PR Interview with Frank Strong
Welcome to episode 001, in a series of Q&A interviews highlighting some of the industry’s most well known, most interesting and most unique characters. Also known as a bunch of nice people that were willing to answer my questions. The first Q&A features a guy I’ve gotten to know over the last couple of years via social media.
Frank Strong, director of public relations at Vocus, father, PR pro, soldier, scuba diver, skydiver in training. Oh yeah, and highly regarded blogger.
Frank, in addition to an accomplished PR career, you’re also an active member of (reserve components of the) U.S. military with 20 years of service. How has your military experience influenced your PR career?
My military service has been beneficial on so many levels — It’s kept me humble. Uncle Sam has a way of stripping you down to your core. It’s the basis of training: you are all the same; you are all equal. Few people progress in their careers only to find themselves in a spot that tests their limits. Everyone has a threshold. I know mine is far beyond what my body tells me it is.
It’s taught me to solve problems. In a social media age, I come to work every morning to five problems I didn’t anticipate the night before. The military has taught me adaptability. Take a middle class kid and stick him in a different culture, amid a war zone, with some high tech equipment and ask him (or her) to do well by the United States — now that’s a challenge.
It’s made me a better leader. The military attracts people from all walks of life; you learn a lot about what motivates people and what does not. It’s allowed me, from a relatively young age, to study people and how to influence them to accomplish a mission. Usually that mission has challenges unique unto itself.
It’s made me a better person. We all work hard. We all put in long hours — especially PR pros. I go home at night and my work isn’t done. You can’t just show up on a weekend and expect military training to go off like clockwork: someone is planning that training, securing resources and generally getting the job done. Guard and Reservist component military members give a lot, they sacrifice a tremendous amount of time often at great personal expense. Reservists do it because they believe in a cause greater than oneself; and if a few don’t stand up and give…then who will? Fewer and fewer people these days serve, or have the patience to understand what it means beyond a headline. They don’t call it the “long war” for nothing. The people that serve are truly great Americans and that’s one of the things that motivates me to get up early every morning.
Frank, you were very outspoken and active during the PRSA’s recent campaign to redefine public relations. Looking back at the process, backlash and end result, what are your current thoughts? Was this a failure, a good try or is it something the industry should revisit?
I was, and remain outspoken, because I care deeply about my profession. I’m critical of PRSA because I see the organization missing the mark, when it has so much potential. Indeed, the PR industry desperately needs and advocate for the good, honest work that many PR pros are doing in the trenches. When I posted my criticism of PRSA, I was deployed overseas, and literally lost sleep to comment on the topic. I had braced for a huge backlash, but what I found was most of my peers agreed with me; even CIPR distanced itself from the campaign and I have yet to meet a peer that thought that campaign changed anything. Look around today. What has changed?
PR boils down to three simple words: third-party validation. If you are in events, media relations, content marketing, or any of the number of things PR pros might do, these three words apply. A definition, the very words that define who we are and what we do, is incredibly important. This is not a trivial matter.
You have a very unique position in the PR industry, you are an internal PR person for a company that is used by PR agencies, so (with it depends / a combination of both not allowed as an option) in your opinion, which is more valuable to a PR program, internal or external PR leadership?
Indeed my job is unique and it’s about as central to PR as one can get. It’s given me a glimpse of some of the most renowned professionals in our business that many don’t see — the good, the bad and the ugly. But I don’t kiss and tell. Internal vs. external? I think the two go hand in hand. The best companies tap the army of personas they have in their employees, and inspire them to inspire others.
How did you get into public relations?
I was doing internal communications for the Army and decided to go back for a master’s degree. I pitched an agency on an internship that led to a job — but at a salary cut of about $15,000. That hurt, financially, but I paid my dues and gained valuable experience for which cannot be bartered otherwise.
What does PR look like in 5 years?
Media relations — or pitching — will be deemphasized. PR pros have been catapulted to the front line; the days of pitching a story and putting forth an expert are ending. We have to be the experts. We have to earn attention with brilliant content. I see this more and more: my words are taken for stories or blog posts where my intent was to put forth another expert.
If you were King of Public Relations for one day, what changes would you make?
A class in finance would be prerequisite to a job in PR. It doesn’t matter if you work for the government, a non-profit or business, every organization lives and breaths by a budget. PR pros need to understand basics, like ROI, and beyond, such as how a cash flow statement links the income statement to a balance sheet. It’s not optional anymore and no amount of creative brilliance can make up that gap.
The best PR / Communications people you’ve ever worked with share what quality?
Enthusiasm for whatever they represent. It doesn’t matter if it’s a product, a service or an idea, you can’t fake the funk for long. If you believe in what you do, you’ll go places; if you do not, it’s better to pack up and go home. As a kid growing up, my father used to say, “do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I believe those words are true in my heart of hearts. I love the profession of PR; I love what I do.
What is the the last PR / Comms book you’ve read and would you recommend it?
The latest marketing book I’ve read was Marketing in the Round. I’d absolutely recommend it, have done so on Amazon.com and wrote a post about it on my personal blog.
What are your top three industry related blogs / resources?
At risk of plugging my own company’s products, I’d have to say Help A Reporter Out (HARO) tops the list. Vocus acquires it in 2010, but the basic product and premise remains the same. Every PR pro in the industry should be subscribed. It’s free!
Gini – What’s not to love about her: she’s personable, she’s smart and she’s genuine. I really admire the way she works to respond to people — everyone. Her blog has great content and she has a history of consistency.
Todd – He’s just a smart guy. He doesn’t post nearly as often as he used to, but it seems to me more often than not I find my head going north and south as I’m reading his words.
What advice would you give young professionals just starting out in this industry?
Blog. If you do nothing else, blog. You’ll learn about audience identification. You’ll learn humility. You’ll learn valuable writing skills. You’ll learn about building a community. It’ll keep you on the edge of technology and you’ll learn just how much hard work it takes to build a successful blog.
Who are your top three ‘people I’ve met via social media that I’d like to have dinner / beer with?’
Melyssa St. Michael: I’ve never met her but I’ve spoken to her on social media and email and she just strikes me as scary smart.
Rebecca Ayer: She’s a huge advocate of troops. She reached out to me a few times while overseas — during times she could have not possibly known were rough — and it just touched my heart. The world would be a better place with more people like her.
Adam Vincenzini: Adam just seems to me a smart PR guy and someone that would be fun to have a beer with.
What is your immediate reaction to the follow?
Corporate blogs: Searching for a voice
Social media: OMG
Public relations: Third-party validation