APR Q&A: Getting to Know Tim Smith, APR, Executive Vice President and Group Head, Corporate & Public Affairs, Edelman

Tell us about your role and responsibilities.

I lead the Corporate & Public Affairs practice in Edelman’s Seattle office.  The team is comprised of about 30 communications professionals with a wide range of expertise spanning media relations, public affairs, employee engagement, CSR and sustainability, crisis communications, reputation management, media relations, thought leadership, executive visibility among others.  I provide senior communications counsel to help clients navigate a growingly complex communications landscape and actively promote our agency’s ideas and thought leadership (i.e., the annual Edelman Trust Barometer).

How did you get started in PR?

My first direct work in PR was with the US Information Agency, on a bilateral cultural exchange in the former Soviet Union, and then at the US Embassy in Moscow as part of the Press & Culture Section.  From there, I transitioned to the private sector leading corporate affairs and communications for multinational companies before coming to the agency world.

What are you working on right now?

I enjoy working at an agency because every day is different and offers new challenges and opportunities. I work with a range of clients helping them effectively communicate the benefits of their products and services and their commitment to the environment and communities in which they operate. This ranges from raising awareness of the environmental and social benefits of purchasing second-hand items (it takes 700 gallons of water to make one new cotton t-shirt!) to helping explain the benefits of new technology that makes more efficient use of energy.

Why did you pursue your APR?

The PR industry is eclectic, which is one of our strengths. People come from diverse backgrounds including journalism, government and the non-profit sector.  I didn’t study communications in college – I was a political science and economics major – so later in my career as I was venturing more deeply into the world of PR I thought the APR process would be a good way of learning more about the principles, practice and evolution of PR and communications.

What value has it brought you?

I gained insight about the history and evolution of PR and communications. And I enjoyed the comradery of my APR class, which met weekly for a couple of months, and featured many spirited debates about the state of the profession and dissection of real-world case studies. It was an enjoyable and valuable experience. Given all that’s happening in the world today that underscores the importance of communications (e.g. “alternative facts”) and the important role of PR, I think this would be an exciting time to take part in an APR study course.

What PR strategy is really working for you?

To me, PR is simultaneously simple and complex. Simple, because it really boils down to three things:  what you want to communicate, to whom and how. But there’s obviously great complexity behind each of these things – and it gets more challenging each year. As an organization, how do you know what you need to communicate? And then how do you find your audience and the best channels to be effective (always with finite resources)? Digital and social media have led the significant changes in the last decade or so by allowing every organization to become a publisher, but the result is an overload of information and a scarcity of attention. The key, I continue to believe, is much less what you say than how well you listen. You need to keep in close touch with the views and expectations of your customers and audiences so you know how to meet their needs most effectively – this is how you’ll know what to say and how to get their attention. While it may sound strange, I believe a particularly powerful strategy for PR is: talk less, listen more.

What is the best tool, app, website, book, or other resource that other PR pros MUST check out?

When I entered the agency world someone recommended the book, The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, and I continue to recommend it to colleagues and especially those beginning their agency careers. But its meaning goes beyond those who work in agencies and it offers applicable lessons for anyone who strives to make a difference and have an impact. It can be applied to work and personal relationships, equally. If I were to go with a more modern resource, I’d recommend both the Khan Academy or watching TED talks online – great information that’s available to everyone for free.

Where do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration through conversations with my colleagues but also away from work. Often the most inspiring thoughts come when we’re not looking for them.

What excites you about PR these days?

Everything! PR is changing more rapidly than ever before, driven by social and digital media and emerging technologies. There is no longer a 24-hour news cycle, and we’re faced with the concerning reality of “alternative facts” and the need to navigate a complex, cacophonous and changing landscape. The age-old challenge of knowing what to say, when and how is at the same time easier and much more complex today. Every day brings new challenges and opportunities, and I think it’s fair to say that the art and science of effective communications is more important to business, non-profits, government and even our society at large than ever before.  There’s a reason PR consistently ranks as one of the most stressful jobs…

When you’re not working, where can we find you?

I enjoy spending time with my family. Depending on the season, you’ll find us on the slopes, tennis court, or somewhere on the road.

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