An interview with…
“I have a philosophy that if you invited all your clients to sit around a conference table, you’d want them to be comfortable and feel they were in good company,” says Tracy Tilson, who opened her PR firm in 1990.
In her case, it’d be a weird gathering. Tilson’s clients include Dunkin’ Donuts, the American Red Cross, BJ’s Wholesale Club, DiVosta Homes, and a couple of local restaurants, among others. And she’s done some creative things to keep them as her clients – like hooking up Truly Nolen Pest Control with the IMAX debut of Spider-Man 3. And as you'll see, she's also done some interesting things with staplers...
Biggest misconception clients have about public relations?
That we’re able to control the media – that if we send out a press release, it will automatically get picked up and used. It’s just not the case. Our job is to make each press release as interesting, timely, and topical as possible. But there are no guarantees. Just because a company has launched a product doesn’t necessarily make it front-page Wall Street Journal news. If there’s honest and direct communication right from the start, this can usually be avoided.
Before you got into it, a misconception you had about PR?
I thought a great deal of my time would be spent circulating at glamorous events and my days would be filled with incredible excitement. The “sizzle” is definitely a big part of the job, but a bigger part is the day-to-day hard work that any career demands.
How do journalists think about you?
Many journalists tend to have a love/hate relationship with public relation practitioners. We can help supply valuable information, assist in lining up interviews that might otherwise take them days to procure, suggest story ideas that make sense, and give them insight on industries and topics that we work in and are familiar with. But at the same time, they know we’re being paid by our clients, so there’s a reluctance, at times, to embrace our outreach.
What's the biggest frustration of your job?
Lack of “thinking time.” In this business, we’re only as valuable as our next big idea, and sometimes there are so many distractions that detract from just taking time to think creatively. A successful day includes just getting on the Internet and looking at trends, reading trades and case studies on other campaigns, and brainstorming ideas.
My biggest pleasure comes when we’ve created an idea, concept, or public relations program and it’s been truly effective for the client. There’s nothing more satisfying. Another plus is the diversity of the job. Every day varies with such a wide range of tasks – client servicing, brainstorming new programs and campaigns, creating and handling special events, writing press releases, and the list goes on and on. The variety is what keeps it so interesting for me.
Was it harder establishing your business as a woman? Or would it have been just as hard if you were a man?
I don’t think it was harder establishing my business as a woman. Honestly, I never gave it that much thought. Hard work, integrity, and persistence are the great equalizers whether you’re a man or woman when it comes to success in business.
A career highlight that sticks in your mind?
One that was particularly gratifying was a program called “Staplers to the Stars” for Staples, the office supply company. The campaign involved celebrity-signed staplers that would be auctioned off to their favorite charity, a kickoff with actress Jennifer Love Hewitt and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center, and participation from 140 celebrities from the entertainment, sports, and business worlds.
We received national coverage and were on late-night talk shows, national dailies such as USA Today, and a multitude of placements culminating with a campaign profile in PR Week. It was a great deal of work, but when it all came together, it was fabulous! Flying back from L.A., I remember feeling that this is the best job in the world!
Any amusing professional gaffes?
Legendary television host Dick Clark was one of my most embarrassing. I had to meet him and his wife in Miami to escort them to an event in Boca for a client who’d hired him as their spokesperson. This was about 14 years ago. I was so nervous when I met him that I forgot the hotel where I was bringing him. I recovered, but talk about momentarily losing my cool.
If you could surgically implant one piece of career advice into the skulls of college students and young professionals, what would it be?
Initiative. I love young people who come to me with ideas, new methods of handling processes, and a willingness to learn. It's usually very obvious to me within a few days if someone is committed to really learning and growing in the industry. Be bold – I love boldness.