PR Pros: Peter Himler Of Flatiron Communications On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro
An Interview With Kristen Shea
Be authentic, genial, respectful, and most importantly, responsive in your everyday interactions.
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 Peter Himler.
Peter is an award-winning PR industry veteran who, after years playing senior media roles at some of the world’s most esteemed agencies, set out on his own to form Flatiron Communications with The New York Times as its first client. His NYC-based PR/digital media consultancy today advises emerging and established companies on how best to leverage the latest tools and strategies to advance their communications and business objectives. He frequently speaks, writes (and tweets) about the nexus of media, marketing, and technology at various conferences, including the Collison Conference and the Web Summit, for his PR blog, The Flack, his Substack page, “The Flack on Stack,” and his Medium publication “Adventures in Consumer Technology.”
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?
As a student at Tufts University, I headed the school’s concert board and had a weekly radio show. (Today I chair the university’s Marketing Advisory Council.) My senior year, I had a chance to read legendary music industry veteran Clive Davis’s best-selling tome “Clive: Inside the Record Business.” Like many others who read that book, I was convinced that a career in the music biz sounded just swell.
Upon graduation, I purchased the definitive record industry catalog from which I methodically culled the names of dozens of executives to whom to send my resumé. Gary Kenton of Warner Bros, then married to another industry PR executive Susan Blonde (think Madonna) of Epic Records, forwarded my resumé to the eponymous founder of NYC entertainment PR boutique Robert Zarem, Inc.
I was called in for an interview where Bobby, as he was known, asked me which music artists I liked. I mentioned George Duke. He then asked me what label he recorded for. I said Epic. He picked up the phone to his pal Susan Blonde and asked to have George Duke’s bio messengered over. (No fax or email back then!)
I waited until the bio arrived and was then asked to take it home and write a “media pitch letter.” A what? I figured it out, mailed it in, and one morning two months later Bobby called and told me to come in that day to start work. I lasted there three years learning the PR biz with mostly motion picture clients (“The China Syndrome,” “Absence of Malice,” Alan Alda’s two films…), some theatre (David Merrick’s “42nd Street”), television, and one musical artist, Diana Ross, or “Miss Ross” as she instructed me to call her.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I have so many stories to tell over a long and fulfilling career. As for my own firm Flatiron Communications, I will not soon forget the work we did for The New York Times when the venerable news organization was at an inflection point between advertising and subscription revenue.
It was at a time when most media pundits strongly believed that news content should forever be free to the reader. With display advertising revenue drying up and CPMs for digital advertising paltry in comparison, The Times was poised to launch its first subscription product called “Times Select.” As part of the effort, Times Opinion columnists would be placed behind paywalls, while the news sections would continue to be freely available.
Flatiron was asked to create a PR strategy to launch Times Select. We recommended pre-briefing a select group of influential media beat reporters and pundits to elicit their feedback and buy-in. We proposed an invite-only presser with the publisher and key editors to outline the business rationale behind Times Select. We built the list of those to be invited. Locked in a date and venue for the presser, and even crafted the invitation copy.
A few days before wheels were set in motion, it was decided to forgo (a recent NYT Wordle word) the explanatory press briefing and simply launch Times Select with a news release. Select Times Opinion page writers were suddenly thrust behind a paywall, and readers were none too pleased. At the same time, a new head of NYTimes Digital arrived on the scene and decided to double down on growing and monetizing eyeballs via digital advertising on nytimes.com. Times Select was soon shuttered.
Today, as you’re likely aware, NYTimes.com has more than 6 million paying subscribers — 9.1 million including The Athletic. Subscriptions now comprise the bulk of the company’s annual revenue.
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?
In my first job in entertainment PR, we were handling Diana Ross’ first national solo tour. I was the primary contact for the tour, and ostensibly for Miss Ross. My phone rang one day with a tabloid reporter calling to try to confirm rumors that Miss Ross was in a romantic relationship with the actor Ryan O’Neal. I was not aware of any such relationship, nor would I have acknowledged it even if I was. Nonetheless, I neither denied nor confirmed. I simply took the call and tried to be pleasant. A week later an item appeared quoting me not denying the relationship. I was aghast. My boss was miffed and explained that I should never have gotten on the phone. It was my word against the reporter’s.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Outside of working with a very large New York health system, a global education technology company, and a tech start-up with a unique approach to advancing and making more affordable subscriptions to quality news sites, I am most excited by my work with the thought-leadership team for an investor-owned electric utility and their brainy and grounded CEO who is leading the way on climate change mitigation, environmental justice, and the transformation of the energy sector.
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?
- Keep current on news, culture, technology, and industry trends.
It’s rare in the PR world, especially within the agency segment, to work on a project for more than a year, let alone eight years. Yet, among the myriad clients I served over my career, one stood out for both its longevity and the sense of pride I had on the bumpy road to its glorious success: helping to bring to life the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in our nation’s capital. Now this kind of project would naturally generate substantial domestic and international news coverage. I remember credentialing Japanese broadcaster NHK as the only TV news crew shooting the dedication ceremony in HD that Memorial Day weekend in 2004.
But how could we take it to the next level? The answer came to me two years before the Memorial was finished and dedicated. In addition to being a political mecca, Washington DC is a cultural mecca. Knowing this, I conceived the idea to ask the city’s tourism authority to enlist every cultural institution in the district to create and mount summer-long World War II-themed exhibitions as an homage to the Greatest Generation.
I crafted and led the pitch before the leadership of the Washington Convention & Tourism Corp., which wholly embraced the idea, especially in the wake of 9/11. Dozens and dozens of exhibitions and attractions flourished that summer (filling hotels). We worked closely with the Washington Post to produce the definitive ad-supported supplement on all the WW II happenings during the summer of 2004. I even convinced another client, The Associated Press, to publish a commemorative book of World War II photographs (think Iwo Jima), which went on display in Union Station before traveling around the country.
2. Communicate cogently, compellingly, and authentically.
Following my three-year indoctrination to the PR biz at a NYC entertainment PR boutique, I was hired by Hill and Knowlton, then the world’s largest agency, as a “broadcast media specialist.” Unlike in entertainment where the caliber of celebrity drove media interest, we had to work harder to gain journalists’ attention for our clients who were mostly business executives and sometimes wonky subject matter experts that required media training to help them focus. This was in the early days of on-camera media training when we retained working TV news journalists to conduct the interviews.
Learning interview techniques from the late George Glazer and his #2 Marv Friedman made an indelible impression on how best to frame and communicate a story or point-of-view, e.g., the KISS principle (keep it simple and stupid). It proved invaluable in crafting media pitch letters and for telephone story-pitching.
If could make one of my then grade-school sons understand a highly complex subject, I’d count that as a win. I also learned to recognize that not everyone is ready for prime time, i.e., be judicious about who you put forth for media interviews.
Finally, it’s not just having a grasp of and being able to communicate difficult concepts cogently, but it’s doing so in an authentic voice. As a sometimes journalist, I’m often on the receiving end of PR pitches. The ones from strangers that open with “I hope you’re well” or “In today’s challenging world…” are non-starters for me, and most journalists. Don’t sound like a bot.
3. Don’t be led down the road to Abilene.
After five years with H&K, I joined a fledgling Atlanta-based agency named Cohn & Wolfe that had maybe six people in its New York office. It was a highly creative PR shop, mostly due to its co-founder/CEO Bob Cohn and its creative director, the late Charlie Farley. C&W was also AOR for several esteemed Atlanta-based clients including Coca-Cola, The Home Depot, and Chick-Fil-A. Charlie was a magician who pulled out the best of us during the many creative brainstorm sessions he ran.
It is there where I first heard the phrase “being led down the road to Abilene.” It goes like this: while there were no negatives permitted in a Charlie Farley brainstorm, you absolutely must not remain silent if someone proposes an idea that’s completely inane or un-doable, e.g., holding a news conference on a Saturday and bussing in kids to use as props. If you do not make your opinion heard — in a constructive way — you will have been led down the road to Abilene and will be held responsible for delivering results against insurmountable odds.
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?
I think a degree from a liberal arts college, as opposed to one in communications, is probably more valuable to working PR professionals. An arts & sciences curricula teaches one how to think, reason, and solve problems. Granted, it’s a plus to learn how the communications ecosystem works, but it does not replace what can be gleaned from being exposed to the humanities.
As for a journalism degree, there is a revolving door between our professions, i.e., mostly one-way from journalism 🡪 communications (Jen Psaki, Dana Perino, and George Stephanopoulos notwithstanding). There was a time when working as a journalist was all but a pre-requisite for landing a position at a PR agency or corp. comms department. Securing “earned media” coverage was and continues to be the industry’s primary deliverable and the barometer by which a PR program’s success is measured and compensated.
A journalism degree will expose aspiring PR professionals to how editorial decisions are made, let alone social media amplification, the creator economy, and Twitter. Most importantly, it will help one think like a journalist and hopefully write like one — competencies whose value cannot be over-estimated and happen to be in short supply at many PR firms. (Grammarly can help on that front.)
Learning shouldn’t end with college. There are countless free podcasts and specialized newsletters through which one can expand their horizons. Finally, building Twitter lists of influencers in client industries are great vehicles to keep one on top of what’s percolating at the media water cooler.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
With COVID now mostly behind us, it is essential for anyone in any profession to have physical face time. I’ll always remember tech evangelist Robert Scoble espousing how important it is to get out there and shake hands, exchange business cards. Sure, Zoom is cool, but there is no substitution for meeting in-person, especially at industry conferences. People I met at SXSW back in the day or at the New York Tech Meetups remain valued relationships (“friends”) even after only a single conversation or shared experience.
Take a break from binging on Netflix or HBO Max and get out on the circuit. There is no shortage of organized opportunities. Some of the networking and community-building platforms include Twitter Spaces, MeetUp groups, Upstream webinars, Lunchclub meet-ups, Online News Association, industry conferences, and the Publicity Club of New York (for which I serve as president).
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?
Ours is an industry whose skill set can be applied to nearly anything or anyone — from businesses to cultural institutions to sports, NGOs, and academia. Few CMOs or CCOs will ignore you if they believed you can add value to their marcomms goals. The communities cited in the previous answer often surface new biz leads, but so do the PR trade publications, e.g., PR Week, O’Dwyers, PRovoke, PRNews, CommProBiz, etc.
Younger PR pros may have a harder time developing leads, whereas seasoned professionals tend to instill greater confidence among prospects, perhaps enough to be sent an RFP. Also, nothing beats a credible (and trusted) referral. LinkedIn is a searchable gold mine for making connections and generating leads. It is also an effective content marketing platform to grow one’s reputation and land on prospects’ radar. As for me, speaking engagements, blog posts, and tweets keep my profile relatively high and help spur leads and referrals.
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.
- Build subject matter expertise in the company/industry you represent.
Just as industry beat reporters immerse themselves in the businesses they’re paid to cover, public relations professionals must do so as well, to an even greater degree. Learn what keeps the client CMO or CCO up at night! While it’s perfectly OK to tell a reporter you don’t have an answer and will find out, most journalists have little tolerance for uninformed company spokespeople. Don’t be that person.
2. Learn the media landscape and the latest digital tools/platforms that drive awareness.
The channels through which PR pros work to advance their clients’ communications objectives have expanded considerably over the last 5–10 years, well beyond legacy and digital news sites. And even though earned media may still have the greatest capacity to spur action amidst all the marcomms disciplines, PR pros would be unwise to rely solely on the benevolence of a journalist to drive their narratives. Consider paid schemes including Instagram influencers, YouTube content marketing, and the creators of TikTok for starters.
That said, I’m a big believer in and have built my career on the back of the “earned” media ecosystem. And nearly every journalist I know or wish I knew plays in the Twitter sandbox (for the time being). Most journalists today derive their story leads from this essential, real-time platform, so media relations-minded PR pros must learn how to leverage it or perish.
It could be as simple as building a Twitter list of all the beat reporters and influencers for a given industry, RT’ing or liking one of those reporter’s tweets, or simply checking a journalist’s latest tweets before dashing off an email story pitch. What if the reporter recently tweeted that her father just passed away or that she’s on maternity leave or at an industry conference? Do your homework.
3. Find a mentor and absorb.
I have been fortunate to have mentors in each of the agencies where I’ve worked. This started right of college with three years serving the colorful, intelligent, charming, but frequently irascible, if not unhinged Bobby Zarem. Bobby taught me the ins and outs of publicity, media events, and working with entertainment journalists, many of whom have since moved on to hard news. H&K’s George Glazer came out of the world of broadcast news and knew his way around a TV studio, satellite feed, and news video production edit room, which he generously inculcated that knowledge in me.
Cohn & Wolfe’s eponymous founder Bob Cohn was super creative and a big sports buff. During my five years at C&W, his firm came to represent as AOR some of the most esteemed consumer brands on the planet including Coca Cola, Home Depot, Reebok, Haagen Dazs, Royal Caribbean, Chick-Fil-A, Hasbro, Philip Morris USA, the PGA of America, the NHL, and more.
Moving over to Burson-Marsteller (“the mothership”), I was blessed to spend 11 years working with and learning from “the most influential PR person of the last century” Harold Burson. Harold’s office door was always open and those Stickley rocking chairs most inviting. I’ll never forget dashing upstairs to share with him the first color prototype of a New York Times section front. As a reporter in World War II, Harold was so proud to have the newspaper-of-record on his namesake agency’s client roster, He also felt that way about the National World War II Memorial for which I spent many hours conferring with him (and Y&R advertising legend Ed Ney). Also, at B-M, I was reunited with my old H&K colleague Chris Komisarjevsky who, as CEO, led the agency through 9/11 and its aftermath with a steady hand and strong moral compass.
And while I only had a year at Edelman as EVP/Chief Media Officer before jettisoning the big agency world to start Flatiron Communications, one could not help but appreciate and respect the intellect and energy Richard Edelman brought to the firm his father founded, and for growing Edelman into the PR juggernaut it is today.
As for my mentoring my own staffs, I made sure to have them join me for all events, client meetings, media interviews, and business calls, whenever possible. We also held weekly off-site breakfasts where we went around the table to exchange ideas and work challenges. Many have gone onto much bigger jobs (and paychecks) than I ever could have imagined.
4. Keep abreast of news, culture, and politics and look for opportunities to advance your client’s interests, especially when not tasked to do so.
I cannot stress enough the importance for aspiring PR pros to stay on top of what’s happening on the local, national, and world stages. First, you never want to find yourself pitching a moderately interesting story to local media on the day of a mass shooting or terrorist attack in their city. Second, you’ll often find inspiration from the latest news and trends, whether it’s identifying a potential third-party spokesperson or opportunistically leveraging breaking news to muscle your client into the first wave of coverage.
It’s easier than ever to keep current, given the many ways tailored news can be pushed to your various screens. Finally, the most successful PR pros, especially in the agency ranks, do not sit idly by waiting for their clients to task them with work assignments. They are constantly looking for opportunities to elevate their clients’ interests, something that also has a propensity to enhance client retention.
5. Be authentic, genial, respectful, and most importantly, responsive in your everyday interactions.
When I first started my company, I hired a young man who, for whatever reason, took two days on average to respond to my emails. At first, I thought it was a millennial thing, but then I grew concerned that this person had a substance abuse problem. He didn’t, but his tenure was short-lived, nonetheless.
Conversely, I’ll never forget the young assistant to the president of one of the big agencies where I worked. He always answered his own phone, quickly, and never failed to dig up answers to my questions. I remember one day telling him that he’s “going places in the profession.” That young man was Rick Powell who today is president of Chobani Futures after serving as vice chairman of Teneo, CCO of Bloomberg LP, and COO of that agency where we both toiled. What’s more: he’s one of the most affable professionals you’ll ever meet.
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. :-)
Some years ago, the late “60 Minutes” investigative reporter Mike Wallace, father to Chris Wallace, reportedly told a colleague that he actually prefers to interview subjects who have been media-trained. He allegedly said: “they make for better interviews.” Now this may sound counterintuitive coming from a PR executive who, over decades, has sought to influence journalists on behalf of hundreds of clients across many industries.
I too prefer to work with journalists who are trained as journalists, i.e., those with editorial integrity. Unfortunately, the Fourth Estate now finds itself in dire straits for a host of reasons. What’s especially alarming is the low esteem in which consumers hold journalists, especially those from supposedly venerable news organizations. The plaudits for this once noble profession that emanated from the recent White House Correspondents Dinner (WHDC) rang hollow in the context of today’s caustic news environment.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be to make people again appreciate the value in their lives of fact-based reporting and those journalists who ask “follow-up” questions of “newsmakers” who seek to deceive or disinform. Practically speaking, this could be an effort to build a groundswell of support to change Section 230 in the Communications Act, so social media companies can be held responsible for the toxicity of what crosses their platforms, e.g., no more Cambridge Analytica or vaccine misinformation.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.