Don’t Be Afraid — Everyone at every level has had to battle fear. No matter what you’ve achieved, the feeling can creep in to steal your thunder. I am not immune. There remain moments when I encounter feelings of self-doubt.
As a part of my series about the things you need to know to excel in the modern PR industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing H. Michael Morse.
H. Michael Morse is a tenacious, savvy, and accomplished public relations (PR) executive, who connects the dots to provide media relations, special events, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) marketing, and social media services to meet and exceed clients’ integrated marketing goals. Currently serving as Account Director at WE Communications leading the Microsoft Store business, he is passionate about PR and its ability to shape and shift public opinion and move businesses forward.
Throughout his career, Morse has successfully conceived and implemented strategic campaigns in the consumer brand, lifestyle, fashion, tech, and entertainment sectors. As a results-driven media relations pro and event activation practitioner, he has cultivated media relationships that bring brands and individuals into the light, making them household names. Whether it is skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, plus-size supermodels, or TV hosts, Morse has skillfully elevated the profiles of new, emerging, and established brands and personalities.
Mr. Morse’s tactical approach to product launches has resulted in billions of earned media impressions for consumer brands including Duracell. He has expertly executed the launches of books, fitness equipment, beauty programs, films, and television shows. His efforts have resulted in placements or features in The New York Times, USA Today, W, Town & Country, Vogue, Crain’s, and Variety, plus broadcast interviews with Good Morning America, Today, CNN, Nightline, and Good Day New York, to name a few.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity! It was during a career day in high school that I first learned about public relations. I was intrigued by the proficiency required to be an excellent practitioner — strategic thinking, winning writing, and oral communications power. These skill sets aligned with my natural talents, so I began researching the industry further. When it was time to attend college, I looked for an institution that had a superior public relations program and discovered Rowan University. Once accepted, I worked for the marketing and public relations director for the School of Fine and Performing Arts as a work-study student. I loved marketing and promoting the arts and learned many valuable life and work lessons from my boss, Amy Lebo, with whom I’m still close. I soaked up everything I could from her and my classes, joined Rowan’s chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), created a position for myself as a PR liaison for the Theater department, and interned with Broadway’s preeminent public relations firm, Boneau-Bryan/Brown. The rest as they say is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Sure! I’ll share a little about my interview process with WE Communications and what it’s been like since I accepted the role. The interview process at WE was comprehensive and lasted several months, during which I had the opportunity to meet many people from all over the company. I heard consistently how important DEI is to the agency, a perspective that came through from everyone with whom I spoke — and it didn’t feel like lip service or checking boxes. As a gay man who is Black, I bring a lot of diversity to the table, so I get it.
Everyone I met with at WE let me know it was ultimately my expertise and my gift at communications that were the most critical reasons for offering me a seat at the table. By the time I said yes, I believed WE wanted to enrich the agency with more people of color not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it makes the work — and work community — better for everyone.
For me, the critical factor for joining WE was that it was clear the agency wanted my perspective AND they wanted my talent. I’ll admit that this “culture of belonging” they talked about during the interview process surprised me at first. It wasn’t something I had really thought about. And I wasn’t sure it even existed. Being LGBTQ and BIPOC, I know well the lack of diversity in communications, so I have always depended on my expertise. But I can’t overemphasize the importance of this: they wanted all of me.
How did I personally experience the WE culture of belonging? When my manager, Jamie Jang, checked in with me the day Derek Chauvin’s verdicts were announced, to let me know it was okay to take time away from work, if necessary, to process the day’s events. When Global CEO and Founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin announced generous 8 for You opportunities (extra paid days off to take at your own discretion) to recharge during a stressful year. When President of North America and Chief Client officer Dawn Beauparlant hosted virtual new hires gatherings on Teams so people who have never stepped foot in a WE office can feel better connected to the agency. ACTIONS make purpose real.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ll never forget it. Early in my career at my first PR job out of college, I was sending a personal email to my best friend, Lisa. Instead, it went to a journalist I had cultivated a relationship with for clients, who shared the same first name. I felt so foolish even though the editor kindly replied asking if I meant to send them the email. It was an important reminder to slow down, and triple check your work.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Microsoft Store, as part of a pilot program, is using its business solutions team to support a local business though the pandemic by aiding with their digital transformation. To achieve this, the owners of Sairen, the business selected for this project, will receive new devices, subscriptions to business services, and consultations with product experts to improve their company’s productivity, mobility, and security. It’s fulfilling knowing your work is making a direct and positive impact in a community.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
What a great question! Well since you asked, let’s go there.
1. You’ll Get a Seat at the Table…Eventually — It’s no secret there’s a diversity problem in the PR industry. It’s simply a tale of the numbers. 76.4% of Public relations specialists are White (Non-Hispanic), making that the most common race or ethnicity in the occupation. Representing 7.95% of Public relations specialists, Black (Non-Hispanic) is the second most common race or ethnicity in this occupation. When I would freelance at various agencies, I was always surprised to be the only BIPOC person in meetings. It became clear as I took on more assignments that I was experiencing an industry-wide phenomenon. But things are changing. One of the things I’m most proud of working at WE Communications is that they are building a culture of belonging. Elizabeth Herrera Smith, executive vice president and head of DEI leads an impressive team of professionals in this area. Her authentic passion for this work is one of the things that made me seriously consider the agency. I now have hope that my hard work will lead me expeditiously toward a seat at the table.
2. Don’t Be Afraid — Everyone at every level has had to battle fear. No matter what you’ve achieved, the feeling can creep in to steal your thunder. I am not immune. There remain moments when I encounter feelings of self-doubt. Then I remind myself that everyone is human and it’s those that acknowledge their fear and do it anyway that succeed. In trying to reframe fear, the best advice I heard came from Barbra Streisand who said, “Fear is the energy behind doing your best work.” What a positive way to look at it! Indeed, a good reminder for us all.
3. Work-Life Balance is Crucial– Working yourself to the bone will leave you depleted and could ignite feelings of resentment, especially if your personal sacrifices aren’t reciprocated financially or even appreciated. You may think you’re being a super employee by always putting in those extra hours but you’re actually hurting yourself. Balance is the key! Taking time to recharge and regroup is what truly promotes productivity, and sparks creativity. During the Morse Code PR years, I completely ignored my personal life in favor of putting all my time and energy into the business. My life was imbalanced, and it showed up in weight gain and other areas. I don’t think I took a single vacation during the tenure of my business. By the end, I was burned out. Breaks aren’t a nice to have, they are a must have to ensure your creative juices are flowing and that the vessel that is the brainchild for these ideas is healthy.
4. There Are No Mistakes, Just Lessons to be Learned — As a young executive and then business owner, I used to take everything personally. I remember being slack-jawed the first time a client left or didn’t pay their bill. I couldn’t wrap my head around the concepts. Eventually you come to accept that clients come and go and sometimes they don’t pay their bills. It’s just part of a natural rhythm of business. You’re not always going to win that new account and that’s okay. I suppose the reward of being in the industry for a while is that you realize you can survive business disappointments. They can build character and serve as motivation to move onward and upward. Almost all my professional disappointments have led me to something greater. So, I remain grateful for the experience…the good and the bad.
5. Mentors Can Change Your Life — Another sign of the times is how seemingly overnight; companies are investing in DEI marketing initiatives. It’s gone from niche to mainstream. Luckily for me over the last 15 years I’ve had the privilege to work with a pioneer in the brand marketing, DEI and multicultural marketing space, Cheryl Overton. Through Ms. Overton, I’ve had exposure working on campaigns for brands including Target and Nextdoor. Her mentorship has shaped and elevated my career beyond measure. You never know who you’re going to meet and how that connection can shape your life. The key is to be open to new experiences and not to be intimidated by exploring new landscapes.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
I would love to. These are my tried-and-true strategies that have served me well through the years:
- Connect the Dots –This one comes easily to me and is at the heart of my personal and professional brand. Think of it as being of service. When I get to know a person, I immediately think: how can I support them? It can be a dentist referral or an introduction to a business contact. It’s how I connect clients to influencers, TV hosts, and the people and talent that will move the needle of their business. This comes down to three things: thoughtfulness, empathy, and generosity — you must be thoughtful to think about someone else for five minutes, empathetic to put yourself in their shoes, and generous to lend your contacts even if there isn’t something in it for you.
- Follow Up is Critical — The most frustrating conversations are the ones with people who don’t follow up but complain they didn’t get the result they desired. “I didn’t want to bother them,” is something I hear a lot. I don’t know how to be clearer. You’re not bothering anyone! The reality is that people are busy, stretched thin and multitasking like never before. They need friendly reminders and are generally appreciative of them. The more comfortable you become with this practice the better results you’ll garner.
- Kindness Counts — Recently, I was on the Tamron Hall Show and that TV appearance came about because I maintained a relationship with a producer long after we worked together on a segment for The Oprah Winfrey Show. This producer liked me and wanted to stay connected. It always surprised me when editors, producers, and talent would marvel and remark how “nice” I was. Then I experienced some real nasty yet very successful PR “professionals” and it all made sense. I questioned whether I should change my path to role model their behavior. But after deep reflection, I came to understand the best way for me to be effective was to be authentically true to myself. For me, that meant practicing manners, regulating my emotions, and treating people with the dignity and respect they deserve. Not only is it in my DNA, but it’s also a superpower I utilize to connect human to human. And guess what? People prefer to work with people who are nice. 😊
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Being successful in PR is all about two things: generating amazing results for your clients and relationships. You do your research, understand the target audiences, and then create a strategic PR plan that, when executed, gets great results through relationships (media, networking, businesses). Then you generate new business by promoting yourself or your company using those results. And those results often compel happy clients to make referrals to other potential clients.
That model worked for me when I ran my own agency. Many of my new clients came directly as referrals from satisfied clients. I also cultivated amazing relationships with national and local media all across the country. Media know who the good PR people are through their attitude, responsiveness, and knowledge of their clients’ business. I also received referrals from media, too. Results and relationships are key.
Whether you operate your own firm or work at an agency (as I do now), you should always be looking for new business to flow and grow. This is something many entrepreneurs forget to do or put aside because they are so busy doing the work for the clients they already have. The most important aspect of successful lead generation is making sure to do your own PR. This starts with a compelling website that makes people want to hire you, one that showcases your outstanding results and services while having the vibe that attracts the clients you want to support. Make sure to work with a good digital team to optimize SEO results.
You can also generate leads/promote yourself and your work through networking. Participate in professional association events, for instance as a speaker or panelist. Attend key industry events in your city. Do your own publicity by pitching stories to PR industry media, on social media, and LinkedIn. Position yourself as a thought leader on certain topics with business media or by writing a guest blog at an online portal with a large following of your potential clients. Since I was particularly savvy with media and developing strategic plans that got fantastic media coverage (something all my clients wanted), I often focused on these topics as a speaker, through bylined articles and social media posts. Promoting success generated qualified leads.
In addition, I do research. I pay attention to people, products and companies who will benefit greatly from PR services soon. I look at their websites. I familiarize myself with their digital footprint. I evaluate their competition, as well as their strengths. I strategize their opportunities. Then I reach out through cold calling or email, sometimes connecting through mutual business acquaintances or friends. People like that you are prepared and get them, get what they care about and care about what they need. That is key to good relationships.
Lastly, volunteer for a national charity you want to support. One with high visibility is better. One based in your city is best. Offer your PR services pro bono for specific high visibility events. National non-profits have influential Board members from potential client companies. Getting involved by giving your time and talent also partners you with other executives who work for businesses and brands that may need PR support or may be thinking of switching agencies. I’ve literally had people give me their business just because they liked working with me so much on a non-profit project!
Results and relationships. Doing your own PR. Do excellent research by anticipating needs. That’s how you are successful at lead generation.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Rogers’ Rules for Success by Henry C. Rogers was my bible and road map when I was in the infancy of my PR career. His rule, “Help as many people as you can, in as many ways as you can, for as long as you can,” resonated with me profoundly. It would support my concept of connecting the dots that ultimately became and remains part of my professional brand.
Presently, I draw inspiration, knowledge, and perspective from NPR’s Code Switch. I find the overlapping themes of race, ethnicity, and culture, how they play out in our lives and communities, and how all of this is shifting, fascinating. It keeps me current and provides insights that I can use in my work.
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Imagine a country where every child from birth to Kindergarten is surrounded by books and has an adult who reads with them every day. A place where everyone has access to high-quality early education that fosters a foundation for a lifelong love of reading and learning. That’s the country I want to live in!
More than 8.5 Million children in the United States lack access to the literacy resources they need. I grew up in an under-resourced community and understand how fortunate I was to have access to books and wonderful stories from an early age. It supported my speech development, ignited my affinity for writing, and ultimately public speaking. I believe when children are exposed to books early, they enhance their critical thinking, creative expressions, and intellectual curiosity. The world of books shaped my life and I want to live in a world where every child has quality foundational literacy access and opportunities as early as possible.
An organization that I believe in, endorse, and support is Books for Kids. This nonprofit is committed to children’s literacy, particularly for under-served communities. They create libraries and implement literacy programs to help children develop the critical early literacy and social-emotional skills they need to be successful in kindergarten and beyond. Supporting organizations like this can go a long way toward improving childhood literacy.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.