April 12, 2007
Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.
“PR Giants: Helping Up-and-Coming Practitioners Grow Professionally and Personally” is a PRSA teleseminar interview series designed to bring seasoned PR practitioners together with new professionals who have questions about the profession.
Here are excepts from two recent teleseminars, which are moderated each month by James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA.
Mike Paul, president, MGP & Associates PR, New York
A shorter version of this Q-and-A appears in the April issue of PR Tactics, which features articles on career development.
On the start of his career:
Mike Paul: I take it back to when I was a sophomore in college and saw, on a board at the political science department, an internship for the New York State Assembly. If you went into this internship program, you would understand not only politics from a research perspective, a media relations perspective and a legislative and policy perspective, but [you would also] work directly with key leaders in politics in New York. I said, “I want to jump into that.”
That took me to working hard as an intern, having an opportunity to not only work for the state legislature, but to also jump to the U.S. Senate, becoming a staff member for U.S. Senator D’Amato in New York. Later, I was introduced to Burson-Marsteller with a management training program while I was in graduate school at Columbia. He was starting something called the Aviator Program where they were taking public affairs and corporate communication types who had master’s degrees into a new management training program in the early 1990s. So, that was the change from political strategy to PR strategy, and what I learned my first week is that some of the true giants in our business had a strong background in politics before working in public relations.
On his start in public relations:
Paul: I saw a lot of folks in politics working on various sides of the political process. I met lobbyists and PR folks, some that were working for top firms; I realized that they were working on a tremendous number of different issues, and I was interested. I thought that politics was going to be my love forever, but I saw the complexity and the opportunities in public relations.
Ironically, I thought I wanted to be an attorney. I was an intern in high school for the district attorney’s office in Dutchess County. And the Lemuel Smith case — a prisoner, already in for life, who took the life of a prison guard was a big case happening at the time, and it became a death penalty case. I was a 17-year-old high school student who had won a few mock trials; my teacher knew the DA; and the DA thought it would be nice to give a high school student an internship. So, here I am sitting next to this multiple murderer as he licks his chops like he wants to eat me alive. That was my first taste of a combination of crisis PR, and realizing there are very good people and very bad people in the world.
On the most important lesson the profession has taught him:
Paul: Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned are not from the profession, but from mistakes. Much of it deals with truth and character. I think we aren’t critical enough of ourselves and our profession. Some of the biggest crises that have happened, ironically, have not been external to our profession; they’ve been within our profession. It’s sad to see. So, some of the rules I’ve learned have dealt with being honest with myself, being honest with clients, not putting money first, putting people first, putting the truth first and trying to learn how to do so in a way that is still loving but direct. [I’ve also learned to] not be afraid to walk away from the money or the client or any opportunity if it doesn't pass the smell test.
On his father:
Paul: My father, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, came here at the age of 19 without a high school degree. He earned his GED in New York City, and, through multiple jobs and many, many promotions, ended up becoming a corporate officer at Citicorp, Citibank in New York City. After my dad retired, I had an opportunity to also do some work for Citicorp. When Sandy Weill was still the CEO, we had done some work together and got to know each other. I had forgotten that I hadn’t really talked to him about my dad working for Citibank. He said, “How many years did he work here?” I said, “33 years.” He said, “Wow, that’s a long time.” And we took a photo together and he secretly told the photographer to find my father’s home address and sent the photograph with a long note talking about our work together and how proud he was of me and how he should be proud as a father. My dad went out to the mailbox, called me and said, “What is this all about?” I really had no clue what he was saying until I went to visit him and saw it. It brought it all back full circle.