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PR Pros: Nick Kalm of Reputation Partners On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro

Never stop trying to improve — there’s always more to learn. At any stage of your career, you can learn. The practice of public relations is always changing, as are the audiences we try to reach and the means with which we reach them. Keep reading articles. Go to conferences. Talk to and follow experts. And, when you make a mistake or fail to deliver, avoid that human tendency to rush forward to the next thing. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you will keep making them over and over again.

Have you seen the show Flack? Ever think of pursuing a real-life career in PR? What does it take to succeed in PR? What are the different forms of Public Relations? Do you have to have a college degree in PR? How can you create a highly lucrative career in PR? In this interview series, called “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro” we are talking to successful publicists and Public Relations pros, who can share stories and insights from their experiences.

As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Nick Kalm.

Nick Kalm spent years working for multinational companies and PR firms before founding his own national strategic communications and public relations firm in 2002. He’s worked for some of the biggest and most well-known organizations and companies. He’s an expert on reputation management, crisis communications, change management, employee communications and labor union issues. Along the way, he’s mentored countless PR professionals in a variety of settings.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

During and right after college, I wanted to work in Washington, DC on Capitol Hill. That didn’t work out, so a family connection led to an internship in public affairs with a pharmaceutical company in the New York area where I grew up. After working there and at another very large pharmaceutical and chemical company, I wanted to try living in another area of the country and broaden my experience beyond those two industries. I had the opportunity to move to Chicago and join Ketchum leading their Midwest corporate practice. I got some great experience there, but the workload and constant travel were too much, so, after a brief (and unhappy) stop back on the client side, I joined Edelman’s Chicago office. After a couple of folks left, I was promoted to run their Midwest corporate practice and started and led their very first worldwide employee and labor communications offering. This was more great experience, and I met a ton of people, but I realized that, after working in very large organizations for my whole career, I was happy to have them as clients, but wasn’t happy being an employee in one. People had been encouraging me to start my own Chicago PR firm for several years and I finally decided: why not? So, I persuaded several of my colleagues to quit and join me on this adventure. Twenty years later, Reputation Partners is still going strong.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

There are so many stories after almost 20 years that it’s hard to choose just one. I would say one of the most interesting stories was when a spokesman for one of our clients found himself in huge legal trouble and the client looked to us to guide them through it. The spokesman’s name and the client’s name were totally linked and the headlines were brutal. Anyway, how do you counsel a brand through something like this? It wasn’t easy — but challenges like that are what keep this job so interesting.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the stories I like to tell is about my very first business trip. It was to attend a conference in Washington, DC. I ended up going out to dinner with a bunch of people and one of the individuals in our group was a public affairs pro from Seagram’s, the liquor company. He wanted us to try a bunch of the company’s products. I foolishly thought he was treating all of us, but, when the bill came, my share came to $125. Now, mind you, that is a lot of money now, but it was REALLY a lot of money back then. When I submitted my expense report, my boss called me in to his office. I explained what had happened and offered to take the money out of my paycheck. He laughed and told me that wasn’t necessary. The lesson for me was: it’s great to connect with people and build your network, but be very clear on if it’s okay for you to engage in any activity you find yourself in and know what you might be responsible for.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

We are fortunate to have a wide variety of clients and projects. We’re doing corporate positioning work for a whole bunch of clients in many different industries. A corporate responsibility report for a large company in the medical industry. A digital recruitment and retention playbook for a large privately held company. A high-profile union negotiation for a large health system. Helping several colleges and universities through different challenges.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Integrity is number one and should always be non-negotiable. If you lose your reputation for integrity, it will be very difficult if not impossible to get it back. I make it a point to never make a promise or commitment I can’t keep. I make sure we’re always billing our clients only what we should and never what we shouldn’t. Shortly after I joined Edelman, I was asked by a prospective client to do something that was clearly illegal. I refused and effectively resigned the business without first checking with anyone else at the firm. Fortunately, my bosses supported my decision.

Passionate advocacy is another. So many clients have told me how much they appreciate how my mindset is: you may “just” be my client, but I’m going to think and operate as if I’m an employee of yours — where everything is on the line. It’s more than just saying “we” (vs. “you”). It’s how you approach challenges and opportunities — jump in with both feet and let them know you’ll always have their back and fight hard on their behalf. Since I do a lot of crisis management work, clients really appreciate that I’m “in the trenches” with them.

Have high standards and expect excellence from everyone including yourself is a third. That doesn’t mean perfection. But, it does mean not being satisfied with efforts that fall short, learning from your mistakes and not letting roadblocks get in your way. This has translated into a long-term client satisfaction rating (99.6%) that, I think, would be the envy of just about any other PR firm out there, large or small. It is definitely a key differentiator for our firm.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you help articulate what the different forms of PR are?

Well, there’s publicity, which is what I think of when I think of restaurant, lifestyle, tourism or entertainment/celebrity PR. Then there’s product PR — getting a person or business to buy a product. A close analog to that is business-to-business PR — getting one business to buy another’s product or service. There’s influencer relations — developing relationships with online and offline influencers who get people to buy a product or service. There’s corporate positioning — essentially helping companies become “most admired” through media relations, thought leadership, strategic philanthropy and the like. Then there’s employee communications — which can include everything from change management to labor communications. There’s public affairs and investor relations, which deal with government officials and other public and investors/financial audiences. Then, there’s crisis and issues management which deals with preventing and addressing all kinds of negative events that can impact an organization. An analog to this are special situations — companies going public or private, merging, spinning off or being sold. I’m sure I’m forgetting some.

Where should a young person considering a career in PR start their education? Should they get a degree in communications? A degree in journalism? Can you explain what you mean?

A degree in communications or public relations would be fine, but so would a degree in English or Journalism. There are other degrees that would be just as valuable, though. Those include psychology and sociology. Even political science or business. It’s all about understanding why people behave they way they do AND being able to successfully communicate with them with a certain goal in mind.

You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?

Focus on helping people, rather than expecting help from them. Some people will take advantage of you, but many won’t and will be inclined to help you out in return. Don’t wait to be asked for help, but, when you are, find a way to do so. And, don’t limit your network to other communicators or PR people. Some of the best connections I’ve ever made are with lawyers, consultants, recruiters, and HR people. Once you know them, part of the help you’ll be able to provide people is introducing them to your expanded network.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

Look for speaking opportunities, chances to be interviewed by trade and other media, post thought leadership content on LinkedIn. Blog. Comment on others’ blogs. Follow companies you want to work for and with and don’t hesitate to reach out to them offering your talent or services.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Find a mentor and be one. Even someone you don’t report to can be a role model and guide. And don’t underestimate your own ability to provide guidance or insights to someone else.
  2. Ask a lot of questions of clients, colleagues, industry professionals. People like being asked for their opinions and insights. Sure, some questioners can be annoying, but I find too many people don’t ask nearly enough questions. Asking questions shows someone you’re truly interested in them and what they have to say. It also helps cut down on errors or mistaken assumptions.
  3. Volunteer for new assignments — be seen as the “go to” person. Too often, people sit on the sidelines, either waiting to be called on — or dreading it. Without biting off more than you can chew, put your hand up if there’s a kind of work assignment or job you want to try. You’ll be respected for it. You’ll learn things by doing it — whether you succeed or stumble.
  4. Never stop trying to improve — there’s always more to learn. At any stage of your career, you can learn. The practice of public relations is always changing, as are the audiences we try to reach and the means with which we reach them. Keep reading articles. Go to conferences. Talk to and follow experts. And, when you make a mistake or fail to deliver, avoid that human tendency to rush forward to the next thing. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you will keep making them over and over again.
  5. Speak up in meetings. Even if it’s only once and only to ask a question, make your presence felt. I don’t care if you’re brand new in your career or to a team or the organization. Especially in one’s early days, one should show a willingness to learn and a desire to contribute. Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. Part of the way you learn is by saying something that isn’t necessarily on point and getting feedback for it. You can always start your comment with: “I know I’m new here but…” or “This may be totally off-base, but what about…” Phrases like that give you license to speak up and make it harder for someone to be unhappy with you if your comment is off-base. And, who knows? You might have the insight that saves the client or makes the new product or service a success.

Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

This industry has talked forever about diversity and yet it’s still dominated by Caucasians and by women (at the junior levels, but that’s finally beginning to change). It’s past time for PR to make a much more concerted effort to create a recruiting pipeline for BIPOCs — and take steps to keep them once they join our profession. A place to start would be creating programs and hiring pipelines with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), but it shouldn’t stop there.

I know you only asked for one movement, but another one I would love to see is a solution to the exodus of talent from PR firms once people become parents. Mostly women, these folks often don’t see how they can take care of their children and continue meaningful careers at PR firms. The result is a tremendous “brain drain” that really hurts the agencies and their clients. Whether it’s job sharing, full-time WFH or alternative career tracks, the industry needs to wake up and address this problem sooner rather than later.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Yitzi Weiner

Yitzi Weiner

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

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