Cair Lerion Blog #12: An Interview with Pattie Sullivan

Give us a brief Twitter-sized history of your career so far. 

I spent 10+ years as a journalist – first as a business reporter and then as an editor for a technical online publication. After our entire editorial department was unexpectedly laid off, I turned my love of writing and media into a new career… PR.

You began in journalism, before moving into PR. What prompted the switch and how has your journalistic background influenced the way you approach PR?

I was fortunate to work at one of the first online publications. It was ahead of its time, but when we were sold to another company, our editorial team was laid off. It was the first time I faced this situation, and it was very difficult.

During that time, I explored job opportunities that ranged from a manufacturing reporter at a daily newspaper, to a technical writer at a B2B company to a writer for a PR agency. Ultimately, I chose PR because I liked the challenge of a new profession – learning about the media landscape from a different perspective.

I can tell you that my experience as a reporter/editor was invaluable. During my time as a reporter, I interacted with many PR pros, who were extremely helpful in fleshing out a story. But there were others who didn’t fundamentally understand news value and were frustrating to deal with.

Excellent writing is the foundation for all communications – whether that’s drafting an email, creating a strategic plan, writing a technical byline or crafting a LinkedIn post. I believe PR people who are strategic thinkers and smart writers can go far in this profession.

Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

I have been fortunate to work with many talented people, who have helped guide and nurture my career. But I suppose the biggest influence was my first editor, Henry Lenard, who led by example, had strong ethics and trusted my instincts as a young reporter. I’m happy to say we remain friends to this day.

You work with companies in the heavy industrial space. What’s your experience of working in PR in unfamiliar industries?

The first trade show I went to was a regional ISA (at that time known as the Instrument Society of America) event. I was one of the only women there… other than professional models, who were paid to bring attendees into a company’s booths and a contortionist who described the flexibility of the company’s products while she twisted herself into a pretzel (no, I’m not kidding). I remember one person saying to me, “what’s a nice girl like you doing at a show like this?”

While I don’t think it is for everyone, I really feel right at home in the technical/industrial space. I am a journalist at heart and I enjoy learning how things tick, and then conveying this information to others. The subject matter can be difficult, but I find it very satisfying. Plus, I always have good trivia for family and friends (let me tell you how wind, solar and other renewable energy sources are changing how coal and gas plants are dispatched!).

What are your time-tested strategies for pitching stories?

First and foremost, read the publication so you understand the topics it covers and regular features. Next, what has the reporter written lately? Can you build on a story he/she has written – offering a new angle? The key is to add value: bring him/her something that is relevant and compelling, something that will have readers turning the page or clicking links.

In your experience, how have heavy industrial companies responded to the proliferation of new media forms?

Companies in the industrial space are typically more conservative. I remember a time when clients didn’t truly understand the importance of social media and believed that, if they ignored it, it would simply go away. Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. While industrial organisations have certainly come a long way in their approach to social media, I believe most remain cautious and prefer not to charge ahead as quickly as you might see in other industries.

Do you have a favourite story or campaign that you have helped develop?

Ironically, my favourite story/campaign is not industrial, but consumer. It was the introduction of Heinz ketchup in the upside-down bottle. As part of a broader campaign, we created an interesting mailing for reporters – putting the bottles in packaging that resembled packing crates, but with “This Side Down” stamped on the top. These bottles are commonplace now, but at the time, the concept was a real sensation, and we secured coverage on national news and morning talk shows. 

In a rapidly evolving media landscape in which companies are increasingly their own publishers – via websites, blogs and social media etc. – are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the trade press?

That’s a good question. This is a tough time for all types of news outlets, from daily papers to trade journals. There has been a winnowing, for sure. But I do believe there will always be place and need for objective journalism and independent news organizations/publishers.

How you turn off from the day job and relax?

Turning off is harder these days, particularly since I’m among the majority of people working from home due to COVID-19. But I find a nice walk, working in the garden, listening to music (I have eclectic tastes ranging from the Jonas Brothers and Green Day to the Grateful Dead) or watching TV really helps me unwind. And as work life and personal life continues to blur, I find that disconnecting is necessary for me to do my best work.

Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and with over 23 years in the world of public relations, Pattie Sullivan is Senior Vice President at Red Havas US, part of the Red Havas global network of more than 1300 PR practitioners that operates in nearly 50 countries.