductions v. leads which can be cold, cool or lukewarm at best. Your clients and media contacts should be your best champions and ‘raving fans.’
You don’t want to be “that” person who is known for being a pushy salesperson. Adopt the mindset of helping versus selling, but don’t be afraid to ask for business, either. There must be a balance. It’s important not to lose sight of educating people on what it is that you do, so people can keep you top of mind. For example, I know a person who is a master networker but you have no idea where he works or what he does for a living because you only think of him as a connector. Tell stories about what you do so people can relate, remember and make the connection to you in the field of PR, publicity or promotion.
Another tip is to never look stressed out or too busy to accept new business. Always be open to it and resist the tendency to vent to your clients, contacts and friends.
Keep your pipeline flowing for all levels of leads, referrals and introductions and follow up on all without judgment, no matter how small or large the business appears. You never know when your client contact will leave or even close their business, leaving you scrambling to replace lost revenue.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Here are the 5 Things, which really are skills, that one needs to create and enjoy a highly successful career as a public relations pro:
1. WRITING: This is a skill that should come naturally to a PR professional, but it’s a skill that can continuously be honed. You’ll have to write in the voice of your client, company or organization that you represent. PR is a unique style of writing that is journalistic in its roots, business-like, and every word matters. (In fact, using a wrong word can get your client into legal trouble.) Approach your writing by using different styles of storytelling. Channel your inner creativity and be “literary limber” to have the ability to write anything from boring to brilliant. Why? Because you will have to write A LOT, on deadline, under duress, when you don’t feel like it, on the spot in front of the client at a meeting, or when you think a topic is dull. It’s your job to bring it to life. Most often you’re writing for a media audience, so you’ll have to coach your client or boss to let you leave out the superlatives, hyperbole and jargon from news releases.
I had to write a news release about a wish-granting program for nursing home residents. Instead of the usual fact-based style, I chose to take some literary license and wrote a story about the wheelchair-bound wish recipient whose life-long gaming friends orchestrated an Xbox adapter for his muscle-challenged hands. The facts about the program were revealed in quotes from the client, so the rest of the story tugged at the heart strings. It ran in multiple news outlets and was well-received. The best complement was when a media person said to me, “You’ve done all the work for me, all I have to do is run the story from your news release. Thank you.”
2. LISTENING: I’ve said that people are born with two ears and one mouth, so that should tell you something. Be ‘present’ and really listen for clarity and understanding, not just to hear. To remain in active listening mode, take notes and observe. Be socially aware to read the room and body language (listen with your eyes!). Be strategic listener, why? So when you do speak, it’s meaningful and demonstrates thought so people will listen to what you have to say.
When I was a college intern at a magazine-format TV show, the producers had a crisis about one of the segments and called an all hands on deck meeting. Everyone was yelling and visibly stressed trying to come up with a solution. Except for one of the hosts. She took time to listen and observe. When she finally did speak to offer a great solution, it was a strategic, professional, calming, and on point. I’ll never forget how powerful that was.
3. LEARNING: Stay sharp, keep up with your training and professional development, and always look for learning opportunities. Never stop learning! Better yet, teach something to other PR colleagues or to others. Why? It keeps you on your toes and up-to-date. Clients are paying for your expertise, and bosses are paying you to provide it. Learning demonstrates your professionalism.
Learn from your mistakes, too. Mistakes are like battle scars you get, that stay with you and ultimately make you a better professional. As I mentioned previously, I misspelled the word “public” in a news release by leaving the “l” out and, in the course of correcting and apologizing for the error to media contacts, I learned a lesson in the value of proofreading and conducting media relations.
4. RESILIENCE: You have to be able to handle rejection. Not all media stories you pitch will be picked up, you won’t win every piece of business you go after, and your news releases may come back redlined with corrections and edits. I have three words of advice: Get over it! Maintain a can-do attitude, roll up your sleeves and put in the hard work. Show up early, stay late, take on the tough client or project, and be the person others can rely on. Why? You’ll build up your resilience to face any challenge, and that’s empowering.
At my first agency job, we had a difficult client. He was old, set in his ways, and ornery. Everyone — even the agency partners — feared getting yelled at by him. One day, I landed a huge PR opportunity for this client to travel to New York City to get interviewed for a big trade magazine. My boss was afraid he’d behave in an ornery manner in front of the reporter, so I had to accompany him on the trip to police the messaging. Problem was, no one was brave enough to say this to the client! My boss told me I had to ask him. Word got around the agency that I was assigned this task, and I recalled seeing the trepidation on their faces as they sent little me off on my brave mission.
I was scared driving the whole way to his office, wondering what I could say and if I’d get yelled at, too. I sat across from his desk and told him the good news about landing the interview. Then, I said, “I’d like to use this as a learning opportunity, to accompany you on this trip and experience it.” He couldn’t have been more thrilled! I got back to the agency and everyone cheered for me! The year was 1986 when this happened and, although I’ve had difficult clients who have come pretty close, no one has compared to this one — to this date! Looking back, I think it’s because I knew if I could face him and survive, I could face anyone. The
The moral of this story is, don’t be afraid to take on the difficult client or project. It can help build your ‘resilience reserves.’
5. KNOW THE MEDIA: No PR professional can call themselves that if they don’t consume the media they are pitching. Read the newspapers, blogs, news sites, social media channels — whatever it takes to get clarity on the types of stories they run. Make note of the reporters’ names, the titles of the columns, and follow your specific PR topic so you’re not pitching something that they just did a story on two weeks ago. You never want to be THAT person who keeps sending stuff the media contact can’t use. Why? Because they’ll just ignore every pitch you send from that point forward.
I once had an employee tell me after they were hired that they hate the internet and social media. I said, “buh bye.”
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to inspire a movement toward tolerance and peace through conflict resolution. Can’t we all just accept each other’s differences and get along?! Imagine if we could just avoid drama and replace it with laughter and love? Life is too short to be miserable or full of hate. I recognize it’s difficult to lower your inner rage meter when you’ve just been wronged and your blood pressure is boiling — we’re only human, after all. But if we could start a movement that helps people deal appropriately with conflict, we’d have less stress, less divorce, less fighting, less violence, less war, and more happiness and health.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.
PR Pros: Betty Galligan of Newberry Public Relations and Marketing On The 5 Things You Need To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.