Oral Histories

Tim O’Brien

Interview Segments on Topic: PR Agency or Corporate PR/Outsourcing

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: Tell me about the transition from working for an organization to running and establishing one of your own agencies. What’s that experience been like?

O’Brien: It’s been great. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s everything I hoped it would be and more. When I worked in broadcasting, I saw huge turnover in the staff. I saw what we call announcers – “talent.” I saw talent get fired for no good reason in my mind. I was in my early twenties, so I didn’t understand the economics or all the reasons that people were let go. Sometimes they weren’t good reasons anyway, but I saw the turnover and I saw how some people handled it. The ones I admired when they were either let go or they decided to move on … they started their own businesses and there was something about that independence that they seemed to have that appealed to me. That was sort of where the seed was planted for me. So I went through my career after that moving into advertising and public relations always thinking that I wanted to have the skills to run my own business. I wanted to be able to run my own business and be independent some day. So when I decided to do that in 2001, I was very prepared.

I have told other people this story, but being a crisis communicator, I had my own personal crisis communications plan. I always sort of thought, ‘I had a wife and I had two kids.’ I thought what would happen if I lose my job? I would need to do something, the next day, hopefully. So I had a plan in place that if that would ever happen, I would start my own business that day. I would not feel unemployed, and that contingency plan turned into an action plan for me over the course of the years. It became a dream and then something I really wanted to do. Fortunately my career progressed. I was promoted and I achieved some things. So I never had to act on it as a contingency plan.

When the time came in 2001, it was just something that I felt at that point in time that I had to do, and luckily I had the support of my wife. She knew what I wanted to do for a long time, so we agreed on it. I started my business and it did as well as anybody told me it would do in the first six months. It takes time to start a business, but after the first year it actually grew to the point where I had to decide: do I want this to become a larger agency where I hire staff or do I want it to become a solo practice? I decided to keep it as a solo practice where I would draw in contract employees as needed. So that’s the business that I’m in, and I like it because I like the independence.