Oral Histories

Tim O’Brien

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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: 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.