PR Pros: Mike Fulton of Asher Agency On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career…

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PR Pros: Mike Fulton of Asher Agency On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro

Clear, concise, and persuasive writing. It is important to be able to think strategically and convey those plans and tactics orally, but ultimately one must put these ideas into a proposal or strategy white paper. It is also important to be able to draft a range of documents for your clients — letters, proposals, social media posts, speeches, opinion-editorial columns, press releases, and white papers, to name a few.

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 Mike Fulton.

Mike Fulton is a seasoned communications executive who manages the Washington, D.C. Office of Asher Agency, a full-service PR, marketing, and advertising agency with multiple U.S. offices. After graduating from the West Virginia University Reed College of Media, he worked for a decade on Capitol Hill for two members of Congress. He was recruited to work at a PR and advocacy agency in the nation’s capital and has worked at global (Golin) and medium-size agencies. Mike is an active member of the National Press Club, West Virginia Press Association, Advocacy Association, and Public Relations Society of America-National Capital Chapter. For the past decade, he taught a master’s level online course in public affairs for West Virginia University’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. In 2018, students selected him for the Alexis Vanides Teaching Award, best adjunct instructor in the program. Mike can be reached at

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?

I was interested in Journalism my whole life and wrote for my high school, college, and hometown newspapers. I realized after covering hundreds of news and feature stories that I would enjoy being on the other side of things, creating content and working for people and organizations making news. That change of heart in college led me to pursue an entry position in federal public service that ultimately launched my public relations career, which is heavily influenced by advocacy issues and projects.

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

I have been fortunate to work on many meaningful and exciting projects in my PR career, but the most interesting relates to my childhood:

Our agency supports a small, woman-owned potato chip company in my West Virginia hometown. The company, Mister Bee Potato Chips, was around when I was growing up — and I ate a lot of those chips when I was a kid. It pretty much went out of business when the original owner died. However, in 201 a local businesswoman bought the company and has done an amazing job of bringing it back to life. She hired my company — with me as the point person — to help it continue to grow and thrive. I’ve had so much fun with it; I’ve learned all about potatoes and potato farming (we even got the local community college growing potatoes on its 20-acre farm), how the plant runs, been part of the excitement of shipping in a new fryer from overseas — so many aspects. In the past couple of years, we’ve been involved with designing and promoting special chip bags that honor the military and part of the profits go to the USO. We were just voted as the “Best West Virginia-Made Food Product” and a bright future lies ahead. It’s been great, and I look forward to working with them every day.

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?

This wasn’t so funny, but I learned a lot from it.

When I first started at a public relations agency, after my time on Capitol Hill, we were a small but mighty DC office connected to the main agency in another city. We were growing and only had four employees and it was all-hands on deck. Titles did not matter as much as they do at larger, more traditional agencies. Staff meetings were short and to the point, and we were on trial so extra effort on client accounts mattered. The president, someone I had worked with on Capitol Hill, asked our team if one of us would volunteer to go to the airport that evening, pick something up for a client and take it to Capitol Hill the next morning. It was as if he asked us to hand over our first-born child and never see them again. No one volunteered and the president of the firm awkwardly said he would handle it. That night, the next day and every day after that I regretted not volunteering to handle that errand, and I felt guilty the president of the office had to handle it. It taught me to step up to the plate if I wanted to be a leader, and it also gave me more respect for the head of the office who could have assigned that task, instead of asking for volunteers.

That was a real lesson that still sticks with me after three decades.

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

Over the years, I have been honored to work with some terrific clients on some exciting assignments. That is true today, as well, and I am having fun with the following:

  • Working on communications and advocacy for the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority in West Virginia to promote and develop the gateway communities to the newest national park — the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
  • Supporting the American College of Sports Medicine in drafting, distributing, and placing earned media on its annual ACSM-Anthem Fittest Cities in America research findings.
  • Offering strategic counsel on nine federal appropriations projects for worthy non-profits that will benefit hospitals, clean water agencies, institutions of higher education, economic development and entrepreneurship organizations, and a global NGO dedicated to preventing lead contamination.
  • Promoting the National Headache Foundation’s science-based statement challenging insurers on current care models for migraine patients (40 million American adults seek care for headache and migraine disease).
  • Leveraging the partnership between Mister Bee Potato Chips in my hometown and the USO of Washington-Baltimore, as our agency designed a new 5-ounce chip bag where every sale sends a portion of the proceeds to the USO to support our military personnel and their families.

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?

Many successful public relations practitioners have found their personal rhythm and used it to land clients, sustain a healthy career, and achieve key performance indicators along the way. Those of us in the profession closely watch others we admire or dislike and adopt the qualities we admire and shun those bad habits we have seen sink careers and agencies. Keys to success often change and certainly evolve, but these are the three character traits I have found to be most instrumental:

  1. Work Ethic: A hallmark of mine has been hard work, offering cutting edge insights and tenacity in serving the clients who have entrusted me to address their communications and public affairs needs.
  2. Networking Skills and Follow Up: PR is a people business, and one must become skilled at meeting people, making connections, sharing ideas, building trust, and nurturing relationships.
  3. Idea Generation: The ability to assess the current situation, facts around the scenario and intended outcomes, and come up with tactics and strategies with a reasonable timeline to offer the client with options for success.

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?

The public relations profession encompasses a great many skills sets and reasons why clients hire us. While it is not possible to be an expert at all these skill sets, it is important to understand them all and know when each is required and how they work together in integrated marketing communications campaigns.

The skill sets that are growing in the PR profession include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Message development
  • Media training to inspire message discipline among spokespersons
  • Copy writer
  • Earned media placements
  • Paid advertisements (online, print, billboards)
  • Speech and opinion-editorial author
  • Crisis communicator
  • Corporate social responsibility (doing good that benefits your organization)
  • Research professional (surveys, analysis of results)
  • Data and analytics
  • Social and digital media
  • Spokesperson
  • Advocate on local, state, and federal (even international) government issues or projects

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?

I recommend those wishing to start a career in public relations earn a four-year degree in “strategic communications” at a college of media or Journalism with a solid track record of success among its students and graduates. The network of faculty, alumni and university support is a lifelong support line for most of us in the PR profession.

While in school and during summer breaks, it is important to join and be active in university organizations (Public Relations Student Society of America, college PR agency led by reputable faculty, school newspaper, TV or radio stations, or private employers). Public relations skills improve as you practice them and learn firsthand what works and what does not. Summer internships or university experiences, and real-world capstone courses, help build one’s resume, meet PR practitioners, work as part of a team toward a common goal, determine what you enjoy the most in public relations, and measure your skills.

Some top Journalism schools are now offering electives for non-communications majors and alumni to better understand how marketing and communications (including public relations) can enhance their chosen profession.

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

To be a good networker and show value in the time you spend meeting new people, you must be intentional about it and set goals for yourself (like you would for a client in a public relations campaign).

We all work at organizations where we know a few people well on our teams and only know others there on the surface. Set a goal for meeting new (as soon as you can as they start in your organization) or existing co-workers to better understand the operations and how that person functions. There have been many occasions where I did not know someone and, having taken the time to have coffee, lunch, or a walk with them, I had occasion to utilize their insights or positions to help myself of a client.

I recommend joining organizations where you can acquire professional development or networking benefits, and then signing up for an active committee or task force to get involved. If you pay dues and never attend or lead a program, you are supporting competing PR practitioners and not your growth and development.

Try to attend as many professional development and client events as you schedule will permit. As I attend these functions, I seek out new contacts (not just the folks I might know and count on as my friends). Be a great listener and send an email or hand-written note. Offer some meaningful follow up (an idea from your conversation, an invitation to another event, a connection with someone in your network, or connect with them on social media channels (LinkedIn being the most professional).

I grow my networking by asking members of it for favors, ideas, or action items in my professional life (a client product, an event I am managing, helping a student or PR practitioner with job assistance, etc.).

If someone asks me to do an informational interview, speak to a college class, provide a professional reference, I almost always do it with enthusiasm. That is the way I want others to respond to my requests or needs. One never knows when the tables will be turned, and you will need a helping hand. Your network can be your anchor.

I read as much as possible about public relations and advocacy and, when I experience a light bulb moment of clarity, I often write a professional development column to share my insights. I am published in PRSA Strategies and Tactics, Campaigns and Elections, The Hill newspaper, CQ Roll Call, and others. I submitted articles and helped edit and recruit authors for four e-books led by the Advocacy Association (all four are sold on Amazon). This validates my credibility as a leader in the profession and invites others to have me work for them, want to work at my agency, invite me to be a speaker, write more columns, teach, and join my network.

Doing good work, winning clients, and awards, helping others and being external about your successes builds good will and invites others to on your professional journey.

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?

There are many ways you can learn about and win new or organic business: relationships, references from satisfied clients, friends and family members, requests for proposals (RFP), ads, LinkedIn posts, website inquiries, networking contacts, or fellow PR professionals seeking to fill a gap.

Over the years, I have been involved in securing business from all these sources. Every project one leads represents you and the quality of your work. You never know who might be paying attention and be impressed or unimpressed with your campaign and results.

One must constantly keep an eye out for new business and pay attention to current clients who may need additional services or extensions of current contracts. It is important to be ahead of the competition and to be sharing new ideas or services with your network, peers, and clients. It is not bragging to share a new capability or expert your agency has available in this competitive environment.

Our agency has a new business development team I am on, and we meet weekly (and more often if there is a live new business opportunity). We also have on retainer a new business development firm whose job it is to drum up new business leads in the fields and geographies where we want to work.

Agencies and top PR professionals should treat themselves like a client in promoting people, skill sets, success stories and awards in every possible way.

We also survey our existing clients annually to gain valuable feedback from their working with us. We want to catch and deal with reds flags as early as possible. We want to ensure our services are quality and price competitive.

Listening and learning from our clients and our staff at all levels is helpful in being proactive in sharing new ideas and solutions for our clients and new business pursuits. Blending regular work with the addition of proactive ideas and opportunities shows initiative, creativity, and a desire for maintaining long-term, trusted relationships.

It is just as important to weigh each new business opportunity carefully and decide as soon as possible if it is a go or no-go decision. It is better to turn down a job that does not meet your personal or professional standards or may not be profitable or a good fit for the 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. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Clear, concise, and persuasive writing. It is important to be able to think strategically and convey those plans and tactics orally, but ultimately one must put these ideas into a proposal or strategy white paper. It is also important to be able to draft a range of documents for your clients — letters, proposals, social media posts, speeches, opinion-editorial columns, press releases, and white papers, to name a few.

My early career in Journalism had me writing multiple news, feature, and persuasive articles each week, and this has translated well to my work in Congress and at public relations agencies.

Working for a member of Congress, who we treated like a high-maintenance client, I wrote thousands of letters, news releases, proposals, speeches, and statements used in his name. Being clear, concise, and persuasive was paramount.

Students and young PR professionals should seek out professors, internships and publications that will challenge them to write, write and write some more.

Being a good writer means listening to constructive feedback, following the guidance of wise editors, and working collaboratively with colleagues and clients on improving every piece you draft.

2. Teamwork. I went to Journalism School and faced silos of power (news-editorial, PR, advertising, broadcasting, and graduate programs). I was a news-editorial student and had classes only with like-minded degree candidates. I did not meet the students in the other sequences until we were seniors taking our final required courses in Journalism Law and Ethics.

Today’s Journalism and Communications schools encourage PR students to become comfortable with all the disciplines of the profession and become expert in at least one of them. Many of the courses feature simulated or real-world clients and students are placed on teams that compete against each other for the most effective, creative, and well-managed campaigns.

Those PR professionals who try to go it alone or fight the “team” concept do not fare well. Everyone at an organization or at an agency needs to know his role, responsibilities, and be accountable. Those who offer additional support or fill gaps in the team effort are promoted and become leaders of teams. Regardless of my title and pay scale, I have served on client teams as a leader and then on another account a support person.

Watch carefully as people serve in various positions on teams and you will soon start to understand the type of leader you want to be when the opportunity presents itself. There are many work styles out there, and you need to determine what works best for you within the teams you are assigned.

3. Lifelong learning / professional development. Think of all the changes in our lives and at our workplaces in the time you have been employed. One thing is certain is change, and that requires an open mind and willingness to learn new things and be retrained in better ways to do the same things.

At your workplace and in professional development sessions, try to stretch your mind and adopt a positive attitude toward learning and continuous improvement. Even though I am more senior at our agency, I still attend at least two enrichment sessions per month.

No matter what title you hold, or years of experience you have, you must seek to learn, share, continually improve, pursue excellence, and discipline others who do not contribute to the viability and future of our profession.

We have a vital responsibility to build into our work and networking schedules opportunities to set expectations and inform clients of the best practices in marketing, communications, and advocacy.

The media, key influencers, and the public appreciate it when PR professionals offer substantive story ideas that can make a difference. Conversely, they know when you are pitching a loser and have no news. We cannot allow our clients or employers to bully us into offering anything but the best content to our key audiences and media outlets.

We need to embrace change and be willing to learn about and share new technologies and strategies to work smarter and more efficiently. The most talented among us often develop meaningful content for blogs, articles, webinars and speaking opportunities. They also submit award entries to see how their work compares with peers and competitors.

Also, we should “pay it forward” by giving back to our peers, and especially to young people coming up the ladder. Some excellent ways to do this are to mentor young staff on best practices; offer interns and junior staff hands-on experience; or speak to university classes or groups visiting the nation’s capital. Seasoned practitioners will often take on the responsibility of teaching a university level course, which benefits students are exposed to professional experience. The practitioners also benefit by gaining insights on new trends, technology, and generational intricacies.

It is essential for us to develop ethical guidelines and insist that they be adhered to within our profession. You can do this by joining and serving in leadership roles in professional trade associations or networking groups. One can also serve on an advisory board or chair a committee within a professional development organization.

By achieving these priorities, we will leave our profession in a better place.

4. Understand the business of PR and its value. Working in public service, I did not punch a time clock, enter my hours on specific projects, or have my compensation tied to performance metrics.

That changed overnight when I walked into a PR agency.

I started submitting my time daily (no one likes to enter “new business” or “staff meeting”). I had to fill out a form and determine how to allocate my out-of-pocket expenses (to a client or the agency). Each month, I saw the number of “billable hours” I entered to support my clients and sometimes too many unbillable hours. Some reports showed the billing history and trends for all account executives, and it soon became clear the most valuable employees were the ones billing and in demand.

As I gained seniority and the agency grew, I started participating in new business presentations and even taking the lead on identifying, selling, and managing client accounts. My compensation and bonuses increased the more I sold. I then had a stake in hiring new employees and a greater say in the clients we pursued.

I learned from the outset to respect and work well with the chief financial officer of the PR agencies. There’s no better way to learn the bottom line and what’s at stake. I also believe employees at PR agencies who understand how to meet our financial goals are more motivated to help the company meet its goals and grow.

5. Patience is a virtue. Our fate in public relations, even when we develop the most compelling content and strategies for sharing it, rests in the hands of struggling media outlets, busy and short-handed newsrooms, underpaid and under-appreciated state and federal legislative and regulatory staff, and partisan members of city councils, legislatures, and Congress.

It is beneficial to develop a campaign with a clear cut timeline, integrated tactics that amplify each other, and assignments by skilled communicators and advocates. I also work hard with clients to visualize what “success” looks like as a campaign is being conceived and developed.

Experience tells me that hiccups occur along the way and you should be prepared to adjust and adapt to these challenges. That is where patience, confidence and calm come into play. While the client may be falling apart with each hiccup, they are looking to their PR agency leaders for explanations (sometimes there are none that make sense) and solutions to get back on track.

The best advice is the learn from past mistakes and to not put yourself and your clients in positions where the risk outweighs the rewards. When the client insists you go out on a limb, pack your patience, and have plan B, C and D in mind.

In most cases, we live for another day and keep the train on the tracks. The way you conduct yourself through every stage of a communications or advocacy campaign will build trust among your team and with the client and cause your value to go up exponentially.

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. 🙂

All my career has been spent “following the money” for organizations whether it be for federal grants, appropriations, contracts, charitable contributions, corporation donations, and campaigns to promote brands, issues, or projects.

Too often, those entities that are already thriving get the available funding and the ones that are struggling to exist get nothing. There must be more parity in the process.

As a Congressional aide and now a communicator and advocate, I have done my best to try to level the playing field as it relates to access to professional services and funding to sustain meaningful organizations.

The annual federal government budget where Congress has the discretion to allocate as it sees fit was $1.6 Trillion in Fiscal Year 2020 (representing 7.8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in the United States). Much of this money is doled out by federal bureaucrats who interpret Congressional intent and administer the programs. In many cases, the same organizations win large federal grants every year despite the so-called competitive process that is announced and carried out. When I worked in Congress and saw a program dominated year after year by the same grantees, I encouraged the member of Congress I worked for to insert Congressional language requiring the agency to “make at least 2 percent of awards in year XX to new grantees.”

I also see grantmaking disparities among organizations seeking federal grants, corporate foundation support, and other programs that cannot afford to hire or retain on a project basis a skilled grant writer. Yes, some funding awards are made to organizations whose in-house staff wrote the proposals or grants, but my interviews with federal grantmaking agencies and foundations tell me that 90 percent of the funded applications were compiled by professional grant writers.

My idea is to develop a multi-pronged effort to increase parity in the award of federal competitive grants and provide education, grant writing training, and greater awareness of the opportunities so the largess of our tax dollars could be spent more broadly and create more competition (hence better proposals and projects) among all segments of eligible federal grantees. Some of the tactics aimed at leveling the playing field at the federal level may translate to corporate foundations and state and local government programs.

As former President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

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

PR Pros: Mike Fulton of Asher Agency On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.