Oral Histories

Tim O’Brien

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

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.

Interviewer: We’ve spent a couple of minutes talking about ethical public relations and in a way we’ve already started to step into ethics as an issue here. In your professional opinion, what constitutes ethical public relations?

O’Brien: That’s a good question. When I hired people over the years, there was an interview question that I had for interviewees. It seemed that all candidates for jobs were prepared for the questions like, “Where do you want to be in five years and why do you want to do public relations for a living?” But one of the questions that I always hit them with, and I didn’t do it to throw them off, but I did do it to get a glimmer of who they really were. At some point in the interview, I would say, “What do you stand for?” They would say, “What do you mean?”

Almost every candidate would say, “What do you mean by that?” I would say, “What do you stand for? What values do you have that are so non-compromising that you wouldn’t want this job or that you wouldn’t want to work for a particular client?”

I would tell them that this isn’t going to count against you. If you tell me that you want the sky to be purple and that’s a value that’s important to you, I’m not going to judge that. But I need to know, do you have anything in your life that is so non-compromising that you can’t do the work? It was a 50-50 proposition. Most people didn’t have very good answers because they never expected the question. They maybe never even thought about how they might answer a question like that. Younger people when they’re coming out of college looking for internships, all they’re worried about is getting a job. They’re not thinking in those terms. There were a few who did. There were quite a few that knew where they stood. They knew what their values were and they weren’t bashful about saying it in an interview.

I really admired those people because that is what you need when you do this profession and tied to that, it goes to advice I received from someone at one time. That person said, “If you’re not willing to be fired for what you believe in, you don’t have enough passion about the business.”

I felt that there are times when we counsel clients that we cannot back away from a certain issue or fact or strategy, something that they need to do, a recommendation that is so important to the success of preserving their reputation that if they can’t do it, then we’re getting into an area where we just can’t proceed. I always looked at hiring people who had those same values and while we can’t always be judgmental of clients or can’t be judgmental of companies, I think having a core value system, knowing where your center is, is so important to do in this field.

Interviewer: How have recent ethical lapses in business, ENRON being an example, affected the practice of public relations?

O’Brien: I would say from a business standpoint that there have been disclosure rules changes. The SEC has come out with disclosure rules like Sarbanes-Oxley. They came, I believe, as a direct result of ENRON. That governed the way companies disclose information. People have to be much more transparent. I remember when I worked with analysts and investors and we would go to analysts meetings and you would be at these large conferences where many companies presented their stories to analysts. The custom at the time was to sit down with your analysts and tell them how the company was doing. You might have four or five analysts covering your company. So you’d sit down with them one-on-one and tell them how the company was doing and they would take that information and put it into a report that they were going to publish. Then a few days later, around the time that you disclose something like earnings they would release their report and either upgrade you or your status – “buy,” “sell,” and “hold.” It all seemed to work a certain way, but there were abuses within that system by some companies where there was a gray area between who was getting insider information and acting upon it. Then ENRON came along and all of a sudden ethics became the biggest issue in disclosure. Sarbanes-Oxley changed all that so now when a company talks to anybody it has to do it evenly and fairly and openly. Analysts now get the information at the same time that the general public does. At the very same time; they get no warnings, no heads up, and so there’s a much more hard-line of zero tolerance for anybody that would leak information prior to it actually being disclosed publicly. That was a major change … and that was a major change in the way publicly traded firms are regulated. That hasn’t filtered down into the rest of the business community, non-public, and private organizations.

The public relations business is not just centered on business. The public relations business also works for non-governmental organizations and those types of groups, special interests. I would say ENRON and those types of things did change things for public traded companies, but there are still ethical issues in the way public relations is handled in places where public relations doesn’t have to be as accountable, and that would be in places like special interests. And that’s the case.

Interviewer: Are younger workers today prepared for informed ethical decision making?

O’Brien: I would say that younger workers have never been prepared for that, today or twenty years ago. I don’t think it’s something that they think about heavily as a group before getting into the profession because they haven’t been confronted with it yet. That’s why I used to ask that question in job interviews. Most people who are younger go to college. If they’re fortunate enough to study ethics in college, they might have contemplated it. But if they haven’t studied it, if their studies have been focused on marketing communications and even things like crisis and issues management is being taught more in college. Why would they think of the ethical application of public relations before getting into the field? What ends up happening though is once they get into the field they do, just because of the way life is. Sooner or later they have to deal with it. “Is this the right thing to do or not?” … to think of ethical questions. So I think most people don’t before they get into the field, but after they do, they have to.

Now it goes back to that ‘perception is reality’ thing. One of the things that goes along with that thing is ‘reality is reality.’ You cannot accept information on face value. This is something that I’ve told almost every younger PR professional at some point early in their career. We cannot accept information on face value. There are people who do it throughout their careers, but I don’t think we should. What that means is just because we’re paid by an organization to build their reputation, create a positive image for them, help them sell products, that doesn’t mean that everything that we are told is true or right. So what we can’t do is just accept the information on face value. So if a company says we are the leader in this product line in Europe and they want us to put that in a press release, the question we have to ask ourselves is, “Is that true and how do we know it’s true?” There’s a certain amount of information that we can get directly from within our companies or from our clients that we can accept, but it has been verified …that it has to be used.

We have to be mindful that our credibility is the most important thing we have when we communicate for our companies. What I used to say to young people is if you accept a lie, you will tell a lie and if you tell a lie it will hurt you and it will hurt your organization and it will hurt your client. So that’s the progression if you accept a lie. Sometimes it’s not always intentionally deceiving. We get that information just because people haven’t checked it out or verified it. It could be numbers that just haven’t been added up correctly and if we just accept information as it is given to us and regurgitate it, then we’re not doing what professional public relations people should do. What I think that we should be doing is we need to be internal journalists. We need to test the information we get … we need to verify it. Sometimes we need to research it some more, even though some people expect us to take it on face value.

Then we put it out and we know that it’s sound information.