Press Release


PR Pros: Gary Tobin Of TOBIN & Associates On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro

May 5, 2022

Have you seen the show Flack? Ever think of pursuing a real-life career in PR? What does it take to succeed in PR? What are the different forms of Public Relations? Do you have to have a college degree in PR? How can you create a highly lucrative career in PR? In this interview series, called “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro” we are talking to successful publicists and Public Relations pros, who can share stories and insights from their experiences.

As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gary Tobin.

Gary Tobin, principal of TOBIN & Associates, has spent more than two decades in the corporate communications and marketing world. His background includes senior corporate communications positions with Heublein Inc. (California wine unit); MCI Communications (as corporate spokesperson); American Express (head of North American public relations) and First Data Corp (SVP of Corporate Communications). He began his career as a journalist with the Palo Alto (CA) Times and later at the San Francisco Chronicle.

He has directed communications activities for IPOs involving First Data Corp, MoneyGram Payment Systems, The Sabre Group and ANC Car Rental. Among the clients for whom he was principal consultant have been Conectiv (an East Coast public utility), MoneyGram Payment Systems, Nortel, Shandwick-NY, the U.S. Department of Treasury (US Savings Bonds/Tbill retail sales program), WinStar Communications and (a 3D ISP).

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?

Iwas typical of my generation, having been a reporter at a major daily (San Francisco Chronicle) for five years when I realized that the financial aspects of daily journalism were not attractive. Through a series of serendipitous situations, I was offered a job in public relations by Heublein, Inc., which at the time owned a broad range of food and beverage brands and companies, including Kentucky Fried Chicken, several major California wineries, and Smirnoff vodka. I had mostly been a sportswriter and Heublein was heavily involved in sports promotions and activities, plus I had a budding wine collection. The proverbial marriage made in heaven. I had actually recommended someone else on the Chronicle staff for the job, but he didn’t take it and I called the person he had interviewed with and said, “if the job is still open, I’m interested.” It was and the offer came quickly.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

After working at several Fortune 100 companies for about 20 years, I decided it might be interesting and rewarding to set up my own consulting business. I was located in New York at the time, had a lot of contacts, and made the transition quickly with a steady list of clients. I found most of my assignments intellectually and professionally stimulating, but a few stand out. One was conducting a worldwide communications audit for a multinational Canadian telecom company. Halfway through the process, I realized that the root of the problem that the company was trying to fix was the fellow who had hired me. I told him that his staff didn’t respect him and felt that he had abandoned him, explaining that if I provided the “candid’s” of my interviews in my report that he wouldn’t fare well. He said go ahead, “I’m safe because senior management has my back.” I drafted the report, presented it to his senior management, and six months later he got fired. Another time, this time after I had moved back to California, and was restarting my consulting firm on the West Coast, I was sitting in my office around 7:30 in the morning when the phone rang. The woman on the line asked if I did “crisis” communications. I said “yes.” She said, “good, I have one.” She hired me after a brief conversation and from that relationship (she was the head of a community bank) I developed a group of clients in the financial services industry from referrals. Fortunately, as they changed companies, they brought me along as a consultant and they have remained clients for 15 years. In the same vein, I have a client now entering its 17th year that I also picked up by answering the telephone and saying “yes” and becoming involved in an area that I had zero knowledge of at the time.

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?

Once while hosting a reporter from Time Magazine who was researching an article about wine, I was demonstrating the proper technique to taste a glass. And proceeded to dribble the entire mouthful on my tie. What I learned was that I had better become an “expert” before claiming to be one. In other words, don’t get ahead of myself. Another time, while I was a sportswriter, I was pranked by some veteran scribes (that’s the word they liked) into trying to interview Willie Mays while he was in the jacuzzi. He never would talk to me after that because, as they laughingly told me when I told them what had happened, that the one place that was off-limits was the jacuzzi. What I learned there was that colleagues might not always have your best interests at heart. I also once wrote a press release about a promotion for someone at my company and released it, only to have the subject tell me later that he was going through a divorce and that his wife had cited his promotion as a reason for increased alimony. The ultimate lesson is getting approvals and not simply going ahead with something no matter how routine.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

For a community bank client, I am building its entrance presence in the cannabis industry. For another client, I am creating the first advertising program that it has undertaken in two decades with a text-heavy, educational approach. And for another, I have edited a book, “Rosa Parks, Beyond the Bus” that will be published on Juneteenth by the oldest African American publisher in the country.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you help articulate what the different forms of PR are?

While it has never been easy to define PR, it is increasingly clear that lines of distinction among PR, advertising, promotion, and marketing, to name a few disciplines, have all but disappeared. My approach has always been involved with the concepts of image and reputation. In my mind’s eye, image is what you say about yourself, and reputation is what others say about you. To go further, I believed that reputation was the territory of PR and image was in the advertising/promotion realm. That’s no longer necessarily true. I point to the proliferation of paid influencers and pay-for-play “editorial” coverage. In the context of your question, PR is an agglomeration of techniques and actions that change perceptions. This notion also requires that the term “free publicity” does not really describe anything. Almost without exception, there is some cost to generating publicity, positive or negative.

Where should a young person considering a career in PR start their education? Should they get a degree in communications? A degree in journalism? Can you explain what you mean?

Without discounting the impact of technology in all fields of communication, my sense is that the broadest education that involves the most amount of reading and writing is the way to go. I’d also urge students to delve into psychology and any subject matter that involves the study of decision-making. On a personal level, I never wanted to be an “expert” in any field as I went through the educational process. I realize that many firms these days have narrow search requirements, but the great PR people that I’ve met have portable skills, are great listeners, and quick learners.

You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?

My rule is that it never hurts to ask. At the same time, I am not a “joiner” although I have been at times. I look for “connections” in people’s backgrounds with my own or interests that may be similar. I generally find a way to introduce my journalism background into a conversation. In that regard, I am a conversationalist and I understand that every “transaction” with someone who I am “pitching” should not be a “pitch.” I’m looking to build relationships. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area after 20 years on the East Coast, the first thing that I did was to contact three former colleagues at the SF Chronicle who I had not spoken to during that entire period. The result was a series of introductions and suggestions that allowed me to quickly re-establish myself and build a successful practice from a base of no clients within a year.

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?

Read, study, research, call, email, and generally be proactive. You almost never get something if you’re not in the position to ask for it and then do. Before I approach a person or company, I do all the research that seems reasonable. I look to find if I have any connection with the individual that I am approaching or someone in the company or something in someone’s background that we might have in common. The search is more than cursory and less than in depth. What I want is enough to strike up and continue a conversation. And I don’t expect every interaction with someone to produce a direct result. I try to avoid being a transactional PR person.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career As A Public Relations Pro” and why.

You need to be inquisitive and capable of being a quick study. Also, knowing not only how to make a decision but also when to make one is crucial. And your integrity will take you a long way. I once sat in a meeting where the final terms of an important sale of my company’s asset was being finalized when I noticed that someone in the room had identified himself from a company who was a direct competitor and, to my mind, shouldn’t have been there. The only other person from my company at the meeting was our corporate counsel. I pointed out the situation and he shrugged it off. It didn’t make sense and I excused myself from the meeting and called the CEO of my company and suggested that something was not right. He asked what I suggested and I said we needed to walk away from the deal, which was in the $200MM range (a big deal in the early ‘80s). He gave me the okay with one caveat that I was to ask why the individual who I had mentioned was in the meeting to the assembled group. I did; the answer was clearly not true, and we walked away from the deal and later sold the subsidiary for a better price to another company. The entire process took less than 30 minutes from the time that I noticed what was going on to the time we quashed the deal. If we had not, we would have been selling our subsidiary to a direct competitor. Study, read, react, double check, and take action. Five things.

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. :-)

I am generally not political in my endeavors, but I did create a website in 2015, called In the nearly seven years that it has been up, I’ve generated tens of thousands of responses and a significant amount interesting media coverage. The point of the site was to assert the value of truth-telling and to expose obvious (to me) violations of public trust.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

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