Oral Histories

Tim O’Brien

Interview Segments on Topic: Arthur Page/Principles/Society/Center

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: The aim of the Arthur W. Page Center and the Page Society is to help individuals become counselors to leadership, both internally and of course externally as an agency. How can individuals best prepare themselves for this role as a counselor?

O’Brien: I think that’s a good question from an ethical standpoint because it does go back and these are kind of mini stands we take in life that make us a counselor. When you’re first learning public relations you should be a good writer, so you should learn to write with proper grammar to have an attention to detail to make sure that you spell everything correctly, to make sure that you proof things. That’s a mini-victory when you can do that. As you go through your career you learn how to effectively pitch a story to the media; how to effectively come up with a communication strategy for a program; and how to sell that strategy to a client or senior management. These are all things that we do to develop as professionals and each time it’s a mini-victory.

I think as counselors, the key thing is after you have each one of these victories, once you’re able to master each of these skills, the point is to be so confident in your abilities in that area that you will not back away from any advice you might give on certain areas. So you might have … I still do this to this day and this is an example … but if I write a press release for a client and one of the people on the client’s side want to change a word or two or they want to change the way titles are done, I don’t challenge that if it’s their preference as long as we’re doing it in a quality way and very consistently. So you have to be flexible - you have to pick your battles. But there are times when people want you to sacrifice quality because it’s just something that they want to do or maybe they don’t think about it, they just want to do things a certain way not thinking that there’s any other way to do it. If we have higher standards, we have to enforce them. We have to take a stand for those higher standards whether it be the style of a press release, the way a strategy is implemented, or the way a situation is handled. But at some point or another, as counselors, and that’s where I think we earn the title counselor, it’s where we will give a piece of advice and offer up a particular strategy and again if we’re willing to stand by that strategy to the extent that we’ll put our jobs or our careers on the line, I think that’s where you really earn the title counselor. I haven’t had to do that in my career that often, but I was willing to do it every time.

Interviewer: So our last question, briefly put, the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State is committed to fostering integrity in public relations. Would you suggest a few ways that a program like this could be made even more effective as it is today?

O’Brien: I don’t know much about the Center to know what it should be doing, but from what I know, what’s being done right now, the lecture series and having the Center here on site, having a program, having Dr. Parsons take responsibility for his part of the program, the whole Don Davis school is just, it’s a great statement. It’s really good to give students access to ethical training and a constant to start thinking of these ethical questions before they get out into the real world. When I was in college, I took journalism and I took speech. When I took speech class, it wasn’t public speaking so much as it was argument and debate. So my fellow classmates in my speech major were pre-law majors and in the course of that major, we argued the ethical questions and we were always dealing with ethical issues. It wasn’t an ethics major, but ethics came up quite a bit.

I didn’t really tap what I learned in college on the speech side of my major until I was probably in my thirties because that’s when I rose up. That’s when I became a vice-president. That’s when I became a leader in various account teams. That’s when senior managers were asking me for advice and all of a sudden the training I had back in college where we argued ethical issues in my speech and debate classes, all of a sudden that started to kick in and it still applies. So I would say that if you learn ethics in college you may not need that to get your first job and you may not use it when you’re working as an assistant account executive somewhere when someone only wants you to do what we would call grunt work, putting mailing lists together and helping set up special events, but as you progress in your career, if you took a good ethical curriculum in college, when you’re a vice-president and in your late twenties and thirties and you start to really move to become a senior public relations professional you’ll be amazed at how you use it. You might even go back to your books that you had in college and start using them as reference guides for the situations you’ll face when you start to progress in your career.

Interviewer: Well, on behalf of the Arthur Page Center, we want to thank you for the time that you’ve given us and your insights. Thank you very much.

O’Brien: Thank you. It was good to be here.