Oral Histories

Tim O’Brien

Interview Segments on Topic: PR and Technology/Change

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: So how has the change in journalistic integrity impacted public relations and how do you practice differently in that kind of environment?

O’Brien: I think we have to be much more realistic on how we counsel clients. We can’t blindly go back to the old notion that every reporter is going to give you a fair shake. That doesn’t mean that you ignore that reporter; that doesn’t mean you don’t deal with publications that are maybe what you might think as unfairly critical. You still have to deal with all media and you have to deal with them on their terms. That’s the hardest part about our job. We have to do that, but there are ways to deal with it. For example: if you feel that a TV station is going to edit your most important comments out to create the wrong perception, what I would counsel a client to do is, don’t do a taped interview - do it live. That way you can at least be assured that yes, you will talk to that media outlet but you’ll do it live so that if you feel you have an important comment to make, it won’t be edited out of the interview. I’ve learned that from other PR people who do that as well. Is this a problem for the media? No, I don’t think so. I think the media wants the story however they get it and that hasn’t changed. I think that we have to know what their ground rules are and we have to follow them, and we can never walk away, we can never say, “No comment.” We have to know what we’re dealing with. The most important thing for any PR person is to do (his or her) research. Just do as much research as possible on the media outlets that you’re dealing with.

Interviewer: What do you see as the influences of the media on contemporary ethical decision making in public relations? Then we’re going to move from that into new media, but maybe just starting with traditional media, what is their influence on the contemporary ethical decision making in public relations?

O’Brien: I think that the explosion of information forces us to be more, forces our clients and organizations to be more transparent. That’s where the scrutiny is now coming from. That is where every blogger might have a bias, but there are so many bloggers out there from different points of view that companies are forced to be more accountable to the blogosphere. Blogs become content for social media, Facebook, Twitter, so a lot of times links go back to these various blogs and some blogs are very influential this way. So I think that the new media is really doing what the media has always done, and that’s keep organizations accountable. It’s just that there is so much clutter out there that no one new media outlet has so much power to dictate the fortunes of a single organization.

That sometimes is a double-edged sword for people who are targeted by people in the blogosphere because there may not be enough pressure on a company to do things a certain way if only one blogger is following that story. But if momentum starts to kick in and three or four bloggers start to cover that company and it becomes viral on social media, eventually the mainstream media picks it up and that’s where a lot of stories are flowing now, into the mainstream media they’re coming from the new media. That’s where they get their seeds planted and they grow into the large media. But still one thing that hasn’t changed, the mainstream, the old media still has the most clout, still has the most power. So when they jump on a story, it becomes “the” story. A good example of that would have been last year when the National Enquirer covered the John Edwards affair. Nobody paid attention at first, but they pushed the story. They did some things the way old-fashioned investigative reporters would have done. They legitimized the story and proved that yes, this is valid. The mainstream media picked it up later. So they followed the lead. The National Enquirer is not new media, but it was tabloid media and sometimes stories now are coming from these unlikely places. They don’t really develop momentum or even credibility until the mainstream media embraces the story. When they do, they bring all the power and clout that mainstream media has.

Interviewer: So let’s talk a little bit more about new media. Has new media, including the Internet and social media, made the public relations industry more or less ethical? And then following up on that a little bit, are journalists still the watchdogs of business?

O’Brien: I would say that it’s a mixed answer to that, that they’ve made public relations more or less ethical. But I believe I would lean towards more ethical, but not greatly. I would say that they made us more ethical for the same reasons I mentioned about anybody. There’s so much out there in the new media. There’s so much out there that you have to be accountable and you have to be transparent because there are just so many people covering you. At the same time, because companies and individuals have direct access to the new media, they can advance their own agendas without very many checks and balances. An individual with an agenda can go online and start pushing that agenda with nobody filtering that. If the person involved with that is a public relations person then I would say that the new media hurts our ethics. So I think what we need to do within our profession is make sure that even if we’re involved with new media, just because there aren’t as many filters doesn’t mean that we don’t have to have our own codes of ethics, our own guidelines that dictate how we behave no matter what kind of media it is and no matter how many freedoms we have to gain access to that media.

Interviewer: Do you think that the channels of communication that organizations are using, their own social media channels, do you think that these channels are creating a more ethical communication, that organizations are being more ethical in their communication through these channels? Or do you think that it’s the same kind of communication that you would see in your traditional media, like your news releases?

O’Brien: I would say that, and this is a dividing line for me. I guess it’s a theme in this interview. There’s a major difference between public relations for publicly traded firms and public relations for everybody else because I do think publicly traded firms are continuing to follow those rules. It can actually be a hindrance using new media because legal wants to sign off on every blog posting before it’s posted. That takes time. It takes time for approvals and it becomes a disincentive to really live the spirit of new media. So if something happens today in the news and a CEO wants to write about it, he might write about it this morning, want to put it on his blog, but then legal wants to review it and they’re overburdened with other legal work that it doesn’t get approved for two or three days. All of a sudden that blog post loses its timeliness. Now the CEO might be able to accelerate that a little bit with his position, but it doesn’t matter. In a corporation there are approval processes and filters prior to anything being disclosed publicly, new media or otherwise. So that kind of slows things down, but it also makes sure that everything is being done responsibly. I think more and more companies are embracing new media; they’re starting to use blogs; they’re starting to use social media; legal departments are learning to be more flexible. They are starting to actually assign … I know one company that has a compliance officer who is within the legal department whose job it is to just keep an eye on what’s going on with the company’s output on social media. That’s just one company that I know. I know it’s common within certain industries right now.

Interviewer: The new media channels; are organizations communicating more ethically through it? Is it a way for them to engage more ethically as opposed to just blasting out press releases and that kind of thing?

O’Brien: OK, the second part of that answer would be what about the non-publically traded firms? What about those firms? Is new media causing them to be more ethical? I would say generally, “no” because there are fewer filters; there are fewer barriers to putting something into the public domain and if you’re not be held to the same regulatory scrutiny that publicly traded firms are, and you have direct access to the public. People will act upon that and if their only concern is that they may get sued for it, then that might be the only limitation on what they might do online. So we in public relations, if we are involved with new media with non-public firms, then it’s up to us. We have to be that filter; we have to be the responsible party that makes sure that everything is being done as ethically as possible. By that I mean we have to make sure that people are not violating copyrights or trademarks and we have to make sure that any time we put something online that we aren’t endorsing any sort of libelous activity or slanderous activity. We’re the ones who have to make sure that confidential information is kept confidential if it’s within that organization. So we’re the ones that have to be the regulators of how our organizations handle social media. That’s the case if it’s not a typical company that has a legal department that is going to watch that thing.