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guiding the career in public relations

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Mark Bain

 

In the Watergate era, when newspapers were widely trusted and reporters were more admired, I chose journalism as my first college major.  But I eventually switched to advertising/public relations because I thought it would combine my interests in business with a curiosity about persuasion and my developing writing skills. 

I was blessed to have an extraordinary professor and mentor, the late Parry D. Sorensen, at the University of Utah. Parry encouraged and helped me to take on a total of nine internships that made me smarter and more marketable as a newly minted grad.  He also re-opened the door for me at Burson-Marsteller after my initial application was rejected.  A few weeks after graduating, I moved to New York, then the center of the public relations universe, to work for Burson, then the second largest PR firm in the world. 

My initial plans to stay at Burson for just two years were repeatedly revised, as I was continually exposed to new opportunities which helped me to learn as a professional and grow as a person.  My first clients were international B2B companies, and before my second year in my very first job, I traveled outside the United States for the first time.  I flew on the Concorde to Paris, which opened my eyes to different cultures and places.  And every time I cross the Atlantic now, I recall how the Concorde did it in just half the time with twice the panache.

In a conscious move to broaden my experience base, I switched to B2C communications for Burson clients a few years later.  Then, in 1984, I moved to Los Angeles to work on the Olympics, which provided exposure to sports marketing and event management. Upon returning, I continued to work in those areas, but also got involved in some corporate issue and crisis management work, again to broaden my professional portfolio.  This was followed by a posting in Burson’s Hong Kong office, where I arrived three months before the historic events in Tiananmen Square – a crash course on politics, history and culture in the region.

After working and traveling throughout Asia for almost three years, I transferred to Japan in 1991 to be Managing Director of a now defunct joint venture between Burson and Dentsu.  Japan’s economy tanked that year, and we had to cut 20% of our costs quickly to become profitable.  We did – without massive layoffs, I am proud to say.  The position gave me a better appreciation for managing a professional services firm, insight which serves me well in my current role.

In 1995, Amway asked me to head international communications from their headquarters in Michigan.  I seized the chance to work globally again and spent the next 10+ years building a worldwide team, re-branding the company (parent company Alticor), and spearheading the creation of an innovative program in corporate reputation management – a program so advanced in practice that it rewarded worldwide management not just for the usual financial results, but also for building and protecting reputation.  I also led the creation of the company’s global cause, a program that has since grown to provide more than $70 million in support for 6 million disadvantaged children around the world.

I did a short stint with the Reputation Institute, and then opened my own strategic communications firm, upper 90 Consulting, in early 2007.  That was off to a great start, and my inner entrepreneur was fully awakened.  But then Baker & McKenzie, a large and uniquely global law firm, asked me to head its internal and external communications function, an offer that was simply too special to pass up.

For me, working in a professional services firm (and a law firm, in particular), is great. But I will be the first to admit that it’s not the right choice for everyone.  Here are just some of the things you can expect in such an environment:

• Lawyers are smart, organized and disciplined. They pay close attention to detail, and they work exceptionally long, busy hours. Combined with their ingrained tendency to minimize risk, this creates a work environment where communicators must be fully prepared to make a persuasive case based on appropriate facts/data and mindful of past precedent, and to defend their position in a vigorous yet civil manner. 

• Lawyers value language and writing as much as any professional.  It’s not unusual for a document to go through 10 or more rounds of edits.  You must be a good writer to work in law firm communications (and, for that matter, any business).  And you need thick skin, especially when you get into the later rounds of edits.

• Lawyers are competitive.  As much as anyone I’ve met, they really want to win cases, promotion, recognition, etc.  If you can’t stand this particular heat, then you probably should stay away from this type of kitchen.

• The legal business is changing in several substantial and dramatic ways, and the global economic downturn is adding fuel to the fires for change. This can be exhilarating for some but frightening to others. Consider your tolerance level for change before you join a law firm.

2 Comments

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Michael // Aug 22, 2010 at 3:26 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Mark. You provide very valuable insight for an outsider like me and as a former lawyer I particularly appreciate your view on working in a law firm. In several points you mention I recognise reasons for which I decided to turn my back to law firms.
    In your view, what would the natural skills of a former lawyer be that would make him/her a valuable addition in a PR environment (beyond the editing skills and attention to detail)? I have just finished my MBA and am looking to move into PR or a related, communications based sector.

  • 2 Mark Bain // Aug 23, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Michael, thanks for your comment. In brief, I believe the affinity most lawyers have for language is a highly transferable and valuable skill because persuasion depends on effective communication. Lawyers are also disciplined, a useful trait in client, talent and money management. Finally, with their training in advocacy and debate, lawyers have the potential to be quite successful in issue and crisis management, although effectiveness in this area requires an ability to balance reputational risk and legal risk.

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