Insider Interview With: Robert Deigh
In this month’s Insider Interview, we speak with Robert Deigh, principal of RDC Public Relations, LLC, a former journalist and a U.S. Army veteran, and the author of two PR books, including the just-released SPARK: The Complete Public Relations Guide for Small Business. Here, Robert talks about how his time as a journalist taught him to be a great storyteller, how working at AOL in the 1990s opened his eyes to the possibilities of “new media,” and why face-to-face networking is so critical.
PRSA-NCC Insider: You started your own company, RDC Public Relations, in 2000 after serving in many high-profile PR roles for companies such as Blackboard, American Online and PBS. What was it like making that transition? What aspects of owning your own company have you enjoyed most?
RD: AOL in the 1990s was a great experience, being at the center of the tech revolution – kind of like being at Google, Amazon or Facebook today I think. For many customers, it was the only easy way to access the Internet, if you can imagine that. It was constant change. For example, before I got there, AOL was buying content from TIME magazine. By the time I left, AOL was bigger, and TIME was paying AOL for access to its news platform and giving us content! The people leading the company opened my eyes to the possibilities of “new media.” Working around people like that can change your life.
PBS was another great experience. I spent seven years as national director of communications there. I had a chance to work with producers, writers, station general managers and others who really believed in the educational mission. Being the media spokesperson for the network was a bit of a tightrope act. The press liked us most of the time but we took a lot of direct hits either for airing a particular “bad” program or for not airing a particular “good” program, depending on the week. At least they were paying attention.
I was PR director at Blackboard when I decided to start my own firm. A company we had hired told me that if and when I left Blackboard, they’d like to put me on retainer as PR counsel. A couple of months later, that happened and I was on my way. Making the transition was smoother than I thought because I had a client and then leveraged it into more work. At this point, I get to work with clients I like and, as always, ones think I can help. For young people just starting their careers, however, I recommend working at a PR firm or in corporate communications as part of a team. Before you accept any job, make sure you know who your managers and co-workers will be. Ask to meet them. Put yourself around smart managers and peers and then learn from each other.
PRSA-NCC Insider: You recently published your second book, SPARK: The Complete Public Relations Guide for Small Business. Tell us a bit about the book and why it’s an important resource for today’s public relations practitioners.
RD: SPARK just came out in December, and I’m excited about it. The response has been very good. It’s designed for two audiences. You can go on Amazon and see the contents page and first three chapters for free. That will help you visualize its purpose and value. The first audience is, of course, small to medium businesses (and non-profits) that need practical how-to advice on getting attention and winning media coverage. This book reflects tactics I’ve learned not only from my own experience but from peers, and best practices I’ve picked up over 25 years. It comprises 23 chapters and hundreds of tips and tactics, all organized like an owner’s manual and some funny stories from the trenches. The second audience is PR people like us. I love comparing notes with other PR pros – we all do things in different ways. If you have a client that needs to create new messages or is going to do a TV interview, you can zero in on just those sections and nail them. SPARK is also a good book for PR people to give to clients. It validates the value of what we do and helps clients understand that PR is a very cost-effective way to win new business and build a brand. Also, like my first PR book, a number of universities have already started using SPARK for their PR classes, so that’s exciting too.
PRSA-NCC Insider: You were an active-duty U.S. Army public affairs officer in the Panama Canal Zone among other stateside locations. How did your time in the military shape you as an individual and a communications professional?
RD: I was a reporter/photographer in the Army and, when I got orders to go to Panama, tell you the truth, I was a bit disappointed. I wanted Hawaii or Germany. But when I got there, I loved the place. The Atlantic and Pacific are 40 miles apart! You can scuba dive or sail in the morning before work and then drive around the country on the weekends. I even learned enough Spanish that I had a few non-English-speaking friends. The military often gives people slightly more responsibility than they’ve earned and then pushes them to grow into it. That was the case with me. They sent me all over Central America to report on U.S. humanitarian activities there. By the time I left the Army in my early 20s I had a wheelbarrow full of newspaper and magazine clips and hours of TV stories that put me ahead of other people vying for newspaper jobs. I even went back to Panama many years later as a magazine reporter to do a story on the changeover of the canal from American ownership.
PRSA-NCC Insider: You also have more than a dozen years of journalism experience. What are the most important reminders you have for PR professionals today about working with today’s media landscape?
RD: Be a great storyteller for your clients. Whether you’re pitching traditional media or online outlets, the BIG rule still prevails – pitch great story ideas instead of just your company, your services or your new product. If you give a reporter a solid story idea you’ve done a big part of the work for them. I was a reporter at US News & World Report magazine and I had about a dozen people who would call me regularly with good story ideas because they read my stuff and knew what interested me. I always took their calls. Also, look for industry trends that the press may not have spotted yet and pitch your company as part of those trends. I devote an entire chapter in SPARK to learning how to find and pitch great story ideas. It’s a critical skill. Also, stay ahead of the news. Following news organizations on your Facebook and Twitter feeds, for example, is like having your own AP wire. I still recommend subscribing to a physical newspaper for many reasons, none of which ever make sense to anyone under 30, so I won’t bother you with it.
PRSA-NCC Insider: You have more than 25 years experience in PR, public affairs, marketing and journalism. How have you seen the PR industry evolve? What do you think are some of the most important challenges and opportunities facing us today?
RD: The biggest change of course is the de-centralization of social media and the centralization of traditional media. For those of us in PR, it presents an opportunity. If The New York Times is not interested in your story, you still have hundreds – thousands – of other outlets that might be. Some are better than others, of course. And don’t forget the websites of those same traditional news media outlets – maybe the LA Times does not have room to cover your story, but its website might. Also, I am a “journalist” myself. I have published my own PR how-to newsletter for nine years and have thousands of subscribers who sign up on my website. What better way to stay in front of my contacts? I highly recommend it as long as you are comfortable giving away free information that is highly usable. Otherwise, it’s just spam.
PRSA-NCC Insider: You are active in numerous member and professional organizations. Tell us about some of your past roles and why you consider involvement in these types of associations are important for PR professionals.
RD: Networking is often the difference between success and failure. I’ve been a member of PRSA forever and it has helped me in so many ways. I also have been a member of topic-specific business groups (e.g., technology), chambers and civic organizations. When you meet someone eye-to-eye at a networking meeting, both of you decide right away whether you might like to work with each other. When you then meet in their office it is now your second meeting. I advise all of my clients – no matter how busy they are – to get out of the office and go to appropriate events. Our son and daughter who are in their 20s, are in the entertainment industry in LA where who you know is a giant part of being successful, so they’ve become very active in meeting people.
PRSA-NCC Insider: Is there a certain area of PR that excites you most? Why?
RD: The area of PR that excites me most are people with great stories. Old journalism habits die hard, and I have the tendency to “interview” people I find really interesting. So when people who have special skills or an unusual background contact me to talk PR, I dig down to see how I can tell their stories to the press. But also, I am personally interested. Once I was a guest at a wedding in Arlington and the guy I sat next to was a professional lobsterman in Maine of all things. After a few minutes of my questions he laughed and said, “Are you writing a book?” Me: “No, I just don’t know anyone who works in the North Atlantic in the middle of January.” I once met a park ranger who had been struck twice by lightening. When I asked him the obvious question, he rolled his eyes and said, “Are you kidding? It hurts like hell.” Everyone has a story – ask people about themselves and you will be amazed.
PRSA-NCC Insider: What are some of the biggest lessons learned in your career that you have carried with you and that attribute to your success?
RD: Learn how to write. No matter what you do for a living, it will be a critical skill and put you ahead of the competition. If you are in PR, you can learn to write press releases or short articles simply by reading releases and, as we were talking about before, the news regularly. It’s not magic. A release is just a format. If you are in college now, trust me, being an expert in expressing yourself in 140 characters will take you only so far. Get yourself published on blogs, in the school paper and contribute to websites.
PRSA-NCC Insider: You perform in bands as a blues, rock and jazz guitarist. Tell us more about this passion. What else do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
RD: I started playing guitar when I was 15 and, frankly, I played in some awful bands. But it was great fun, so much so that my high school grades suffered. On the plus side, being grounded at home gives you lots of “me” time to practice, so I got better. I played straight through college in some decent rock bands on the weekends and in the university’s 40-piece jazz orchestra. My major was journalism, however, which I enjoyed because most of the teachers were working newspaper editors. I’ve played lots of bands but, these days, I am a regular at blues open mics, which pit you onstage with some very talented musicians. I’ve recently taken up building electric guitars from scratch. My wife reminds me that playing guitar and using power tools may not be the best combination, so I am careful.