Todd Defren is a principal with Boston-based SHIFT Communications and author of the company’s well-read blog, PR-Squared. Most recently Todd is known for spearheading the movement for SHIFT’s newly unveiled Social Media Press Release, which has been highlighted in PR Week and BusinessWeek along with gaining attention from numerous PR blogs. Todd has blogged about topics ranging from the importance of measuring PR results for clients to how PR degree programs should be more useful to students. He is without doubt one of the foremost advocates for our industry in the blogosphere, and his passion for PR is contagious!
What was the pivotal moment when you decided you wanted to pursue a career in PR?
I was a Creative Writing major in college; all I knew was that I was happiest with a keyboard or pencil at-hand. The pivotal moment you’re looking for, though, probably occurred when my college sweetheart fiancée told me that we were on the fast-track to parenthood. A panicky thought along the lines of, “It’s time to stop submitting short stories to Esquire and start thinking about getting a real job,” crossed my mind. Never looked back and don’t regret a thing.
One of the most tried and true methods of becoming a whiz at PR is to emulate the PR masters themselves. Who were your mentors when you were starting out in the field?
My mentor was a fella by the name of Sterling Hager. He was an irascible, chain-smoking, skirt-chasing, gutter-mouthed PR genius. I worked for Sterling for almost 10 years, as the agency grew from $1M to $14M…and back down again, during the dot-com crash. (Now I own Sterling’s agency, along with my two business partners.)
Many of Sterling’s lessons are still key to our philosophies. Chiefly, he insisted on the integrity of the agency’s counsel and work product. We codified this approach as the “3X Rule.” If they feel that the client is about to do something that is ill-advised, SHIFT staffers are duty bound to tell the client at least three times (with increasing frankness and volume) that they are making a mistake, and to present alternative options. It doesn’t matter how big the client: without belief in your work and the freedom to express those beliefs, you’re just another flak.
What was the best advice you were given as a beginning practitioner?
Find a solution.
Remember that your job is to make less work for the client and, to make them look good.
Always keep your boss in the loop.
For PR professionals beginning their career, what would you say are the most valuable skills they should focus on to build a strong career foundation?
Read voraciously – anything you can get your hands on. You’ll continually surprise yourself at the connections you’ll make between seemingly unrelated issues. Also, few people take the time to read a lot. If you take the time to read a good newspaper and/or business magazine every day, you’ll be farther ahead than most top execs.
Also, above all else, focus on “Writing. Writing. Writing.” If you can write you can communicate. If you can communicate you will thrive.
How can beginners make themselves stand out from the competition?
We look for the “leaning forward” candidates. The ones who are clearly not only smart but eager – and who have done enough homework to know that we’re offering a more-special-than-average opportunity. Working for an emerging, innovative agency like SHIFT suggests a willingness to take a large gulp of our “Kool Aid.”
Don’t make the interview about you; make it about the Agency. Make your interviewer feel special and they’ll hold a special place for your resume – somewhere near the top of the pile.
A nice, genuine smile helps, too.
Sometimes it is difficult to communicate what’s best for the client when they have a different PR approach in mind. What advice can you give beginners who would like to start honing the confidence and diplomacy needed to become PR counselors instead of instruction followers?
This sounds trite, but you’ve got to look for the win/win. We have a client now whose products represent a threat to a much larger competitor. But, they are afraid to directly take on that behemoth, even though abdicating that fight will lead to a sure defeat. To an outsider it’s plain as day, but the in-house contacts are naturally nervous.
What’s the win-win? We got the client to agree that while we would NOT take on the goliath directly, we would make it crystal clear that their products represent a rock-solid alternative for corporate buyers. It’s nuance but it worked.
Here’s the best, cheap advice for finding the win-win. Ask for forgiveness upfront. Human beings are sympathetic creatures. If you say, “I am probably way off here, but what do you think about…?” – then you’ve put the client in a position to bolster your confidence by agreeing with your alternative approach, or to at least soften their disapproval: you’ve now got them looking for the win-win for you!
What do you love most about your job?
Creating opportunities for people I truly like and respect. The newly-anointed leader of our San Francisco office started with us as an Account Coordinator. Seven years later she is a VP running a multi-million dollar branch. You don’t get those types of opportunities at most organizations. I am thrilled to have a hand in running a company that delights in creating such situations, and which is able to hang on to such stellar people as a result.