Four Lessons from 4 Years Running an Agency

tell-us-your-pr-story

In my opinion, the best way to sum up anyone’s story is to pretend like you’re writing their obituary.

So here’s mine: coffee-crazed workaholic started an agency in Pittsburgh. Experienced moderate success.

It seems like just yesterday I was skipping classes my senior year of college to meet clients in the city. Back then, it was just me and a handful of contractors making it happen. It’s hard to believe that four years, countless clients and some awards later that we’re now a bunch of full-time employees. I’m mostly surprised I haven’t keeled over from drinking too much coffee yet.

Since Top Hat’s celebrating its fourth year, four seems like a magic number. So here are four lessons that I’ve learned along the journey:

Sometimes You Have to Put Yourself in the Microwave

In the past four years, there were two times I doubled-up on full-time opportunities. In 2014, I joined an inbound marketing agency as their director of inbound partnerships while still running Top Hat. The second time was in 2015 when I served a software as a service (SaaS) startup as their head of communications while (again) still running Top Hat.

There are crockpot and microwave experiences—both can be useful. These were the latter. Life was a bit chaotic and out of a balance for a while. To this day, however, these are two of the most significant experiences I’ve ever had that significantly catapulted things forward.

A microwave cooks things faster. So, if you’re looking to develop a certain skill or resume-lifter, a microwave experience can help you get ahead faster. Look for entrepreneurial opportunities or work on your side hustle to boost your overall momentum. Just be sure not to keep that microwave on for too long!

Build a Recipe Book of Interdisciplinary Techniques

Communications is becoming more integrated than ever. It’s critical to study, evaluate, experiment and understand not just public relations, but marketing and advertising too. To understand those disciplines a bit more intimately, you might have put yourself in the microwave. Ultimately, it will enhance your career, sense of direction and perspective in ways that will surprise you everyday.

You Must Understand How Business Works

The single biggest mistake communicators make is not understanding how business works. We as communicators need to prove our relevance at the business table. At the end of the day, what we do must support the goals of whoever we’re working with—client, employer or partner.

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You Must Be Business-Objective Focused

One of the earliest lessons I learned is that the impressions, click-through-rates and other metrics don’t mean anything if there’s no real return-on-investment. Some of the most blunderous client relationships early on were because I didn’t help the client establish tangible business objectives. The moment that changed, the entire business changed as well.

As communicators, the hard truth is that we’re often the first budget item cut when the going gets rough. We need to be in a business-objective mindset. It might not be revenue in all cases, but it must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable and Time-Based (SMART).

Want to hear more from Ben Butler? PRSA New Pros Opportunity:
TELESEMINAR 4/19

Join PRSA’s New Professionals Section as we talk with three PR pros from different industries about just a few of the different career paths public relations and communications have to offer. You’ll hear from Ben Butler, APR, founder of Top Hat IMC, on what it was like to start his own PR firm as a new pro, Sean Cartell associate media relations director for the University of Texas, on game day communications and managing media for multiple teams, and Brittney Westbrook, assistant director for marketing communications at The University of Southern Mississippi, on developing strategic campaigns for a university of 15,000 students and more than 120,000 alumni. Learn more about the opportunities out there in independent agency, sports and non-profit PR and how to get started on whichever path you choose.

register

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Ben Butler, APR, is the founder and client services director for
Top Hat—an award-winning marketing communications firm in Pittsburgh. In his past life he served as a public relations guy for a motorsports complex, director of inbound partnerships for an inbound marketing agency and head of communications for a software startup. He’s been named a Top Under 40 Communicator and is Accredited in Public Relations (APR)—a distinction held by less than 20-percent of all practitioners.

My PR Story: Evan Martinez

tell-us-your-pr-story

The public relations industry has a vast array of career options and the opportunities for professional and personal growth are endless.

Like many PR professionals, the above is one of the primary reasons I chose to enter the public relations field. My love for communications is rooted in the passion I have for understanding people – what makes them tick, why they act a particular way – and while the curiosity is mostly natural, I have only become more intrigued over time.

I am currently the Communications Associate at American Iron and Steel Institute, a trade association representing the North American steel industry on Capitol Hill. Working on the Hill allows me to combine communications and politics, which are the two subject areas I am most interested in building. Regardless of the type of PR you work in, I have found three things to be vital for a successful PR career.

1. It’s okay to go off the beaten path

If someone had told me when I graduated from college I would be working for a trade association that represents the steel industry, I would have told them they were crazy. But everyone’s PR story is different, just like mine is different from many of the people I graduated with. Whether you are passionate about working for a firm or a nonprofit or a hospital, communications is everywhere. The sooner you realize it’s a variety of experiences that create your PR story, the sooner you will end up in the job you have always wanted.

2. Develop a professional routine

I wake up, go to the gym, make a hearty breakfast, pour the coffee in my travel mug and head out the door. On my morning commute I read Politico Playbook and The Skimm, which provides the perfect synopsis for happenings around the country. It is our job to know about world events and to educate others about those events.  Every organization has go-to publications every employee should read and be able to hold a conversation about. Developing healthy professional habits (having a good breakfast, reading, etc.) will ultimately make you a better and more productive employee.

3. Keep building on your PR story

It might be a cliché, but it is true–our stories never really end. No matter the amount of internships you completed, what degree you graduated with or what title you have at work, your PR story does not end. My current role is merely a stepping stone in a long PR path that will continue to grow with time and experience.  Make sure you are putting yourself out there and meeting new people who can introduce you to new professional opportunities.

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Integrating any portion of this advice into your life will hopefully help you like it has me. Find work that you are passionate about and master it.  Ensure that you are constantly learning and challenging yourself because that is how truly great PR stories are formed.

HeadshotEvan Martinez is a Communications Associate at the American Iron and Steel Institute, a trade association representing the North American steel industry on Capitol Hill. He graduated from American University in May, where he served as Vice President of AU’s PRSSA chapter. Evan has also been featured on PRNews Online. He will be attending Georgetown University in the fall for his Master’s where he will study Public Relations & Corporate Communications.

My PR story: Robyn Rudish-Laning

tell-us-your-pr-story

“Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” ― Julia Child

There really isn’t a better way for me to describe my career, especially since Julia Child’s passion was food. I, too, love food and that’s where my passion for PR started.

First, a little about me. I currently live in Columbia, SC, with my boyfriend and our tail-less cat Izzy and where I work for the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness, a nonpartisan, business-led nonprofit that works to advance South Carolina’s long-term economic competitiveness. I grew up on a farm in Southern New Jersey and when it came time for me to head off to college, I packed my bags and moved to Pittsburgh. There I attended Duquesne University, right in the heart of the city, which is where I belong – right in the middle of a city. I earned my bachelor’s in public relations and a master’s in media arts and technology, focusing on creative media practices. My PR experience has been a little all over the place: nonprofits in Pittsburgh, New York and Columbia, retail, boutique agency and pharmaceutical research.

So how did I get here? I figured out early that I wanted to work in PR and communications. My first job back in high school was waitressing at a local restaurant. It was small and, being the master of multitasking I am, I began helping to organize some of our events and putting together marketing pieces and campaigns, in addition to my normal job and learning how to cook in the kitchen on slow nights. So in a way, food led me to PR.

As a student I interned with two nonprofits – the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Greater Pennsylvania & West Virginia in Pittsburgh and the 9/11 Tribute Center in New York. In both, I created and maintained media lists, drafted press kits, press releases, media advisories, social media content, web content, print marketing materials – basically if it was written or designed, it probably started on my desk.

That’s a common theme through each job I’ve had so far. If there’s writing to be drafted, a piece to be designed or, more recently, strategy to be crafted, it’s started with me. I could outline all the different types of projects that I’ve worked on, but the point is that through all the places I’ve worked, no matter how thrilling or mundane the project or task might have been, there was a similarity tying them all together – each was its own form of storytelling. Telling stories is the heart of what PR is and it’s what I love about the field. Being able to find and share stories, whether that’s through blogs, video, social media, events, photos or whatever type of content lies ahead, is important to me. It’s what I’m tremendously interested in, what I’m passionate about. It’s what I’ll keep looking for in every job through the end of my career.

Whether you’re trying to tell your own story, still trying to find a path for yourself or anywhere in between, that’s the best advice you can take. Find what you’re passionate about, what drives you, inspires you, makes you feel like you’re doing something, and stay interested, learning everything you can along the way.

robyn-rudish-laningRobyn serves as PRSA’s New Professionals Section’s programming co-chair and is a communications and PR pro currently living and working in Columbia, S.C. In addition to volunteering with PRSA’s New Professionals Section, she also serves as the 2017 VP of Communications for the South Carolina PRSA Chapter and brought together the chapter’s first New Professionals group in 2016. She’s a native of southern New Jersey and currently resides in Columbia, S.C., by way of Pittsburgh, and currently works as the communications coordinator a statewide non-profit organization. In her spare time, Robyn likes to cook, read, spend time with her tail-less cat Izzy and write for her own blog – and almost always with a cup of tea in hand. Find her on Twitter & talk to her!

Member Spotlight: Meet Rebecca Hansen

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Name:
Rebecca Hansen

Position/Company:
Marketing and Community Relations Lead at Sky Zone Greensboro

Location:
Greensboro, NC

Education:
B.S. Communication, East Carolina University & M.S. Public Relations, Syracuse University

Social Media Handle:
@RebeccaHansenPR


 

What made you interested in PR and communications?

I was involved in a lot of communication-centric activities in high school like morning announcements, forensics (public speaking) and drama. When it came time to apply to universities, I wanted something that would allow me to merge my writing, speaking and design skills all in one.

How did you find internships/jobs?

  • College of Human Ecology at East Carolina University Internship: Saw an online posting with ECU.
  • Semple Solutions Internship (Small PR Firm): Owner came to speak to my PRSSA group.
  • Syracuse Stage Internship: Sought out an entertainment-focused PR internship by utilizing the Newhouse Career Center (Syracuse University).
  • Dassault Falcon Jet Internship: Networked within the company and created a custom internship.
  • Sky Zone Greensboro Job: Looked on Indeed for communication jobs within North Carolina.

What has been the most valuable thing you have learned through classes or experience?

I was skeptical to take a social media class because I thought as a millennial, I knew pretty much everything about Facebook and Twitter, but I took a class at Newhouse (Syracuse University) and learned to deep-dive into analytics and read demographics to benefit a brand.

What has been the best piece of advice you have received?

Read your material out loud so it’s easier to catch typos or awkward-sounding phrases.

Do you have any advice of your own for future PR pros?

Take advantage of any learning opportunity, whether or not you’ll think it’ll help you at the moment. It may benefit you in the future!

What do you think is the best benefit of PRSA and the New Pros section?

The network is incredible! Many seasoned professionals are willing to mentor recent graduates.

Why did you decide to get your Master’s in PR?

There were a few factors that played into my decision to get my Master’s degree. Due to my academic record, I received a scholarship to one of the most prestigious communication schools in the country. Second, I felt like having another degree under my belt would make me stand out from the competition.

Is there anything you wish you would have known before becoming a new professional?

I should have started applying for jobs sooner than I did. Although I didn’t mind moving back with my parents right after graduation, there was a slight competition among my classmates to be the first to find a full-time job.

How I foster my public relations skills

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Don’t settle for mediocrity. You’re young. Be nimble. Be an expert at what you do.

I’ve learned a lot about public relations from my nearly two years of working as a new professional. In particular, I’ve learned about media relations, research, leadership development and time management. I’ve developed a groove for these skills. In fact, I consider them to be my strong suites in public relations. Here’s what I do to further develop each:

Media relations.

Keep tabs on what’s going on nationally and in your area. I’m sure you’ve heard by now, but theSkimm sends a daily newsletter with national news. For local news, save websites in your bookmarks for easy daily access.

Research.

Become a research powerhouse by using Google operators to find valuable information on the internet. Search for a specific word in a domain name, find related bloggers and locate news in minutes after a press release goes out. Find a list of Google operators here.

Leadership development.

My supervisor encouraged me to become a PRSA Charlotte board director and New Professionals leader for our local chapter. I was hesitant at first, but I agreed. I now lead ten New Pros who plan programs and networking events. Additionally, at the time of this writing, I’m gaining leadership skills through John Maxell’s book, Intentional Living: Choosing a Life That Matters. I highly recommend it. (Thanks for the recommendation, dad!)

Time management.

My first alarm goes off at 5 a.m. every weekday morning. I eat breakfast, drink lemon tea, read, journal, meditate and stretch before 7 a.m. This sets me up for success each day before I arrive at work. Daily stresses vie for my attention throughout the day, and these few peaceful hours help me manage all of them.

What facets of PR are you good at? I’d love to chat. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Read more tips on my blog.

Seth Kingdon

 

Seth Kingdon works as an account coordinator at Chernoff Newman’s Charlotte office. He assists with social media, media relations and research for the agency. He’s also a director at-large with PRSA Charlotte, and leads the New Pros committee for the chapter. He could eat Chick-fil-A sandwiches every day.