Exec Chat: John Bliss, Founder of BlissPR

Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting over breakfast with someone I have great respect for in the public relations field—John Bliss, the now semi-retired founding principal of BlissPR. I had been wanting to meet John for quite some time, having met several BlissPR employees, including his daughter (and one of three managing directors at the agency), Elizabeth, among others. I had always been struck by just how nice everyone from BlissPR seemed to be, which has been backed by the company being named one of the top-30 PR agencies to work for in the U.S. by The Holmes Report.

John fully lived up to his billing and was quite generous with his time and insight. Over breakfast at the Princeton Club (his alma mater), we discussed numerous topics affecting the public relations industry, including what BlissPR execs look for in new hires, the openness BlissPR has with its employees regarding the company’s financial standing and how technology and social media have impacted his business, which primarily works with clients in the B2B space.

Below are a few of John’s thoughts. Enjoy!

What values and competencies do you look for in both new hires and in your management team?

We expect all of our employees to be smart and informed about a variety of business-related issues. The second thing we look for throughout our agency is hiring nice people. We’re all going to be in the same office space, around each other and working closely on a number of challenging projects; we look for people who are generally nice and amiable with others. Finally, we look for genuine curiosity. This is a business that requires people to be constantly curious about their own work, the work of their clients, the world around them, etc. You probably shouldn’t be working in PR if you’re not curious.

One of the great advantages of working in an agency setting is that you’re given the opportunity to constantly learn about new and interesting markets, subject matters, etc. And being curious about why all of that matters to you, your agency and your clients is what we find makes very successful agency employees.

What qualities do you seek in your upper-level managers?

We seek smart and insightful executives who know how to keep things simple but drive results. Our belief is that in a PR firm, there are three career paths: writing, media relations and account management.

We give all of our entry-level employees an opportunity to be exposed to all three of those core areas and see what suits them best and what benefits the agency and our clients. To make a career at BlissPR, we expect all of our employees to be good in at least one of those areas. We find that the best people are good at two of those, and very few people are good at all three. There’s a reason for that: the skill set required to be a good writer is vastly different than that needed to be a good media-relations person.

How do you help younger employees understand the need to be upfront and honest when something goes wrong?

It’s nothing you do in one shot; it all comes down to how you treat people over time. And a big part of that comes from having open communications within the agency. For example, we’re completely transparent financially with all of our employees. We believe that the more people within the agency are aware of our financial standing, the better they will be at doing their own jobs because they won’t be constantly weighed down with the fears and apprehension that often creep into service firms when management is not upfront with employees regarding the company’s financial standing.

Does being financially transparent breed better and more loyal employees and management?

I absolutely think so. A good example of this came from a recent conference call one of our managing directors had with members of the Council of PR Firms. A question came up regarding financial transparency within agencies. Only about three people out of 30 on the call said their company divulged some type of financial information to all employees. From our standpoint, being open with our employees regarding the company’s financial standing breeds more loyal and happier employees.

We tell our employees from day one that to be leaders in this company, they need to think like owners. We are big on promoting from within the company; lateral hires are typically very difficult because the more senior you get in your career, the more baggage you tend to accumulate.

What is something PR did better 30 years ago, and what is something PR does better today than in the “good old days” of the business?

Thirty years ago, I think the quality of writing for entry-level professionals was much better than it is now. Entry-level professionals don’t write nearly as well as they used to; their writing style is sloppy. I’m not someone who always thinks things were better back then, but I do feel the quality of writing has deteriorated in recent years.

As for what PR professionals do better now, I’d have to say how the profession has adopted and adapted to social media. That has tremendously increased our value in the business community and with key executives.

Where this assimilation to social media has really helped is during the recent recession. During economic downturns in the past, the PR agency was almost always the first outside consultancy fired by a company whenever the economy started struggling, while advertising agencies still had their big budgets and withstood those onslaughts much better than PR. But once clients called the advertising industry’s bluff on fixed commissions for work, PR started to gain respect as a more credible means of marketing communications. And a lot of that increase in credibility comes from PR’s rapid adoption of the Internet and social media to create new, innovative practices into client campaigns that generate far more dynamic and measure results that in the past.

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