Oral Histories

Tim O’Brien

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Tim O’Brien Biography

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: 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: 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.