Publicist Rockstars: “Give your team enough room to make mistakes” with Brian Hart

I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Hart, founder and president of Flackable, a national, full-service public relations and digital marketing agency headquartered in Philadelphia. The agency, which he bootstrapped in 2014 at the age of 27, now represents a national client base of financial and professional services firms. His professional recognition includes Irish America Magazine’s 2018 & 2017 Business 100, PR News’ 2017 Rising PR Stars 30 & Under, Lehigh Valley Business’s 2016 Forty Under 40 and Adweek’s 2015 PR Industry 30 Under 30.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Coming out of college, I knew I wanted to break into public relations, but I couldn’t even land an interview with a Philadelphia public relations agency — let alone an offer. So I took a sales and administrative role with a small financial services firm outside of the city. After a few months, I gradually took over the company’s blog, social media marketing, and event planning, in addition to my official job role.

After several months, I was able to leverage the marketing portfolio I had built there to land an account role with a financial PR agency based in North Jersey and NYC. I advanced quickly at that agency, arriving at the point where I had a hand in nearly every aspect of the business.

Then, one day, I was struck with a vision for a different type of PR agency. Over the next few weeks, I wrote all of my ideas in a notebook and eventually translated those scattered ideas into a business plan.

I had been sitting on the business plan for nearly two months when a firm in Los Angeles messaged me on LinkedIn, informing me they were looking for new PR representation. We instantly clicked, and I knew this was my chance to go for it, so I quit my job, signed the client and Flackable was born. I went from not being able to land an interview with a Philadelphia public relations agency to owning one.

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

Maybe about a year and a half, after I launched my agency, I took a client on a media tour in New York City where I had scheduled a few sit-down interviews with journalists and a couple of on-camera appearances. When he and I arrived at the studio for one of the video segments, there was a PR person waiting in the green room while her client was taping. When her client wrapped up, the two left, and the host took my client in for his interview while I waited alone in the green room.

A minute later, in walked my absolute favorite client from my former agency along with an old colleague who was guiding him on a media tour of his own. That favorite client and I were beaming with smiles and excitement as we caught up, while my former colleague seemed visibly uncomfortable by our chumminess. It was one of the first instances where I felt like I had truly made it as a real player and competitor in the industry.

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?

Because I started my public relations agency so abruptly, the week I launched the business and the months to follow was some of the most insane days of my life. Looking back on it, I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn’t know that I had no idea what I was doing. That was honestly a huge advantage since so many aspiring business owners will overanalyze things to the point that they never take the leap.

Among my goofy mistakes during that period — and there were many — was a ridiculous photo shoot I set up. I wanted to brand myself and my agency as edgy and a sharp contrast from the aging agencies in my space, so I thought normal headshots wouldn’t fly. Instead, I went with intense lighting and odd poses including a selfie style professional headshot. After receiving some blunt and brutal feedback, I replaced those photos with a clean, classier look. From that ordeal, I learned the value of being surrounded by a circle who aren’t afraid, to be honest with you. Had it not been for their candidness, those cringe-worthy photos could have very well cost me more business opportunities than they likely already had.

How did you scale your business to profitability? How long did it take? Please share the steps you took.

I was profitable in the first year. This was from the combination of keeping overhead very low and how quickly I was able to grow a client base. I sublet my apartment when I quit my job to launch Flackable, so for the first four or five months, it was just me working out of my mom’s basement.

I added my initial clients through networking, referrals, Twitter and LinkedIn. And by month ten, I hired my first full-time employee. By month twelve, I hired my second. Today, about four and a half years into it, I lead a team of ten with plans to continue scaling.

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

I’m a data guy, so I tend to get especially excited over our SEO campaigns. Local SEO success is an absolute game-changer for the types of firms we work with, so last year I invested in upgrading our SEO technology and capabilities. Our SEO clients are now dominating local search results and seeing substantial upticks in site traffic and inbound leads as a result.

I’m also in the process of developing apps to modernize some of our backend processes and better collect and organize valuable campaign data. My ultimate goal with these apps is to launch a client-facing platform that, to my knowledge, would be the first of its kind.

Based on your personal experience, what advice would you give to young people considering a career in PR?

Focus on your personal brand. If you neglect your own brand, why would a company trust you to represent theirs? Building your personal brand means writing regularly, building a meaningful social media presence and finding other ways to outshine your peers.

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

The best networkers have an amazing memory. Obviously, remembering names and faces is a good place to start. But when you can quickly recall previous conversations, family details, hobbies, favorite sports teams and other details about the person, you can begin to not only turn acquaintances into friends but also referral sources, clients and advocates for your brand.

Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?

Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” was a transformative read for me early in my career. Much like how great athletes will say they see the game in slow motion, after reading this book at the request of my former employer, everything around me seemed to slow down while I maximized my own results and impact each day.

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?

As a public relations professional, I’m a big believer in the critical role of a free, investigative press, both here at home and around the world. They say sunlight is the best disinfectant, so a movement to support and protect our media counterparts will bring positive change by exposing hidden sources of corruption, injustice, inequality and human suffering.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1. You can’t teach some people how to write. When I began building my team, there were a couple of instances in which I overlooked writing weaknesses because I felt the candidates were otherwise qualified, and I figured they would quickly develop that ability through experience. What I learned was that it’s much easier to teach a candidate PR or digital marketing than it is to teach them how to write. And for some who lack the talent, motivation, creativity or attention to detail to become good writers, it’s a lost cause altogether.

2. Don’t ask your clients what they want. I learned this lesson early in my career, well before I launched my own agency. When a brand hires a PR agency, they expect to receive assertive guidance and advice from experts. Too many PR people undermine their own credibility and frustrate their clients by being passive and asking the clients questions when they should instead be providing solid recommendations.

3. Don’t let your clients do their own PR. At my previous agency, there was an instance in which my supervisor instructed a client to reach out to an important media contact rather than us doing it for them. He and I discussed the situation prior, and while I told him I felt it was the wrong approach, I wish I had been more assertive in my opposition. After he told the clients to reach out to this media contact on their own, they clearly weren’t impressed. And within two weeks of that encounter, they terminated our services.

4. Find your own pitching style. At the beginning of my career, I tried to copy the pitching style of others on my team, even when the phrasing and overall tone felt canned, awkward and unnatural for me. I quickly learned that the more I embraced my own personality, which tends to be informal, direct and cavalier, the more my pitches resonated with reporters and the more success I would have.

5. Give your team enough room to make mistakes. When leading a PR team, you have to trust the people around you. When I first began building a team, I compulsively felt I had to proofread everything and closely monitor each interaction and initiative. In doing so, while I was able to prevent several mistakes, I created a dynamic where my team was dependent on me to perform functions they would otherwise be fully capable of handling themselves. When I came to that realization, I swiftly shifted our culture and work processes over to an atmosphere of greater independence paired with heightened accountability. That shift accelerated the development of our team members while freeing me up to focus on aspects of the campaigns and our overall business operations in which my time is much more valuable.