Tanya Lewis profiles seven PR pros who, through a significant change, arrived at their current roles - and are the better for it
EIGHT YEARS AGO, Discovery Communications created Discovery Health and hired Annie Howell, who spent 12 years at public affairs firms, but had no TV experience, to build a communications department.
“I had healthcare clients, and the chances of finding someone with healthcare and TV experience were narrow,” Howell says. “I was on my own – not even in the same building. They talk[ed] lingo, and I was like, ‘What are you saying?' I spent the first six months educating myself.”
Though challenged, Howell knew she could succeed. “It was a great lesson in building a team with skills you don't have,” she says. “I've never worried about people who know things I don't. I need them to help and teach me, and I can teach them.”
Howell says resilience is critical. “You have good days and bad ones,” she notes. “Push through. Keep trying. The first six months were daunting. It was completely foreign and fast-moving, but I wasn't shy about telling people [I didn't] know. You cannot go it alone.”
On July 1, Howell leapt again to head communications for a new Discovery venture – Planet Green, a companywide initiative, which will include the first 24-hour network devoted to green efforts.
“I like launching and building,” she says. “It's fun; a bit scary, but exciting. It's an area I care about. And this time, I know what I'm talking about.”
3 keys to change
1. Trust yourself; know yourself; maybe push yourself
2. There's nothing wrong with being a little scared
3. Always ask questions, but do research and teach yourself
Company: Discovery Communications
Title: SVP of communications, public affairs, and
talent management for Discovery's Planet Green
Location: Silver Spring, MD
Years in PR: 20
Discovery's Planet Green, SVP, comms, public affairs, and talent management
Discovery Networks, US, VP of comms (2000-01); SVP of comms (2001-07)
Discovery Health Channel, director of communications
Powell Tate, Washington, DC. Positions including SAE; account supervisor; group director; and VP
Ogilvy & Mather Public Affairs. Positions including account assistant; AAE; AE© SharpeandHarrell.com
JOE FAVORITO has made several significant leaps in his sports PR career – moving from Fordham University's 21 teams to the Philadelphia 76ers to professional tennis and back to the NBA as VP of PR for the New York Knicks. Ten months ago, he completed his latest move by joining the International Fight League (IFL), a start-up professional mixed martial arts organization.
Each change had its own challenges, but Favorito cites his move to the 76ers as his biggest leap.
“I had just gotten married and bought a house in New York,” he recalls. “I moved. The organization was down. The job had been vacant for months. I didn't know anyone or what I was doing. [At 27], I was the youngest NBA PR director.”
Hard lessons were learned. “I had never been exposed to crisis management or long-term strategy,” he says. “I made mistakes – definitely in managing people. I was afraid to call the media because I was new. I wasn't mature. I winged it a lot.”
Despite challenges, including the 76ers' poor on-court performance, Favorito developed confidence and expertise – and he garnered success. “I learned to work in a public environment, to succeed regardless of the [team's won-loss record], to work with large personas, and to treat people as people,” he notes.
After the Knicks and Favorito parted ways last year, he leapt to the IFL. “It was risky,” he admits. “It's a start-up. It's edgy because it's fighting. I get to apply all I've learned to something totally new. It's rare.”
3 keys to change
1. Think with your head and your heart. Move for all the right reasons — financial, personal, and career-wise
2. Do your homework; ask the right questions
3. Don't burn bridges. Your reputation goes wherever you go
Organization: International Fight League
Title: SVP, communications
Location: New York
Years in PR: 22
Intl. Fight League, SVP of communications
New York Knicks, VP, PR
United States Tennis Assoc., publicity and media relations director
Women's Tennis Assoc. Tour, VP, communications and special projects
Philadelphia 76ers, director of PR/publicity
Fordham Univ., director, sports media relations
SportsChannel Associates, assistant director, PR and marketing
Monmouth College, sports media relations director
GERALD KIMBER WHITE “always wanted to make the world a better place.” He attended Harvard Divinity School, became a United Methodist Church minister, and was chosen to train in marketing. After successfully turning around two churches and failing to turn around a third, some “nagging doubts” about his career choice intensified.
“The idea of leaving was tough,” he says. “Was I turning my back on God?" I struggled. I was a rising star in the church and had an ego about it. There were [many] emotional and spiritual aspects.”
After intense soul searching, White left the ministry and set about selling himself to PR, which proved difficult. Finally, at a job fair, he met GTE's PA director, who got him an interview with GTE's agency (FitzGerald Communications).
“I was a 30-year-old with an entry-level job, but I was thrilled,” he says.
FitzGerald turned out to be a great training ground. “People two years out of college were berating me for my writing,” recalls White. “You put your ego in check [and] learn from everything. I was there for the tech-market boom and bust. It was stressful, [but] great experience.”
PR has given White renewed joy and broad expertise. At RF|Binder, his accounts are focused on international economic and social development.
“It's nice to do exactly what you want,” he says. “I interact with a larger, more diverse group than the ministry would ever have allowed. It's more than I ever dreamed. I feel I may be having greater impact on the world than I could have had in the ministry.”
3 keys to change
1. Follow your heart, but use your head
2. Don't avoid change because you're afraid
3. Never give up on your ultimate goal
Company: RF|Binder Partners
Title: Managing director
Location: Needham, MA
Years in PR: 8.5
RF/Binder Partners, managing director
FitzGerald Communications, account manager
Bryantville United Methodist Church, minister
Faith United Methodist Church, minister
Bethany United Methodist Church, minister
WHILE PURSUING a master's degree in education, Jennifer Jacobs worked “hammering out education issues” on Capitol Hill. After a brief foray into teaching eighth-grade English in Fairfax County, VA, she returned to the Hill. However, as Jacobs closed in on nearly a decade in government, she decided it was time to switch gears.
“I wanted to do some- thing more creative,” Jacobs explains, “something that used my skills and interests.”
A career test revealed that Jacobs would be good at PR, but she didn't know much about the discipline. So she investigated and determined that she wanted to work for a premier agency – though many didn't appreciate her experience.
“A lot of people said I had to have agency experience,” Jacobs recalls. “I really felt this was the right path. There came a point where I felt I should take a boutique job, but I kept trying and held out. Through persistence, I connected with Edelman, [which] appreciates people from different backgrounds. I was so excited.”
Education has been a focus throughout Jacobs' career. She currently manages Edelman's Washington, DC, education and training program and contributes to its global training program.
“It's a huge blessing,” she proclaims. “I get to work with some of the brightest, most creative, and dynamic people.
“It's also a great way to bring all my skills and interests together,” Jacobs adds. “I love this company and feel like PR is a perfect fit for me.”
3 keys to change
1. Be persistent and tap connections
2. Be willing to consider a career test
3. Though many tend to take new jobs rather quickly, you shouldn't be afraid to wait for the right job
Years in PR: 7
Edelman, VP. Started as account supervisor, rose to senior account supervisor, then her present role
Office of US Rep. Nathan Deal (legislative asst., then legislative director, then legislative/communications director)
Eighth grade English teacher, Fairfax County School System
Office of US Rep. Earl Hutto (legislative correspondent, then legislative assistant)
AFTER 15 YEARS as a journalist, Linton Johnson left his weekend anchor position at NBC affiliate KNTV in 2004 for a PR position at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Six months later, Johnson was promoted to chief spokesperson when Michael Healy, the only other person ever to hold the job, retired.
Johnson, who covered transportation and knew BART was looking, was becoming disillusioned with TV journalism.
“In 2003, Channel 2 started constantly leading with crime,” he says. “Unless it was spectacular and important, it would never lead with crime. The beginning of the end for the bastion of journalism was coming. I struggled to accept that it wouldn't get any better.” Johnson had also moved nearly 20 times for his career and he was ready to settle down. Though the pace is slower than TV journalism, PR at BART is not without pressure and excitement.
"The most challenging aspect is communicating what BART does to protect passengers without tipping our hand to terrorists,” Johnson says. “It's a fine line between the public's right to information and how much is safe to give them. The ethical lines are a challenge, and I enjoy talking about them.”
Johnson also enjoys the myriad new challenges BART offers him.
“I'm learning about managing people and have a long way to go on that,” he admits. “I'm learning the ways of the unions. That's been a real eye-opening experience. Being in an office all day is different. I still ‘run and gun' when media come wanting things within minutes. It's interesting without being exhausting.”
Organization: Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
Title: Chief spokesperson and department manager of media and public affairs
Location: Oakland, CA
Years in PR: 3
BART, chief spokesman and dept. manager of media and public affairs
February 2004-June 2004
BART, public information officer
KNTV-TV, San Francisco, weekend evening news anchor
KBWB-TV, San Francisco, weekend evening news anchor
General assignment reporter at three TV stations: KSNT-TV, Topeka, KS (1994-1995); KAKE-TV, Wichita, KS (1995-1996); KSDK-TV, St. Louis (1996-1999)
3 keys to change
1. The future is multi-media. Develop skills and find outlets
2. Know yourself very well and go for what you really want
3. Have faith
PASSIONATE ABOUT CARS since childhood, Andrew Lipman loved his job at Ketchum working on the Hyundai account, but serendipity led him to an in-house role at Audi last year.
“I was very satisfied, challenged, and happy at Ketchum,” he notes. “It's the hardest time to leave. You question yourself. Don't people only leave when they're unhappy?”
After sitting beside Audi executives by chance at a media event, Lipman began to think Audi was an interesting company on the rise.
“A [few] weeks later, a [colleague working on Hyundai] at a different agency went to Audi,” he says. “Jokingly, I asked her to alert me if Audi needed anyone to head PR in New York. She called an hour later [saying] there was a posting.”
Though nervous and reluctant to leave a great job, Lipman trusted his instincts. “There were a lot of coincidences,” he recalls. “It sounded too good to be true. I was happy, doing well, and had an excellent career path at Ketchum. The one thing missing was corporate experience. I'm not the biggest risk-taker. Fear could force you to take the safe route, which was my modus operandi. My gut told me to take this risk. I never regretted it. Ketchum is wonderful, and understood.”
Working on a larger project with a smaller team and fewer resources increased Lipman's self-confidence.
“You have your hand in everything,” he explains. “I've been exposed to a lot more. I'm gaining tremendous
global experience [and] feel part of Audi's heritage. The luxury sector also opens doors I hadn't experienced.”
3 keys to change
1. Thoroughly research the company
2. If you're gut tells you to do something, don't miss out
3. Get agency experience – it's the best training ground
Company: Audi of America
Title: Manager, business and East Coast communications
Location: New York
Years in PR: 9
Audi of America, manager, business and East Coast communications
January 2002-June 2006
February 1999-January 2002
Cohn & Wolfe, SAE
AS A JOURNALISM MAJOR with a minor in women's studies at the College of Charleston, Erica Harris thought she would go on to work for a leading women's magazine.
She seemed to be on the right track when she became the entertainment editor of her college newspaper, the George Street Observer. However, the section was not taken seriously at the time. Through the process of rebranding it, Harris discovered a love and an aptitude for PR.
“[The turnaround] was hugely successful,” she says. “I wanted to be part of driving a brand, and opportunity is so great in PR right now. PR would let me use media skills and still be creative, while working hand in hand with outlets.”
Thirty résumés sent to New York from South Carolina generated limited response. “I moved to New York on a Wednesday, interviewed at Weber Shandwick on a Friday, and was hired the next week,” Harris recalls. “I landed at the Mecca.”
She gracefully adjusted to the move, the firm, and life in New York City. “I was kind of intimidated [by WS], but the experience has been amazing,” she says. “There's a learning curve. I'm still learning. PR changes so often.”
WS gives Harris plenty of “hands-on” work – including leading a Fox News crew at a Royal Caribbean ship launch.
“I was pigeonholed into thinking media was for me,” she says. “I'm where I want to be and excited. I'm really proud of the leap. I have renewed strength. I got a great opportunity and made something of it.
Company: Weber Shandwick
Title: Account coordinator, travel and lifestyle practice
Location: New York
Years in PR: 1
Weber Shandwick, account coordinator
August 2005-May 2006
George Street Observer (College of Charleston's student newspaper), entertainment editor; Skirt! Magazine, contributing writer
May 2005-August 2005
Skirt! Magazine, editorial intern
January 2005-May 2005
Charleston City Paper, editorial intern
3 keys to change
1. If it's something you really want, do it. Many tend to overanalyze. Just go for it and see where it takes you
2. Get as many opportunities under your belt as possible.
3. Work contacts