Be honest. Always be honest, with your supervisors, your team, your clients and with the media. Telling the truth isn’t always easy, especially when someone makes a mistake or when there’s a negative situation, but even so, a good publicist will never lie. Reputations can be tarnished quickly when there’s lying involved, whereas honesty, even about something negative, can actually build respect and trust between a PR pro and their team, clients and media relationships.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Lowe, Founder and CEO of New Jersey-based BML Public Relations. Brian began his career in the “big PR agency” world, working with household name brands like Campbell’s, Disney, Oreo and many more. Twelve years ago, Brian took a leap and started his own firm, which has now become an award-winning agency of 15 employees and growing, representing big brands like Applebee’s, Panera Bread, Lucky Strike Entertainment and more, and totaling more than $1.3 million a year in revenue.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was in college, there was an opening as a PR chair for the student government and my advisor thought it was a good role for me. I have to admit that at the time, I didn’t know why he was choosing me especially because I hadn’t yet decided to go into PR. But he saw it as a natural fit. Although it wasn’t an intense position, I did come to realize that PR was a great path for me — I could help companies communicate their message, create crazy, out-of-the-box ideas and actually get paid for it!
After college, I took a position at an agency that was very politically tied in New Jersey, so the accounts weren’t that fun or creative. I found myself needing something more. I expanded my horizons and jumped into the consumer PR agency world at a great place that was really on the cusp of making a name for itself in the industry — and they did. It was a really exciting time in the history of that agency as they really took off. It was there that I honed my media relations skills — after some great advice from the founder — and focused more on the creative approach — realizing that the sky was the limit. Several years later, thankful for everything I had learned at that agency, I took the leap and started my own PR shop.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I don’t think that there’s one real interesting story as much as the many interesting people that I have met along the way. Between green rooms at TV stations and the various events I’ve attended, I have met an interesting cast of characters along the way. One morning I was in the green room at PIX 11 Morning News in New York City when Dog the Bounty Hunter walked in the door, looked over at me and in his gruff voice said, “MORNIN’ BRO.” Two minutes later, Diff’rent Strokes star Todd Bridges walked through the door. It was like a bizarre dream. But really, I’ve met some really cool celebs, notably music icon DMC of RUN DMC (who is probably the nicest person on earth), actors Susan Sarandon and Christopher Maloney, Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran and Comedian Jim Breuer, to Playboy Playmates, pro football and baseball players actors and more.
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?
When I went out on my own, I was only a Senior Account Executive, so I really wanted to make mistakes. Baptism by fire is a big belief of mine. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t cost anyone — or myself — any money during that “learning” process. One funniest mistake that stands out to me is a promotion I did for a client who was one of the largest Table Tennis table producers in the country. I researched and found out that there was a National Table Tennis Day. PERFECT! We could do a whole campaign — a survey with funny statistics, a funny offer, etc. — all completely tied table tennis and it would be great. The day before our launch, after all of our creative tactics were in motion and in place, we found out that it was National Table Tennis Day in the U.K. only, no in the U.S. Ironically enough, with the support of a very understanding client, we decided to go through with the program, and thankfully, I’ve got some spectacular PR pros on my team, so the campaign generated some great media coverage! Lesson learned here — quadruple check your research!
How did you scale your business to profitability? How long did it take? Please share the steps you took.
I started my agency with a $300 press release and just kept building and maintaining relationships. As an individual — even one with a pedigree of working with some iconic brands — it was very difficult to open doors on my own, so I had to get scrappy and decided to partner with people who were already “in the room,” like advertising agencies.
So I started cold-calling ad agencies that didn’t have a PR arm, and if they could help sell me into their clients, I’d give them a percentage of the project or business. I actually picked up my first big regional brand this way. From there, I landed an opportunity with a franchise owner in NJ, and by doing fun and creative promotions locally, I was noticed by the “big guys” and given the chance do PR for the national brand. From there, word of mouth and great results helped my agency grow and we’ve now built a nice little niche in the consumer, restaurant, and hospitality industry. From there, I was getting references from all of my clients and just continued to build my client base.
Until this day, I still continue to talk to everyone I know, and even those that I don’t know, always looking for synergy and/or for ways to help amplify their businesses. Now, 12 years later, our agency is continuing to grow on a constant basis, with referrals coming in frequently.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I have to say, I really enjoy working with all of our clients, especially the ones that say yes to all of our outrageous ideas! One example is our client Villa Restaurant Group, owners of a number of quick-service restaurant brands nationwide, who we’ve come up with some of our best creative PR campaigns for, generating tremendous media coverage and engagement from consumers. Because of the success of some of our creative PR ideas, that have frequently gone viral, the brand has reinvented its image, going from an old world Italian pizza brand to fun-loving and spontaneous.
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s also great to be a part of something bigger or watch a brand grow, change or take shape. For example, through work with large franchise groups, we represent half of the Applebee’s locations in the U.S., a brand that has placed emphasis on reinventing itself over the last year. The rebranding is really paying off, with financials up 7% across the board, and I like to think that our PR efforts helped to play a role in helping to amplify this. It’s nice to see hard work result in such an uptick.
Another part of the business which my team and I find challenging and stimulating is the crisis part of PR. Whereas no one wants to see their client go through a crisis, every single situation is different, so it keeps you on your toes and constantly thinking and adapting.
But in all honesty, I truly find all of my clients’ work exciting and stimulating in different ways. We really climb into their business and try to understand all aspects of it the way they do. From costs to operational challenges — having that insight is crucial as we ideate for them. We’re all still learning every day which is the best part of PR.
Based on your personal experience, what advice would you give to young people considering a career in PR?
· Focus on media relations — phone pitching, phone pitching, phone pitching. It’s not just to land the story on the tip of your tongue — it’s osmosis that over time will create the natural instinct when it comes to developing impactful PR strategies vs concepts that are just “eh.” Understand why media have embraced a pitch, or — most importantly — why they’re passing.
· Understand your clients’ business goals like they do. As a consumer agency that heavily works in the fast-casual restaurant category, understanding things like food costs are crucial. You can generate publicity for publicity’s sake all day long. But if it doesn’t have an impact, then what’s the point?
· Have some fun! As consumers, we’re being marketed to from every direction. It’s exhausting. These are tense times, so if you can, position your brand to be the levity in the situation. Make it big. Make it fun. Make it newsworthy. Be creative and have some fun.
· Always be creative. Brainstorm for your client on a continuous basis and always try to find creative and unique ways to keep them in the news. Is there a current news story that your client can comment on? Or is there a trending topic that you can “news-jack” and insert your client’s name into the mix? Is there a competitor that you can start a fun feud with? Always be on the lookout for opportunities to be creative — they’re everywhere!
· Be honest. Always be honest, with your supervisors, your team, your clients and with the media. Telling the truth isn’t always easy, especially when someone makes a mistake or when there’s a negative situation, but even so, a good publicist will never lie. Reputations can be tarnished quickly when there’s lying involved, whereas honesty, even about something negative, can actually build respect and trust between a PR pro and their team, clients and media relationships.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
I love talking with people I know, but I also love meeting new people and finding about them and what they’re up to. You never know where there could be synergy and chemistry. Once you’ve made the connection, maintain contact and continue to build the relationship. Reach out to them to say hello, pass along something of interest to them or try to meet up for dinner or drinks.
But when it comes to the most important part of networking, I find that reciprocation is key. Many people will meet someone and automatically think “what can this person do for me?” But it’s got to be a two-way street. Be ready and willing to provide them with something they might need and try to always think of ways you can help them. When people know that you have their best interest in mind, they’ll do the same for you.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
A book that has really helped changed my perspective is “Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor. Its main point is that happiness results in success and NOT that if we are more successful, then we’ll be happier. There are so many stresses associated with running a business, and you can’t let it take over because it will end up defining you and your company. Choose to be happy first and then figure out ways to manage the rest. The rest will fall in place because your perspective is in the right spot.
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?
Being a media junkie, I am constantly connected to my social media channels. There is way too much negativity on social media, from negative news to people commenting negatively on other people’s pages and feeds. It’s enough. Remember the saying we were told growing up, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all?” I would like to create a movement that had people truly think about that quote prior to posting anything on social media. I think that if people cross-referenced that line against the content of every post they just impulsively threw up on the page, it would tremendously reduce the amount of negativity. Maybe it’s some kind of a viral challenge — instead of posting texts about the 25lbs turkey challenge, which is funny but meaningless, let’s encourage people to post good news only. I think it would generally put people in a better mindset.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
I don’t know that I necessarily see it as five things that I wish someone told me before I started as much as here are some important things that I have learned now that I’m 12 years into the business:
· Family comes first. I have an amazing wife and two boys, ages 4 and 6. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of nights where I’ve come home from a long day at the office after they’ve been asleep for hours or have had to go on business trips for multiple days at a time. Those things will always happen — and have to happen to help grow a business. It’s not always easy. But I also make it a point to be there for parent teacher conferences, sports, school concerts and activities and much more. They’re growing up so fast, that I don’t want to miss those key commitments when I have the flexibility to work my schedule around them. Make it a priority or you’ll regret it later.
· Ride out the downturns — as great as it is to launch and start a company, it will test every ounce of you. It’s difficult. But don’t give up — just keep plugging away as the universe has a crazy way of working. Opportunities come knocking at the strangest times.
· People are the key. I’ll never forget the first time I realized how hard my team worked towards executing something that was part of my vision. They were determined and worked so hard to get it done — which they did. I’ll never forget how good it felt. I’m very fortunate. Every single person on my team is a rock star and I’m thankful for each and every one of them. I also make it a point of showing them how much I appreciate them. From buying the office lunch to unusual PTO days like Super Bowl Monday, I try to throw them extras and perks to let them know I appreciate their hard work. Besides, who doesn’t want to play the occasional day of hooky and go have cocktails on the beach?
· Don’t be a creature of habit. It’s the worst thing for you mentally and for your business. A couple of years ago, I briefly fell into the trap. Things were humming along, but I became lazy and wasn’t trying to look at different ways of improving the business daily. As a result, I got sloppy and that trickled down to my team. We were still killing it for our clients, but we weren’t do anything that really excited us. Once we realized it, (and thankfully it didn’t take us long to realize it), we shook things up and are now cognizant of how easy it is to fall into that trap. So we keep each other accountable to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
· Take time to smell the roses. For a while, I was too busy focusing on the things that we haven’t yet achieved instead of taking a moment to recognize how far we’ve come. Recognizing how much you’ve achieved is an inspirational shot in the arm.