A PR Clinic in the Snow: Christmas Lessons at 6th and Grant

I’m not sure when school let out right before Christmas break, but I do remember a few times on the last school day before Christmas I was able to rush home and then with my mom take the trolley to Downtown before my dad finished work.

For me and just about every other kid, Downtown was the place to be around the holidays. There were three major department stores – Gimbel’s, Joseph Horne’s, and Kaufmann’s – and usually depending on which one was closest to your trolley or bus stop, that was your family’s go-to place. Ours was Gimbel’s.

As you approached the store in the dark and the cold, you’d be greeted by those well-lit and colorful Christmas dioramas in the windows. You’d start to feel the warmth even before you spun through those heavy brass revolving doors.

Bright lights, and garland of red and green, gold and silver, blue and purple, all glittering and sparkling everywhere you looked, and shiny new things that my mom said not to even think about wanting. The 11th floor at the top of the escalator was my destination, even long after the reality of Santa Claus had set in. That was where they had the good stuff.

After that, we’d hit the lunch counter at a nearby restaurant which had the best hamburger, chocolate milk and French fries you could want.

But before all of this Christmas sensory overload, we’d stop by the corner of Pittsburgh’s Sixth Avenue and Grant Street, right in front of the William Penn Hotel. That’s where I’d watch my dad work for a few minutes before he’d visit with us. He was a traffic cop who seemed more like the host of a constantly unfolding social event, rather than just someone who pointed cars and trucks in the right direction.

There always seemed to be someone else standing on one of the four corners of the intersection wanting his attention, wanting to talk to him about something. I’d watch him get traffic moving and then make his way over to whomever seemed to have a need.

That mom and her kids across from me wanted him to give them directions. Another man asked my dad if he knew a good place for shoe repair. A college student wanted to know where to get a good fish sandwich. A young man in a Marine uniform asked my dad if the Pittsburgh Police Department would be hiring new officers soon. These were the little things, and they were non-stop.

Sometimes he’d tell me about other things people approached him about. He once told me about a woman who had passed by his corner for years with nothing more than a smile and a pleasant “Hello.” But one day, she stopped to talk. She told him that her adult son had gotten into some trouble and she didn’t know where to turn. He gave her the names of some people he thought could help. Not coincidentally, these, too, were people he had met and gotten to know on this very corner.

Doctors and lawyers, executives and CEOs, bus and delivery drivers. As their routine took them through the intersection of Sixth and Grant, sooner or later many got to know my dad and all were the better for it. He was a visitor’s bureau with a badge, who every now and then had to keep the peace along with direct traffic, and he loved just about every minute of it. Anyone who knew him would tell you that.

At Christmas, people who walked by his corner seemed to have the holiday spirit and the mood was always upbeat.  There is something about seeing your dad do his thing out in the world when you’re a young boy. As I watched my dad in action, he seemed larger than life. I was proud of him.

He was in his element. Almost no one got away from him without a handshake or a pat on the shoulder.

So, what does this all mean to PR?

My dad gave me a lot of good advice over the years, but it was probably his example that taught me the most. This was most predictably evident when I watched him do his job.

To him it wasn’t about directing traffic. It was about people. It was about being a goodwill ambassador. It was about helping. Clearly when I think about it, he understood as much as anyone the value in helping people connect with each other in meaningful ways. He created community.

That’s the life lesson I learned without a word in the falling snow on the corner of Sixth and Grant during the Christmas season.

When Reporters Ask, “What’s new in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year?”

St. Patrick’s Day is this Friday, but for most Pittsburghers, like those in a few other cities, parade day this past Saturday was the big day. We always have our parade on the Saturday before or on the 17th.  This year’s parade was as early in March as it gets. Next year’s parade will be on St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th.

In handling communications and public relations for the annual event, I’ve learned to anticipate a handful of questions from editors and reporters every year.  One of the most common ones is, “What’s new in the parade this year?”

On the surface, the answer may center on a celebrity who will make a guest appearance one year. Maybe another year we’ll have a set of new bands, entertainers or Irish acts.  Always new is the Grand Marshal or Miss Smiling Irish Eyes, each of whom usually has a very impressive and very Irish story to tell.

Each of these stories can be news in their own right, but with all due respect, the focus on a particular parade participant can sometimes overlook what really draws upwards of 350,000 to Downtown on a seasonably warm March day.  To be sure, this past Saturday was anything but seasonably warm.

If I said it’s all about family and tradition, that may wash over you.  You hear that all the time about other things.  So, I’ll attempt to explain what appears to make every parade a new one for those who take part.  Here is what was new this year.

  • This year, little Katie and Sean are another year older, and they came to the parade with their mom and dad, who have come to the parade with their parents for decades.  That was new.
  • They looked for their aunts who marched with an LAOH Division, alongside their own aunts and cousins in their smart Irish sweaters and sashes.
  • The kids danced more this year because they love music, and after the parade, they went to a party with their grandpap.  Katie told her pap she wants to be Miss Smiling Irish Eyes someday and ride in a horse-drawn carriage. That was new.
  • This year, another family spent a lot of time remembering someone who was their mother, grandmother, sister respectively, who they lost this past year.  She never missed a parade, so they celebrated her memory on this parade day.
  • On Saturday, a young couple searched and found a spot on the Boulevard of the Allies where she used to perch on her dad’s shoulder as a little girl with her own family. This is their first parade as a married couple, so they started a new Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade tradition.
  • A Pittsburgh firefighter marched alongside his 12-year old daughter.  He and she sang Irish songs, and his feet never touched the ground.
  • A bagpiper tested out his new hip for the 1.4 mile walk on Grant Street to the Boulevard of the Allies.  He used a vision of this very parade as a focal point throughout his physical therapy journey.
  • A radio reporter/producer who’s always been in the habit of covering the parade marched in the parade this year as a Civil War re-enactor.

Now, multiply these everyday stories by the thousands. That’s what was new in the parade this year.  Sure, this isn’t the stuff of viral social media stories and hashtags.  You won’t find any of it trending on Twitter, but it is what brings people by the hundreds of thousands to Downtown Pittsburgh each March. 

Family.  Community. Tradition. 

These are the things that bind Pittsburghers and why this parade rivals those in cities much larger in size. 

In fairness, how can a news organization hook a story on that?

Perhaps it’s the parade’s grand brevity fueled by these values.

Pardon the Scottish reference, but think of the stage musical production Brigadoon.  That’s a story of a charming little village that rises out of the mists every 100 years but only for a day.

In Pittsburgh, this time every year, we leave our houses after a long and cold winter, wearing our green.  On this one day, Pittsburgh becomes that village that rises out of the mists once a year to usher back outdoor life in the city we love.

We do it in the name of celebrating our region’s Irish heritage.  It is that and much more.  Those of Irish descent and many who just want to be Irish for the day are ready to celebrate.  And while that may not be “new” it never gets old.

Expertise.com Ranks O’Brien Communications One of the Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, PA, January 11, 2017Expertise.com has ranked O’Brien Communications one of the “Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh,” in its most recent rankings. According to the national web site, it reviewed 88 firms from throughout the Pittsburgh region and selected the top 14 for its rankings.

Expertise.com bases its selections on a survey of the field to “find every business that provides service in the city, and to filter out any that fail to meet our definition of an expert.” After that, the site uses software to grade each business on 25 variables across five criteria that include: reputation, credibility, experience, availability, and professionalism.

About O’Brien Communications

Founded by Tim O’Brien in 2001, Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications builds its client service with a focus on: Corporate Communications & Strategic Planning; Marketing Communications; Public Relations & Media Relations; Content Development & Professional Writing; Communications Coaching, and Crisis & Issues Management. Clients have ranged from Fortune 500 corporations to nonprofits and emerging start-ups. For more information, call 412.854.8845 or email timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

The Night a Future Star Brought Down the House in South Park

Cowboy HatIt was a Friday night a good number of years ago. My wife and I went to one of the free concerts as part of the South Park Summer Concert Series. We joined my brother-in-law and sister-in-law that night.

The weather was nice, the crowd was decent in terms of size. We had brought our coolers, and sat in our lawn chairs enjoying the summer night.

I forget who the opening act was, but it was great background music for our conversation. That’s usually how we feel, particularly if we don’t know the headline act. We sit far enough back to talk and hear each other.

So, after the opening act finished, there was a longer-than-usual break between bands.

A relatively unknown country artist was supposed to come next. My wife and I like country music, and we had heard of this guy but not much.

A county parks staffer walked up to the mic and told the crowd that the next act was in transit. He had trouble with flights, and if my memory serves me, we were told he wasn’t even on the ground in Pittsburgh yet.  But we were assured, he is on his way and he will perform as soon as he gets here.

With that, close to half the crowd packed up and quietly made their way to their cars.

It was around 8 p.m. on a nice summer night, so we stayed. We were having enough of a good time that we didn’t really notice how much time had passed, but after a few updates from a conscientious county parks employee on the stage, the main event arrived in a couple of those buses performers use.

Not long after that, the country singer took the stage to sound check. After about as genuine an apology and explanation as you would expect from a young country singer, he tested all the equipment as he normally would do in rehearsal right in front of his audience.  Still, he didn’t waste any time.

Soon, he started singing, and playing, and talking, and then rocking the place. Throughout it all, he kept reminding the people who stuck around, he was going to give them more than they bargained for.

Since admission was free, that part was a low bar, but that didn’t matter to him. He played fast songs that got people dancing. He played ballads.  He mixed it up and kept it up, and just kept playing.  Clearly he was determined to make it up to his audience.

He played at least one encore, but I want to say two. And before he left the stage he made everyone of  us feel we just saw one of the best country concerts we may ever have seen, free or not.

Normally, these events wrap up around 9:30 p.m., but as we made our way back to our car near midnight, we couldn’t stop talking about how great a performer this guy was, and what a nice guy he seemed to be.  And we were definitely glad we stuck around to see his show.

The singer was Kenny Chesney. Kenny comes to Pittsburgh this weekend.  Let’s hope it’s another great day for him and for Pittsburgh.

The PR lesson: Always do more. People won’t forget.

Make Sure Your Communications Program Isn’t Flying Blind

O’Brien Communications now has a YouTube channel.  This is part of our effort to broaden our platform for communication and to leverage video as it gains traction with the continued explosion of mobile.

The video below, at just over one minute in length, is one of the first we’ve produced for YouTube.  In this installment, we cover the basics of a communications health check-up, or communications audit.  It will help make sure you’re communications program is not flying blind.

Check out this and other videos like it on our YouTube channel.  And if you have any questions about this, or ideas for future topics, just let us know!


What They Don’t Teach PR Majors in College

Tshutterstock_124981016his past week, another class of PR majors graduated from their respective colleges and are now doing their best to transition into the work force, or as their parents like to call it, “the real world.”

As has been the case for decades, regardless of generational label, some will do better than others. Millennial graduates who succeed will more than likely do the same things that successful Gen-X graduates and Baby Boomer graduates did.

On the other hand, some graduates will have relied only on their coursework to prepare them for a career in public relations, and if they did they are already behind. Unfortunately, too many still receive their diplomas without having had a PR internship, which is often the first way to get practical communications experience and exposure to the way things really get done.

Yes, they took all of the requisite communications courses (and probably not enough on journalistic writing). Yes, they took a semester in Europe.  And yes, they are digital natives, meaning social media is second nature to them.  Their resumes are filled with mentions of how they served on campus organization committees and dance marathons, but no matter how those experiences make the graduates feel about themselves and their public relations talents, those experiences more often than not did not teach undergraduates how to work within standing organizations and companies with their own protocols, processes and missions.

In short, what college did not teach these PR graduates is what it could not teach – the soft skills of PR. So what are they?

The Simple Things – Be on time for work, be early for every meeting, listen before speaking, and sometimes do not speak, especially when you disagree or think you know better.  Wait for the right time and the right place.   Know that when you call off or miss a meeting, you may miss an opportunity.  Accept the consequences of your actions.  Don’t be known as a complainer. Dress the part of who you want to be.  Don’t stay after work for show, it’s obvious. Don’t leave important work unfinished at the end of the regular work day.  That’s just as obvious.

Know that the Workplace is not a Democracy – Whether it’s a large company, PR agency, or a small nonprofit organization, management hierarchy requires a chain of command. This is for communication, decision-making and accountabilities.  While various organizations and managers may have a wide range of styles, some more people-friendly than others, all adhere to the assumption that the boss’s decision (or the client’s decision) is final.  There is no second-guessing the decision-maker once he or she has made that decision.  Your only choice is whether you will meet those expectations or not.

Don’t Take Criticism Personally – One of the most difficult transitions new PR hires often make is taking criticism personally.  In fact, the criticism you get may be very personal in every way but one – context.  You may be told about your appearance, your energy level, your listening skills, your writing skills or your analytical skills. All are almost inseparable from your personal style, so for that reason, it can feel very personal. But the main thing is to know that all of it is coming your way in the context of how it affects your work.  What you are really being told is that the basis for all criticism is to get you to modify your approach to be more effective as a professional and within the organization.  Rather than take the criticism personally, embrace it as an opportunity for change and self-improvement.    Once you do that, future criticism won’t have the same sting, and you’ll probably find you receive less of it.

Don’t Expect Anything – Once you join a company or PR firm as an employee, it’s not up to that organization to meet your expectations.  It’s the other way around. It’s up to you to meet the expectations of your organization’s customers, donors, managers, other employees and other constituents.  If you work in PR or in the communications function, you must be effective at media relations and other disciplines.  Don’t expect recognition or praise. Don’t expect a promotion simply because you have a year’s more experience than the next person. The PR business is merit-based, meaning  you have to earn praise, recognition and promotions. And even then, they may not come when you think you deserve them most.  Learn how the organization works and follow the unsaid rules. Be persistent. Be patient. Be smart. Focus on delivering quality work and results.  Put the client’s needs first.  That’s how you’ll get what you want and what you think you deserve.