PR Pros: Kevin L Sullivan On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public…

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PR Pros: Kevin L Sullivan On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro

Public speaking is a fantastic way to get to know more people. It takes work to get speaking gigs, but they are such a great way to highlight your expertise. It gives you an opportunity to meet with interested people after you’re done speaking. I think it’s a great way to build on a personal brand.

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 Kevin L. Sullivan.

Kevin L. Sullivan is an independent public relations consultant who has honed his craft at PR firms and corporate PR. Kevin was an award-winning TV journalist for nearly 15 years before pivoting to PR and marketing. He has represented local, national, and international clients and currently focuses primarily on providing PR consulting to professional service firms and professionals.

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?

Growing up I always wanted to be a TV reporter. My boyhood heroes were Walter Cronkite, the famous CBS anchorman, and President John F. Kennedy who was a journalist before he became a politician. I don’t know what sparked my desire, but I was an avid reader when I was young, and I enjoyed writing assignments at school. At the age of 14, I convinced the editor of a local weekly newspaper in Montana to give me a chance and he did. I published some feature articles in that journal. Then, at age 15, I got a job as a DJ at a local country radio station in Montana. That job fell into my lap when I appeared on the air as part of a high school journalism program that allowed students to occasionally appear on the station to read high school news stories. The station manager was apparently very impressed by me and offered me a part-time job before I left that day. Then I went to college to study journalism. After about 15 years as a professional TV journalist, I switched gears to PR and marketing. It seemed a natural transition to me. The key is being a good communicator.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

This was before I had my own company, but it’s a great illustration of how a crisis can quickly pop up and how and why you put forth all the effort you can to overcome that. When I was a vice president at a PR firm, I had a client in the food and beverage space. An East Coast newspaper columnist wrote a factually incorrect piece where she claimed my client was funneling money to Middle Eastern terrorists. Nothing could have been further from the truth and the writer never provided one scintilla of evidence to back up her claims. She also never contacted my client before writing her erroneous piece. Nonetheless, several regional media outlets picked up the column and ran it. This generated an almost overwhelming number of inquiries to the company by customers and others who thought the column was factual. Some of the comments could not be repeated here, but this was having a detrimental effect on the company’s business and morale. I dropped everything I was doing and focused only on how to rectify this development, which I thought was a terrible injustice to the company. I was able to find a very reputable and respected third party expert who was willing to speak on our behalf and wrote his own column defending my client. I personally contacted every writer and their editors who had touched on this story. Most were willing to listen to me, were willing to listen to my client and were willing to listen to the third-party expert. Many outlets let my client write a response and they published the expert’s response. This literally was all I did for about three months. We were able to tamp down the fire, but it still took a toll on sales and staff. The writer was very irresponsible, and it was terrible to see how much her column affected good people who had never done anything wrong. With my client’s permission, I later presented a case study of this crisis during a PR conference held at a major Southern university’s school of journalism.

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?

Nothing I would consider funny comes to mind, but I did have an experience with a client that reminded me that people who you think have your interests at heart, might not be so magnanimous. I had a private equity client that bought and sold various types of companies. The group purchased a very successful tech company that was headed by the man who founded it. That CEO was very well-known in his company’s space, and he was incredibly intelligent. He made a nice profit from the sale and agreed to stay on as CEO for some relatively brief period before handing the reigns to a new CEO. Shortly after the sale went through. I got a call from a member of the company’s C-suite asking me to join him and the rest of the C-suite for a “greet and meet” lunch since I had only dealt with the CEO up to that point. (After the sale I was doing the PR for both organizations for a few months. It was an efficient way to get coverage for the announcement.)

This lunch seemed like a great way for me to learn more about the organization. Well, I learned a lot. I learned that the rest of the C-suite was gunning for the CEO. It was shocking and troubling to me. They literally wanted me to eliminate the CEO from our media push and use various other C-suite members for interviews. When I asked if this is what the CEO wanted, they said no. They thought he was a weight on the company and they wanted his profile downplayed. Then, as we left the restaurant, they stressed that I should keep our discussion to myself. I could not in good conscience do that. I didn’t call the CEO, but I did call the head of the private equity group and filled him in. He thanked me for the information and was very pleased I had filled him in. He asked a couple of questions about the conversation and then let me know that he already had a good idea that a couple of the C-suite folks were going to be problematic. He named them and they were the ones who were most insistent during my meeting with them. I learned that just because you have built a team that you think supports you, that might not be the case. I don’t know if the CEO missed some cues or if the managers were jostling for position or if there was something amiss I needed to know about. I thought the CEO was a great guy. He and his wife had adopted several children and she dedicated much of her time to non-profit work. They were sharing their riches very generously after growing a very successful company.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Right now, I am helping a law firm revamp its website. I have helped this firm with its website before, but the attorneys felt like it was time for a refresh. The interesting thing about this assignment is that I have written almost every word on the website, so I get great satisfaction from seeing the results of my work on the internet.

When I was a vice president of a PR firm, I travelled to Bahrain twice because I worked for a client that had its headquarter in Manama. During one of my trips, the client held a large news conference that was covered by media from across the Middle East and Europe. Everything was conducted in Arabic and English, and all attendees wore headphones that allowed them to hear the proceedings in their own language. I told friends it was like a mini United Nations. It was very interesting being there with people from various Middle Eastern countries as well as journalists from such esteemed institutions as the BBC in England.

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?

There are many variables that lead to a successful PR career. But here are three things that I believe you must excel at in order to succeed.

First, you must recognize what makes a good news story and ensure that your client understands your reasoning. In my experience, clients often are convinced that something they have produced or a project they ran is newsworthy. This can be an important product or action and the organization is proud of what has been done. That doesn’t mean the product or action is newsworthy. Clients can be too close to the matter — they are emotionally invested. A good PR pro recognizes which things are newsworthy and which will not resonate with writers. It can be difficult to convince a client that something is not newsworthy when the client is very proud of it. You have to teach your client about what the media wants and what their audiences expect.

The best PR people think like journalists and can translate that for their clients. A good example was when a major producer of soft drinks wanted to be featured in a major magazine for their extensive sponsorship of soccer. The World Cup was approaching, and the client wanted to make a splash around that international event. With the help of my team at the time, we produced a history of the client’s relationship to sports with an emphasis on soccer. We had developed a short list of media we thought would be interested. Among the publications I pitched was Advertising Age which ended up writing a cover story about the client’s soccer sponsorship. The chief marketing officer at the company was thrilled and asked me to get 100 copies of the magazine for him.

Second, you must be an excellent writer. When I was a news editor and I received a news release with typos or grammatical errors the release immediately lost much of its value in my estimation. A news release should also be written in a way that gets to the point quickly — just like a news story does. You want something in the news release that catches the eye of editors and writers. There should be statements in the release that journalists can incorporate into their own stories. The best example that I was involved in was when I handled the PR around a national law firm moving its headquarters to Midtown Atlanta from the area known as Buckhead. Midtown had many new high-rise buildings and most of the city’s major law firms were located in that part of the city. I wrote a quote for the firm’s chairman that made the comparison that Midtown Atlanta was to law firms what Wall Street was to banks. Several media outlets used the quote word-for-word. Then, about two years later, the chairman was at a luncheon where someone introduced him to the speaker. Once the introduction was made, the speaker said to the chairman something along the lines of, “I know who you are. You’re the lawyer who compared Midtown to Wall Street. That was memorable.” The chairman reported it to me when he returned from the luncheon. I still smile when I think about that.

Third, you must have people skills that allow you to operate smoothly with your clients’ leaders and staffs and allows you to develop a rapport with any journalists who you pitch story ideas to about your clients. The client has to trust you. One way to earn that trust is to demonstrate that you understand the client’s business. You must do your homework so that you can talk their talk and be an “industry insider” even if you’re new to the industry. Not knowing the client’s business will kill your credibility.

When you work with journalists, you must be a resource to them. Figure out the right editor or writer inside an organization who would be interested in the topic at hand. You can’t just pitch randomly to anyone on the media staff. Be sure that anything you pitch is germane to what they write about and would be of interest to the audience. Sometimes, you have to be patient and build the rapport over time. A good example of this was how I was able to get Time magazine to feature an aircraft manufacturing client. I figured out who wrote about aviation, introduced myself to her as a representative of the company making the planes, and then spent months checking in with her and occasionally sending her “FYI” notes about things that might interest her — even if they did not pertain to my client. It ended up taking about a year of staying in touch, then one day she called and said she was ready to do the story. My client was ecstatic!

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 think when most people talk about public relations, they are really talking about media relations. This is one of the areas where I have been focused. This is pretty straightforward. The PR pro works with media professionals to try to get stories placed in various media outlets.

Another area where I focus is crisis communications. Like the column that falsely accused a company of supporting terrorism, a crisis is not only disruptive — it can, in some cases, take down a company or a person. There are entire PR firms that focus only on crisis communications. When crises arise, they usually require an “all hands on deck” approach and many hours of diligent work to offset the crisis.

Community relations is focused on communicating within specific communities. This can include media relations or PR pros can incorporate more grassroots efforts. These can include things such as events, speeches, volunteering, and donations.

In a corporate setting, internal communications can be just as important — maybe more so in some cases — as external communications. Internal communications (some people call it employee relations) is meant to keep people inside an organization informed as to what is happening. Informed employees tend to be happier employees. Internal communications also helps get buy-in when an organization is making changes. Good leaders want their teams to understand why changes are made and how they will impact people and their organization.

Public affairs involves an organization’s relationship with stakeholders when the organization explains its views on public policy, possibly tries to influence public policy, and can leak over into lobbying. This is not an area where I have focused, but it is an important part of corporate communications. It involves media relations, social responsibility, and an attempt to influence lawmakers at various levels, among other functions.

Some people view online and social media communications as a separate practice, and many PR firms have specialists who focus only on this area. Many of the tools and tactics used in “traditional media relations” are also used when communicating with online outlets and social media, but there are differences. Some media have ended their print editions and have only online products. Journalists at these institutions operate like their broadcast and print brethren, but they might be producing stories multiple times a day or updating an existing story many times since changes can be made immediately. Pitching to bloggers is similar to pitching journalists, but you have to research which bloggers are reputable and have the appropriate audiences. This is an area where the online or social media specialists are very valuable.

One thing all of these areas of public relations have in common is a need for strategic communications. You must have a plan for what you want to communicate, to who you want to communicate, and how you want to communicate. Many communications programs will incorporate various types of PR, so you have to make sure the team is delivering consistent messages whenever they are communicating.

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?

Many journalism schools offer public relations as an area of emphasis. I never took such courses when I was in J-school. I think the best course of action is to major in journalism. Good journalism schools really know how to teach writing. They know how to teach writing that will resonate with an audience and provide clear, concise information. A student can take some PR courses if they want to go into the field, but I don’t think you have to focus your education on PR. A good option is to do an internship at a PR firm to get a better feel for the day-to-day operations at such a firm.

You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?

I don’t consider myself an expert at networking. I’m pretty good, but I could do better. Some things that have worked for me are getting involved with a relevant business association, attending various business functions, writing articles for local or trade media, and getting speaking engagements. Let me touch on each briefly.

When I say get involved with a business association, I don’t mean become a member and eat an occasional rubber chicken at the organization’s luncheons. I mean you join a committee or get on the board, roll up your sleeves and do work to help the organization. The higher up in the organization you go the more influential people you meet. You want to be rubbing elbows with decision makers.

I know I joked about rubber chicken at an association luncheon, but those events are important, too. It is a great place to informally meet with people you want to get in front of without it feeling like a pending business deal. You should work the room and meet many people. At your table, be sure to be the pro who’s not shy about talking. People gravitate towards other people who are gregarious.

Writing articles is a good way to introduce yourself to people you might not meet otherwise. The articles can sometimes open doors as peers who read them react and maybe even reach out to you. You can also take an article and send it to someone as an FYI. It gives you a good excuse to reach out in a friendly way.

Public speaking is a fantastic way to get to know more people. It takes work to get speaking gigs, but they are such a great way to highlight your expertise. It gives you an opportunity to meet with interested people after you’re done speaking. I think it’s a great way to build on a personal brand.

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 various networking tactics I mentioned are all good for lead generation. Contributing to organizations where your potential clients are, writing articles for the publications they read, and speaking at their events have all been beneficial during my career. PR is a people career, and you need to be where the people are. I’ve never been a fan of renting contact lists to blast promotional materials to people. I do think smaller, highly targeted direct communications are much, much more fruitful. I’ll give you one example from how I earned a client many years ago. These are pretty much old school tactics, but they still work.

I was a vice president at a PR firm. During a planning meeting at the start of the year, each senior manager agreed to pursue specific identified potential clients or would pursue business in specific industries. One of my categories fell within professional service firms. I got a list of the top firms in the city who practiced in that area. We decided the 25 largest were the best ones to approach. I then sent an introductory letter through the mail to the decision maker. The letter was brief. I stated what I knew about them, introduced my firm and me, and briefly discussed what I could possibly do for them. I promised in writing that I would call in about two weeks to discuss their PR needs. When the process was over, I landed one of the premier firms in town which became a long-term client for the PR agency.

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.

Some of these traits overlap a bit, but I see journalists and PR pros as separate sides of the same coin where information is the coin of the realm. I think the things you need for a successful PR career are like the traits you expect from a good journalist. You should be curious, creative, gregarious, a strong writer, and nimble.

Curiosity can’t be overly stressed. A good PR person wants to know all there is to know about a client. How did the client get to where she is? What are the obstacles and opportunities for the client? This can become a long list. Good PR people are lifelong learners. They have interests beyond work, but they also dive deep into whatever industry a new client operates in.

Clients expect their PR consultants to be creative. After all, the client hired you to get them publicity — or fix a “bad news” problem. If PR were their expertise, they wouldn’t be hiring a PR person. They could do it themselves. The PR pro should bring passion to work because that helps drive creativity and demonstrates to the client that you are deeply invested in their success.

Gregariousness might seem like a given, but PR people must be able to navigate among all kinds of people with all kinds of agendas. The PR person is friendly towards everyone. The PR pro should be approachable. If you’re good at your job you’re having fun so this should be an easy thing for a professional communicator to do, so you would think.

I believe that many journalists become top-notch PR people based extensively on their writing skills. Whether a journalist writes for print, online or broadcast, they are practicing that craft daily and they know how to deliver a message. The most effective news releases, news alerts, or other announcements resonate best when they are well-written and delivered professionally.

Just like Jack in the nursery rhyme, a good PR person has to be nimble and quick. One day you’re doing PR for a non-profit and the next day you’re managing a PR crisis at a manufacturing plant. PR people must be ready to handle whatever comes their way at a moment’s notice. Especially when things are not going well for the client, an outside PR person can quickly analyze a situation and provide sound advice to the client.

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. 🙂

Staying close to our topic, I would love to find a way to restore widespread respect for the news media. Many media outlets turned into propaganda organs quite some time ago. They have successfully conflated opinion with news so that some audiences see or hear only very jaundiced views of what’s happening in the world. That audience thinks the opinion it’s hearing is indeed fact. I think this is dangerous for society. Journalism jobs have been slashed for years, so the dedicated members of a non-partisan fourth estate continue to dwindle. These problems happen at the local and national levels. Small-town newspapers are struggling, where they still exist.

Maybe a model akin to the BBC in Britain would be the answer. I know that would become a nightmarish political football in the United States, but we must come up with a way to ensure the continued success of one of our most important professions. Journalists are a bulwark of free speech, which helps people to make better decisions.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

PR Pros: Kevin L Sullivan On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.