PROFILE: Earnst books prominent seat for PR at Houghton Mifflin

During his two years at Houghton Mifflin, Collin Earnst has helped to reshape the book publisher's media relations strategy by touting the importance of corporate PR to executives. When 29-year-old Collin Earnst began as media relations director at 170-year-old Houghton Mifflin (HM) two years ago, he had his work cut out for him. The Boston-based book publisher had never been friendly with the media, and its executives were not convinced of the value of proactive PR.

During his two years at Houghton Mifflin, Collin Earnst has helped to reshape the book publisher's media relations strategy by touting the importance of corporate PR to executives. When 29-year-old Collin Earnst began as media relations director at 170-year-old Houghton Mifflin (HM) two years ago, he had his work cut out for him. The Boston-based book publisher had never been friendly with the media, and its executives were not convinced of the value of proactive PR.

"Houghton Mifflin had a Boston, formal, old-school attitude - they felt the best press coverage was no press coverage," says Maureen DiMarco, SVP of educational and governmental affairs at HM and former California secretary of education. "To hire Collin was a commitment to more multifaceted PR."

Earnst, promoted last fall to VP of communications, didn't have to wait long for an opportunity to demonstrate the power of PR. On his second day at HM, a California parent filed a suit claiming that a history textbook called Across the Centuries aimed to convert children to Islam. The ensuing national-scale crisis gave Earnst a jump-start at reshaping HM's ideas about PR.

"The media relations policy could best be described as 'duck and cover,'" he recalls. "The big challenge was having executives understand that media relationships can be beneficial. Across the Centuries helped. It was a significant point in the whole battle for PR."

Houghton Mifflin got its start in trade books, publishing prestigious American authors, such as Longfellow and Thoreau. Now, more than 85% of its business comes from educational publishing. It houses seven divisions and is the fourth-largest US educational publisher, dominating in reading market share. One in four children learns to read with an HM textbook. Earnst manages all corporate communications, including community relations, speechwriting, internal communications, and media relations for each of HM's divisions, except trade books.

"He's done a great job raising the awareness, with the senior executives in particular, of the necessity of PR and also of the potential value it can bring to the business," DiMarco says. HM, which had only retained an agency for crises, recently hired Porter Novelli on a project basis. Earnst says it indicates that the company is embracing PR as part of its business strategy.

Jake Kelleher, former director of sales and business development at HM, who is currently an independent PR consultant, says Earnst's initiatives made his job easier. "I was a benefactor of his work," he recalls. "He's created a lot of awareness, which helps in all facets, including sales. It was great having a corporate person who understood the need for PR at the division levels."

Earnst, the youngest of three children, grew up outside of Buffalo, NY. He majored in sociology and business at Boston College, with an emphasis on organizational behavior. His father, who began work at an electronics firm called Summit Distributors at 18 and managed to buy it 30 years later, has influenced him the most. Earnst planned to run the company, but when it was acquired, he changed direction.

"I was always interested in doing well by doing good," he says. "I wanted to learn more about how this occurred in the business community and how I could get involved."

Earnst turned to his college professors for advice, and he was directed to the college's Center for Corporate Community Relations. It gave him a client directory, which he used to cold-call Fortune 100 companies. He learned that the first step was to get into PR.

"To frame his mission as, 'I need to do well by doing good,' was terrific," says Eve Spangler, Boston College associate professor of sociology and chairwoman of The Center for Responsible Leadership. "He's way ahead of schedule. People don't usually get around to that until they have a mid-life crisis. His is a first-rate intelligence. He can get out in front of what's happening and see where it needs to go."

Earnst landed his first PR job at PAN Communications, which at the time specialized in tech and trade show PR, consumer practice, and b-to-b. "I got a good foundation there," he says. "However, I learned that agency PR wasn't what I enjoyed most. I wanted to dig a couple of levels deeper."

That decision meant that business leaders, rather than PR executives, would mentor Earnst. "I've reported to a president or a GM for my whole career," he says. "It gave me exposure to the real business issues, which are easy to lose track of in PR. Working directly with corporate executives helped me build PR programs that serve our needs directly. That's been the silver lining of not having a PR mentor."

After building PR programs at several tech companies, Earnst reevaluated his career. "It's hard to get revved up about servers and drivers every day," he says. "I wanted to get involved in something that was making a direct difference in people's lives. There's a great tradition in [HM] - a definite soul and a pride in what we do. Those things are very important to me."

Earnst is also an accomplished musician. He began playing orchestral and jazz percussion in the seventh grade, and was a member of a jazz band in college. Currently, he leads the 11-member pop funk band Magnus, which draws standing-room-only crowds several times a month in Boston.

Reluctant to talk about his music, Earnst mentions his family first when asked about outside interests. His wife, Erin, gave birth to daughter Mary Clare 10 months ago. "We were so excited, you would have thought we were all pregnant," DiMarco says. "He's completely gaga over her."

Professionally, Earnst is most proud of what he and his PR team of four have built at HM. The good feelings are mutual. "PR that doesn't have integrity is worse than not having PR," DiMarco says. "You look at Collin, and you know he has integrity. Plus, he has a wicked sense of humor, and he's great fun to work with. I can't tell you how many times I hear, 'Thank God for Collin.'"

Collin Earnst

2002-present

Houghton Mifflin - began as media relations director, promoted to VP of comms in 2003

2001-2002

Marcomms manager, ITSMA, Lexington, MA

1998-2000

iXL Inc., Cambridge, MA - started as PR manager, promoted to senior manager of regional marketing in 2000

1997

PR specialist, Spinners Inc., Boston

1997

PR associate, PAN Communications, Andover, MA

1996

Product manager, Summit Distributors, Buffalo, NY

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