Backstory Interview with Robert Johnson

This week’s backstory is with Robert Johnson, President. He shares his stories from and insights in media, journalism, and public relations — drawing from decades of experience.

  1. When did you become involved in this career and what drew you to public relations?

Like many others, I started my career in journalism, thinking I would be a reporter for life. But after doing it for real money in high school and during my early years of college, I realized I might want to do more than simply report the news every day. When I was 20, I gambled on myself, hoping that a kid with no college education could land a job as press secretary for a freshman Member of Congress. I interviewed, wrote a press plan the same night, turned it in the next day, and waited for a call. I was hired for the job and that’s how I broke into public relations. I still have that plan, as a reminder of the benefits of hard work and determination.

2. What experiences have shaped your approach to public relations? How have they influenced your counsel to clients?

I have been blessed to have so many unique and interesting experiences as a journalist and as a public relations professional. And each has over time impacted my view of the relationship between clients and the media. No longer is there a one-size-fits-all approach to media relations. Today, clients need to approach the media in a way that works for them. If there is a good reason to engage a reporter, then do it. If not, leverage the power of social media and tell your own story. I was guilty of bullying a few people into giving interviews as a journalist, and that’s why as a public relations professional, I want clients to know they don’t have to succumb to such tactics. There were many influences from my career experiences, but dealing with aggressive reporters from the perspective of being one tops the list.

3. What is the role and responsibility of the PR person at the pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis phases — and how do you know what a major communications crisis looks like versus a less severe issue?

Our job as public relations professionals is to provide an independent assessment of the problem and offer recommendations for managing it with client audiences. Some clients know when they have a crisis. Others do not. Some are in denial. We are valuable because we shed light and truth on an issue when others in a company or organization are unwilling to do so. All too often it is the public relations person who understands the reality of what is going on, and in many of those cases, is the only one who can lead the impacted organization to safer ground.

4. How has the industry changed and how have you adapted?

The media has changed, and that in turn has changed our business. When I started, I worked daily with a handful of television, radio and print reporters. I personally delivered my news releases to newsrooms, and mailed them to reporters in rural areas. News broke slowly and was easier to manage. Of course, social media has changed the landscape forever, and I love it. Being able to connect to audiences without needing to go through the traditional media filter is even more amazing than younger public relations professionals think it is. I enjoy working with teams to find new ways to combine, evolve and innovate in this environment, using a mix of new media tools and old school communications tactics to achieve the objective.

5. If you could give advice to an aspiring PR practitioner, what would it be?

Embrace every client. Build relationships. Learn a little about everything. And make change your motto. Engage every public relations opportunity with an open mind and you will have some incredible adventures.


· I went by the name “Dr. Bob” while working as a disc jockey at the local AM radio station while in high school.

· At 17, I was hit with tear gas while covering news that a riot had erupted between striking Arizona copper miners and state police in a town near where I grew up.

· I have interviewed Cesar Chavez, Jesse Jackson, Bart Starr and Bob Feller, among others.

· I have held public relations positions in the service of one U.S. President, four U.S. Cabinet Secretaries, two Governors and two U.S. congressmen.

· While managing a political campaign for the Chicago Cubs, I spent an entire day, much of it alone in a car, campaigning for votes with the legendary Hall of Fame infielder Ernie Banks.

· I have spent time in the pit that was the former World Trade Center, after 9/11, planning an event that would attempt to map a way forward for the hallowed site.

· I stood at the point where the levee broke, flooding New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and was in the city while it was still a ghost town controlled by National Guard troops.

· My boys have grown to appreciate these opportunities. One dirtied his diaper in the hall outside the Oval Office. Another spit up all over Democratic Whip U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer while shopping. And my oldest, one day after pre-school, saw my Governor announce the arrest of an extra-terrestrial “alien” at a jam-packed news conference intended to play a joke on the media in Phoenix.