Oral Histories

Tim O’Brien

Interview Segments on Topic: Crisis Management

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: What changes have you observed in the practice of public relations during your career?

O’Brien: I would say the biggest change that I’ve noticed is journalistic integrity. By that I mean that twenty years ago when I was in public relations working for a client, there was a consistent behavior that the media followed when it came to covering people and you knew that. You knew that no matter who the client was or who the individual was, they were going to receive the same level of scrutiny on any issue. That was so consistent that you knew that you would be proven right on your counsel to clients. So they would have to listen to your advice whether they liked it or not because they knew it was true and there was a certain consistency, continuity to coverage that reflected that journalistic integrity … things like objectivity, accountability, a real effort to be objective, or if not objective to interpret the facts before them in a very responsible way, a very non-advocacy role. I think that’s what changed by today. Today what we used to call journalistic integrity is not the same. It’s been replaced in many places by journalistic advocacy. I have run into that a few times and we can see it every day when we turn on the television or we read the newspaper or even visit some Web sites. What’s happened is that you will have major media taking sides.

When I was involved in a crisis situation one time, it was a six-week long period of volatile media coverage and at one point, a very major national newspaper daily came to us and he covered the story. He was a little bit more with the other side than the company that I was representing. My role as an advocate is to advocate for my client, but it took me by surprise that a reporter seemed to be playing the role of the advocate for the other side. So after one of the meetings that we had with this reporter, I asked him off the record, “Why do you take sides on stories like this?” He wasn’t bashful about his response. He said we look at the way the world is and we think of it the way it should be and that’s the way we report. I always remembered that … working with him and his publication after that. It became very good advice from him, because any time I had run into that publication again, thinking of that mantra of his helped, because all of their reporters tended to behave that way.

Whether we like it or not, what we now know in public relations, and it is a big change, is that you will have advocacy media. So it depends on what side of the issue you are as to whether you’re going to be highly scrutinized or not, or even unfairly ridiculed, where the facts will not matter to certain reporters in certain cases. We just have to know that.

Now why does this happen? Economics is a big reason. Newspapers have learned that you can’t be neutral and sell newspapers and sell advertising. In an environment where we have the Internet and so many media options, and younger people aren’t even using the old-fashioned mainstream media, they’re going to the Internet. They are getting information so many different places that it’s very tough for publications to get the attention that they need to run their businesses. What they’ve learned is that by taking a side on the issue, it’s not quite sensationalism, but by taking a side, the appeal to that side of the argument, and at least that’s their base and that’s their business market for their publication, or their viewership. So you have that … I’ve run into that in business in public relations as well. You will have one newspaper take one side of the issue and its competitor take the other side of the issue, and the two newspapers will compete with each other by taking two sides of an issue. So that’s what’s changed. Where both newspapers aren’t striving for neutrality, they’re striving to fulfill a certain mission that isn’t necessarily neutral.