I wish someone told me that being the best at something would be a key differentiator in the business world. It’s a general statement, but the sentiment is real. Having an exceptional skill or knowledge set in the business world is essential for standing out and rising above others. There’s room for many specialized skills and knowledge sets in the world. Knowing yours and applying them to the world in a focused and effective way will help set you up for success. I first went to college to be an opera singer. Most people want to be famous when doing that, but at the time, that wasn’t a driver for me. I watched relatives be the best at what they did in various industries from finance to real estate, software development, management, music, and more. When you are skilled at what you do and your skills are truly different and unique, you have the ability to be famous yourself. It’s not the same fame as Brad Pitt or Oprah Winfrey — they are already who they are. You can carve your own fame and garner the recognition and praise you deserve just by being the best you that you can be.
As a part of my series about the things you need to know to excel in the modern PR industry I had the pleasure of interviewing Ilissa Miller. Ilissa Miller is the CEO of iMiller Public Relations (iMPR), a firm founded in 2011. Ilissa is also the President of NEDAS, an association focused on wireline and wireless convergence, and is one of the founding members of the Independent Data Center Alliance, a consortium of global data center operators who collaborate to provide a single solution across a variety of markets. With over two decades of experience in the communications infrastructure sector, Ilissa is passionate about connectivity and enabling access to communications infrastructure, such as Internet access for everyone. Her PR firm, iMPR, is an award-winning and globally recognized company laser-focused on providing clients unique messaging, an amplified voice, and brand recognition through carefully curated strategic communication and marketing services that immediately achieve results.
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?
When I graduated from college, like most people, I had no idea what I wanted to actually do or how to do it. I set off on a path that, while successful, was not feeding me with passionate ideas. In my fourth year following my college graduation, I decided to take the summer off to find myself. I received a call from a previous employer offering me an opportunity to learn an industry and add value to a single-proprietor consulting company. The industry was telecommunications, and the year was 1996 — the international deregulations act was recently passed, which created an opportunity for competitive telecommunications services to be offered in the U.S. This opened up the market for companies to compete against the traditional ‘Bell’ companies and major operators (like AT&T and Verizon) who are still operating today. It also created a competitive market for local carriers that have enabled the expansion of communications infrastructure in a way that we are all benefiting even now.
In awe of this opportunity to learn a trade, to understand an industry, and to help shape the ability to provide telecommunications services to individuals and businesses more cost-effectively, I jumped on the opportunity. My path to Public Relations began right there. While the firm was a consultancy firm, we provided strategic guidance to companies looking to launch their brands, services, and capabilities and provide market research reports to investors and executives hungry for information about what markets to expand to next. Learning an industry from this perspective was a great opportunity, and at the time, I was very well aware of the career-building steps I would need to take to be successful.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
There are many interesting stories. Every day there seems to be a new scenario. From CEOs not being ready to announce their roles when their investors are pressuring them to do so, to sudden losses of life, to managing publicly disparaging remarks about a company’s services and capabilities to preparing clients for appearances on TV shows like the Apprentice. There are many circumstances that arise that you would not consider. The Covid-19 pandemic is certainly the most interesting and disruptive experience our business has faced. From the unknowns around personal and business matters to ensuring companies can deliver the internet and network solutions everyone needs access to, these were not things that were not taught in webinars or in school — or frankly even thought of as a viable possibility. Shut down the world? Never. Yet, as it is, it has happened. As a Public Relations Consultancy, we have to consider all factors in our clients’ messaging and provide sound guidance that is reliable and effective. That is what companies need and want during a truly challenging time. Doing so with sensitivity, empathy, and a spirit of charity — particularly when so many have been adversely affected — are top priorities when advising companies on how to proceed with messaging during this truly challenging and unique time.
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?
I tend to type fast and often allow words to blend into one another. I used to mistakenly blend words that ended in ‘t’ with the word ‘it’ and spell ‘tit’ in my general correspondence. Depending on who the messages go to, they could be messages that are forgiven, laughed at, or cost you a good deal. As a result, I am a stickler for re-reading my messages and running spell checks. It also makes me rather particular when I receive messages internally or externally. Words matter in the PR world, and telling stories with the right words can mean the difference between T and A.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
As a firm focused on the communications infrastructure sector, we work with companies that are building out new networks, implementing WiFi on street corners, deploying 5G at cell towers, data centers, and more. I am in awe of what our clients do and the communications infrastructure problems they are solving through the thoughtful planning of how a wireline network could integrate and work seamlessly with a wireless network. These are complicated and expensive problems on their own. When you take the entire sector as a whole, appreciating the complexities and ease by which companies enable global end-to-end communications is truly inspiring. Telling these stories in bits and pieces and then collectively is what we live for in PR. Being able to share global network statistics during a pandemic, such as the increase in data traffic for gaming, live streaming, and video collaboration tools, illustrates the story of everyday people simply trying to stay connected — and connected we are! We’re tethered through wires and wireless spectrum that keep data bits coming and going from our computers, mobile phones, tablets, TVs and more. These bits can tell great stories — inspiring appreciation for how it’s all possible is our goal.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
1) I wish someone told me before I started my own firm the seriousness and real responsibilities you have as a leader of a team to keep them motivated, employed, and successful. In this role, you really are a career counselor, fostering, and feeding their future goals. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this became a core function for a while: scrambling and finding ways to keep a team focused and employed as much as possible. And, for the most part, we did!
2) I wish someone told me that people are really hard to manage. Everyone has personal and professional needs, and sometimes they do not align with a company’s vision or capabilities. When this happens, it is disruptive, time-consuming, and painful because no one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, egos, or cause undue harm (personally or financially). When changes need to be made, the truth is that people take it personally when it is just business. I had a COO run a deficit in my business, causing us to go into debt for the very first time. He was aware of the situation and did not have a plan for recovery. Without investors or personal deep pockets, I had to make a change and use the salary to rewind out of a negative situation and plan for recovery.
3) I wish someone told me that not everyone knows how to sell. I know this is obvious for many, but it was harder to learn when, like me, you were raised with a work-from-home mother always selling. That’s how everyone talks to clients, right? I continue to have to remind myself that not everyone is a salesperson — selling stories, messages, new accounts, ideas, new business models — anything. In the past few years, I have been lucky to surround myself with very smart people who understand that everyone is different. Every day is teaching me to appreciate other people’s skills and differences as complementary and much-needed to complete an organization. If everyone was a ‘sales’ person then not much would actually get done.
4) I wish someone would have told me that math would eventually find its way back into my daily duties. Okay — it’s called accounting and finance in the business world, but it’s the same thing. In high school, my father was thrilled when I received a 100, perfect score, on one of my math regents. I went to college first for voice performance and then English writing and literature. I still love to write and am blessed every day to have been able to sharpen those skills. While math or accounting wasn’t a course I took in college, it’s a must-have skill if you’re leading an organization. Numbers don’t lie and understanding what they mean and how they must work together is an important skill. Further to this, as the CEO of a company, delegating finances effectively doesn’t mean you just trust and walk away. Being able to discerningly look and understand numbers and what it means for your business is literally the difference between making it or not.
5) I wish someone told me that being the best at something would be a key differentiator in the business world. It’s a general statement, but the sentiment is real. Having an exceptional skill or knowledge set in the business world is essential for standing out and rising above others. There’s room for many specialized skills and knowledge sets in the world. Knowing yours and applying them to the world in a focused and effective way will help set you up for success. I first went to college to be an opera singer. Most people want to be famous when doing that, but at the time, that wasn’t a driver for me. I watched relatives be the best at what they did in various industries from finance to real estate, software development, management, music, and more. When you are skilled at what you do and your skills are truly different and unique, you have the ability to be famous yourself. It’s not the same fame as Brad Pitt or Oprah Winfrey — they are already who they are. You can carve your own fame and garner the recognition and praise you deserve just by being the best you that you can be.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
If you can remember faces, that’s a great start. If you can remember names — that’s even better. If you can remember both — you’re on the path to being a master networking superstar. Even more so, remembering little bits of personal and/or professional information about everyone you meet (or read about) and being able to recall that in an appropriate setting — people appreciate that and value that capability. Understanding the business industry you’re in and being able to connect the dots of people who do with people who need is the recall skill that master networkers must be able to sharpen and hone. Then, putting it into practice with effective follow-through that illustrates your care is the cherry on top. Not everyone is good at many of the above skills (facial recognition, a name recalling, skills/knowledge recollection) so honing in on those key elements will certainly help you in the business world. Finding ways to leverage these skills won’t always directly help you — but it will come back to you with patience and persistence. When I first got into the communications infrastructure space, I had the opportunity to help plan events. When I worked on those events, I wanted to run the check-in and reception desks. Checking names and looking at people’s faces provided me the opportunity to more quickly get to know people. Then, learning about what they do help me to help them make the connections they wanted. Learning this process from literally the front door and into the midst of a burgeoning industry has certainly opened many other doors for me.
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?
Research. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Reading, searching, reading some more, and then connecting the dots about what they do with the solutions that you want to position is a surefire way to reach the target companies you want to reach with the right message. Gone are the days of pushing any message out and hoping it will stick. Here are the days when the internet and database capabilities and information can arm you to be focused, relevant, and on-message with anyone you want to impress.
Case in point, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, I knew that in-person events would be the hardest networking and lead-gen tool to replace. I immediately formed a virtual, video-based networking event that leveraged my personal network in the industry to bring people together to introduce one another and share information about the services they offer along with the challenges they are experiencing getting certain solutions in place. As a result, the programs offered companies the proof they may have needed that my firm could coordinate, implement, and manage effective virtual events. More importantly, it served as the networking glue to keep people talking, introducing them to new contacts, and helping to solve problems as a collective. As a result, not only did we get inquiries about how we can solve this problem for other companies, we are also keeping the industry connected, informed, and exposed to new opportunities on a weekly basis.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I love to read and listen to books, podcast programs, and more. As a matter of fact, I have my own podcast program called NEDAS Live! Where Wireline and Wireless Meet, a podcast about the communications infrastructure in buildings, on streets, stadiums, arenas, and to/from our homes. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough time in the day to read and listen to it all. A fellow entrepreneur recommended the book From Good to Great, by Jim Collins. I have two copies and have read it a couple of times, learning leadership strategies to transform businesses. Our team uses StrengthFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath to help identify unique strengths among our team members and match skills with others to provide a more robust team approach to account and client relationships. Another book I love is Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari — an inspirational novel telling the stories of mankind through unique perspectives that challenge you to look at the world just a little differently.
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. :-)
As I mentioned throughout this interview, I love what I do and I love the stories the communications infrastructure sector has to tell. I have a fantasy that one day there will be a dedicated cable network that helps to tell these stories (and I will be the producer selecting the stories to tell!). From the very first transAtlantic subsea cable that was completed in 1858 connecting North America to Europe (Ireland), which operated for a whopping three weeks, to the Dot-com bubble that burst in the early 2000s sending many telecom masterminds to prison (Bernie Ebbers, Joe Nacchio), to what makes companies great (or not), what makes innovation take (or not) and more. There’s so much to explore, from the boon of social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to gaming networks like Blizzard and Twitch and the emergence and shift that Netflix, Hulu, and many other streaming content networks deliver and how they have changed the way humankind behaves. These companies and the people building, managing, and expanding them are truly a global force with many fascinating stories to share.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.