We at Rasky Baerlein are proud of our talented public relations and public affairs experts across the firm’s practice areas. In our new Meet the Expert series, we sit down with a different agency leader every Monday to get their thoughts on several important and timely questions and gain a greater sense of their industry expertise and experiences. This week we sit down with RBSC Chairman and CEO, Larry Rasky.
What interests you most about PR and public affairs?
What interests me most is solving problems. The great thing about this job is that you come in every day and there is a new problem to solve. It’s the nature of the world that we live in that the problems are getting bigger and more complicated. As the firm has grown and my experience has grown with it, there’s more interesting work to do.
You’ve been working in the industry for more than 30 years now. How has it changed over the years, and how have you adapted in the process?
Some things have changed over the years, while others have not. Obviously problems are still problems. Sometimes good people do bad things, rules change, challenges in business erupt and our services are required. This hasn’t changed and it will always be the way things are. As long as there are people and business and free enterprise, there will be issues to navigate. Navigating politics, business and the media is our secret sauce.
On the other hand, technological changes have been dramatic. Most importantly, the number of media outlets have risen exponentially and evolved both in terms of how many outlets there are and the mediums they operate over. When I first started in politics, the average community had three TV stations and maybe another PBS station. This was before cable.
When I first went to Iowa to work on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, I didn’t have a cell phone or a laptop. There were no computers or even fax machines. We had mimeographs, and the big technology was the electric typewriter. We had to drive press releases and schedules around to all the TV stations and newspapers to make sure they got them.
Public relations is a constantly evolving industry. Where do you see the field headed and what can pros do to keep up?
If you’re going to be a professional in this industry going forward, you’re going to have to be adept at handling the technology. You’re going to have to be able to communicate on whatever medium is being used. Many times this is being driven by the press corps. We went through a period just a few years ago where reporters would no longer take press releases over fax. You’d have to send a press release to them as an attachment; otherwise they wouldn’t communicate with you.
Professionals need to understand how technology is evolving. The fact that Snapchat has a news director covering the 2016 presidential campaign is amazing in and of itself. If you’re going to be in this business, you have to keep up with the technology. But you still have to have the basic skills of storytelling, and particularly writing, to be a professional in this industry.
You almost have to have your personal brand now, too. Your company certainly needs to have its own brand. At Rasky Baerlein, we have always prided ourselves on our credibility. We want to make sure that when our people call a reporter, that they’re not wasting that reporter’s time – that they’re smart and prepared. The same is true with our lobbyists. That’s why we’re as good as we are: because people can come in and represent our clients and really understand the subject matter as well as the people that they’re pitching.
For us, credibility is very important. So too is having your personal brand, which is now more important than ever before because you’re so visible. Now everybody can see you on LinkedIn and Facebook. You’re no longer some disembodied voice on the telephone.
How has your experience in national politics – and particularly your communications work on Vice President Joe Biden’s past campaigns – shaped your work today?
Presidential politics is always at the cutting edge of changes in the media. That’s where technology often first gets applied first. Campaigns are always looking for an edge. I remember walking around with then-Senator Biden in the middle of Iowa in 2007; I looked down at my Blackberry and there was an alert that said “Campaign surprise: Times endorses Biden.” In the story it talked about it being the first endorsement of the 2008 presidential campaign. And then I saw that it read the Storm Lake Times had endorsed Joe Biden for president. But the alert came from one of the key political reporters for the New York Times. That surprise and confusion aside, everybody who had the alert set to Joe Biden was getting that information at the same moment. Through these kinds of tools you become more aware of what’s going on in the world and in a much quicker fashion.
We had an interesting experience these last few months because I was deeply involved in the discussions about whether or not the Vice President was going to run or not. Every major political reporter from every news outlet was calling here, every day, looking for information. I remember telling my assistant, Kristyn, to be ready because this was all going to stop as soon as he decides. All of these people who think I’m the most important person in the world right now are going to stop calling. And it’s going to happen just like that.
One thing presidential politics teaches you is proportion. You start to realize what really matters. Other people’s problems become more manageable because you know how certain stories are going to go. You understand how to manage. You test yourself as to whether you’re capable of working with The New York Times and The Washington Post and the major networks, all at the same time. If you can do that then you can do anything in this business.
So I think working in politics definitely prepares you for crisis management and just the general pace of managing day-to-day news.
You mentioned credibility. Is it this, or are there other factors that set Rasky Baerlein apart from the rest when it comes to its approach to public relations and public affairs?
You have to have credibility with the media and also with your clients. You have to be willing to fight for your clients. We’re in the business of client service. This is not about us getting our name in the paper. This is about how our client is being covered. That’s whether it’s marketing a community bank or managing a major disaster. We treat everybody the same – with a serious sense of purpose.
Our staff is also key. Our formula for hiring is not really that complicated. You have to be smart. You have to have the intellectual heft to be able to handle complex subject matter and broadly across various industry spectrums – across healthcare policy, energy, financial services, international affairs. This is not kid’s stuff. This plays into credibility because you have to be willing to get deep enough into it to discuss it with credibility. You also have to be willing to work hard because this is not a 9-5 job. Our people all know that they’re not on that schedule and will do whatever it takes to satisfy and service a client. Now more than ever, everything with the media is 24/7.
You also have to be honest because that goes back to our brand. No one from Rasky Baerlein will ever deceive a reporter. We won’t lie to them. Sometimes you have to tell a reporter that you can’t tell them something. That’s more important than being nice to reporters or giving them everything they want. That’s not our job. Our job is to make sure that our client’s story is told and that the press understands that point of view, and that our client’s point of view gets told whatever the circumstances are.
Those are the keys: brains, ethics and hard work. The world is not much more complicated than that to me in terms of the qualities I’m looking for in people and what drives our firm.
What client campaign are you most proud of in looking back at your time with the firm? Why?
I would say there are two. One is the 2007 presidential campaign when Senator Biden lost, but lost in a way that raised his credibility; when he lost in a way that made him the natural selection for President Obama to pick him as his running mate. Losing gracefully is very difficult, particularly in presidential politics. It’s a business that chews you up and leaves you on the side of the road. At the start of that campaign – on the day of our announcement – the Vice President was being attacked for calling the President “clean” and “articulate.” We could have been out of the race in a week. But we fought through it. We demanded he be heard and not be typecast unfairly. And there were some key reporters – Maureen Dowd chief among them – who had covered the Vice President for years and stood up for him and gave us a seat at the table. Then once we got in the debates he was able to demonstrate the quality of his intellect and character. I always say “character reveals itself.” You think you know somebody, but you really don’t until you see how they behave over time.
The other campaign was the sale of the Red Sox, which was a great experience for Joe Baerlein and me as we worked closely together on that on behalf of John Henry and Tom Werner when they bought the team. That was like a political campaign. It was on the front page of The Globe every day. When we started, nobody thought the guys we were working for had any shot of being awarded the franchise. Everyone thought it was going to go to a local bidder.
There is nothing more cherished in Boston than the Red Sox, so the fact that we were able to demonstrate that our guys were credible stewards of this historic franchise and helped give them the opportunity to be selected was a great experience.
Winning it was incredible because we worked on that for more than a year. Then we won the contract to be the agency of record and the lobbying firm for the Sox. That was such a thrill to be such a part of that. Then going on to the World Series in 2004 was just the icing on the cake.
We’ve had plenty of business that didn’t go our way, but we’ve enjoyed many successes as well. I always say, “God deals the hand and you play the cards.” Every day I come in and pick up my hand. The good news is that I’m still getting dealt cards, so it’s all about figuring out how to turn a pair of deuces into something more.
If you could offer clients one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be honest. Be true to who you are as a company. Reporters are professional BS detectors. In the world we live in, sooner or later the truth does come out. You don’t have to tell people the second they want to know. You have to be able to talk in a way that while you know your own reality, you have to know what you can say and when you can say it. You have to recognize that the media has a job to do as well. And most of them actually do it with a lot of integrity.
Sometimes in business I think there’s this general view that reporters are always out to get you. That’s not always the case. Many times things go haywire because the news cycle and the business cycle are different. For example, when reporters are trying to cover a deal, deals don’t get baked in real-time and don’t follow the news cycle. You sometimes have to explain to reporters that you can’t give them news that’s not ready to announce. Businesses, and especially public companies, are more concerned with quarterly earnings and how they’re interpreted. They don’t want to get out over their skis in terms of telling stories that are wrong because the stock market is so much about expectations – making sure you meet expectations and are not measured as coming up short.
That’s where many of the problems come in. There are times when there’s no recognition by reporters or the people that they’re covering that they’re on different cycles. It’s like reporters, business and politicans as well are dealing with different forms of currency. The currency for reporters is the news. They’re not interested in money, but the story itself. Politicians are interested in votes and how the public is going to view what they’re doing. Only businesses are judged on profits and losses. So you have to act as a translator and also be able to help your client see what the needs are of the people they’re dealing with, which is often times not about money.
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