Oral Histories

Tim O’Brien

Interview Segments on Topic: Mentors

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: Who would you say has had the most significant influence on your career and why?

O’Brien: I would say there are two people, both of them from Ketchum, who had the biggest influence. One would have been our president at Ketchum Communications. His name was Jerry Voros. He is still pretty active. He’s retired, but Jerry is a retired Marine. He was in the Korean War, and he was really tough. He’s everything you think of when you think of an X-Marine who fought in the Korean War, and he was our president. He was very active in the community and he was involved in any number of nonprofit organizations. While some people do this for business reasons, you could always tell with Jerry that he did it because he thought it was the right thing.

Larry Werner was the director of the Pittsburgh office of Ketchum when I worked there. Larry was another person, same type of person as Jerry (but they had) two different personalities … Jerry was somebody that I did a lot of work with and on behalf of, and I knew earning his trust was key because he doesn’t trust many people. I was able to do that and he was able to assign me to do a lot of things. He was very blunt, very demanding, and very hot-tempered, and I was able to not only face it but manage it. After working with Jerry I felt his example … he was a good person to try to follow his model. But at the same time I felt if I could have worked with a client, if I could satisfy Jerry’s high expectations, I could work with any client. So it gave me confidence working with Jerry, and he was good at giving me that feedback.

Larry was the director of the office. He and I worked together on many clients and we worked in many situations, and in every instance, Larry was a very ethical person, always did the right thing, and when it came to the quality of your work he always said, “There’s no such thing as a B in my class. There’s an A or an F.” So that’s a standard that even though I’ve started my business in 2001, and I’ve been in business, I still feel that I carry on that tradition.

Interviewer: Let’s talk about mentoring. How important is mentoring for young people and I guess even mid-career professionals? How important is that to fostering ethical decision making in the workplace?

O’Brien: I think mentoring is how we really develop as professionals more than any other method of development. You have books people can read. You have all sorts of information out there, but mentoring is where people learn from the example of an accomplished professional, somebody who can teach them all the intangibles; all the things that aren’t in textbooks; the things that they don’t teach you in public relations school, and a lot of it is ethics. Sometimes the ethic is a work ethic; sometimes it’s a true ethical issue. Other times mentoring is just, they call them the soft skills, but it’s the important skills to do well in the profession, things like showing up early for meetings, little things like that. Things like when to ask questions, when not to ask questions, when to speak up, when to sit back and that’s what a mentor teaches someone who is being mentored and it’s something that I’ve been involved with over the years. It’s something that I think is extremely important. I would venture to guess that any accomplished professional can point to a great mentor that they had at some point in their career. So if you want to be a great public relations person, it’s a good idea to find a good mentor.