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Silver Anvil Preview: 5 Questions With John O’Hurley of 'Seinfeld'

June 2, 2015

John O'Hurley
John O'Hurley

Award-winning actor John O’Hurley will host PRSA’s annual Silver Anvil Awards Ceremony on Thursday at the AXA Equitable Center in Manhattan.

Tactics spoke with the former PRSA member about his PR roots, “Seinfeld,” the art of storytelling, the J.Peterman Company, and the parallels between acting and public relations.

You were a PR professional early on. Why did you choose public relations as your career path?

Since I was three years old, I defined myself as an actor. That’s all I was. People would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and, with a sense of disgust, I would put my hands on my hips and I would point to the television in the corner of the room and I would say, “Well, I am an actor, so that’s what I’m going to be.”

And so, I grew up with an idea that I was an actor and this is what I would naturally do. I went through my entire life doing everything theatrical that you could do as a child in Hartford, Conn., and I majored in it in college and minored in voice.

In about the last three or four weeks of college, I started to get the shivers a little bit, and I realized people were going off to the Big Eight accounting firms for their jobs after college, and some were going to become salesmen for Campbell’s Soup. All of these wonderful perks were coming along, and people were saying, “So, what are you doing? Are you going to New York?” I said, “Yeah, I guess I’m going to New York.”

[There was] the realization that I didn’t know anyone, had no agent, had no idea of the business of acting and had no alumni that really could help coach you through it. I was the only theater graduate my senior year [at Providence College], so consequently, I won the Theater Award, but not by much!

I trained for something and I realized, “Oh, my goodness. I don’t know how to succeed in it and take it to the next level.” So like a deer in the headlights, I went back to Hartford, lived with my parents for a little bit and tried to figure out what I was going to do. I was scared to death of the business of acting — and I should have been, because it’s not for the faint of heart.

So I put all my thinking together and I went to the next most theatrical thing that I could think of, which was public relations and advertising, and I figured that my skills were parallel in many respects.

What was your first job in public relations?

My first job was wrapping boxes at an industrial advertising agency in Hartford, Conn. It was Colt Industries. They make machine tools. They’re not a very pretty industry, but they had an in-house advertising agency and PR agency.

I would go to work every day in a suit and tie, and when I got there, I would take the tie off and roll up my sleeves and I would go do my wrapping the boxes thing in the ad agency. I just wouldn’t allow myself to think that I was not successful, or not going to be successful. And then during lunchtime, I went around to the agency and I learned everybody else’s job.

I learned the art director’s job, I learned the typesetter’s job, I learned the job of the person that was doing the paste-ups at the time and the graphic arts area. I learned printing, I learned copy writing, I learned everybody’s job because I figured I wasn’t brought this way to fail, so I better move myself up quickly, and I did. In two years, I was out of there, and I was director of public relations for one of the teaching affiliates at Yale School of Medicine in Waterbury Hospital.

So I moved quickly into public relations. I spent several years there and then went to the top post at the National Red Cross in Connecticut. I was director of public relations for them, for the blood services program in the state of Connecticut and for the disaster relief team as well — the whole American Red Cross.

It finally hit me that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do and I knew it. It never left me — that little three-year-old was still calling to me. That’s when I decided to pull the plug and resign. I went to New York and I got my first show 48 hours after I arrived there — this was in 1981.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about storytelling and engaging an audience from playing J. Peterman in your role on “Seinfeld,” or from any acting really?

Everything begins from the point of innocence. That’s how you tell a story. I think you always begin with introspection so that people can see what you’re thinking about — that the story is occurring to you as you’re telling it, and that’s the essence of what Peterman was always about. It was always as though you were almost capturing the story kind of mid-sentence, as it’s occurring to him.

His stories didn’t start with “Once upon a time.” It always started: “So anyway, as I was saying to…” [Laughs.] It’s kind of mid-thought, and it’s a wonderful sense of the point of innocence — to get to the point. If you’re going to tell a story, tell it from an interesting perspective. Attack your listener, your audience, so that they listen to you.

You’re now part owner of the real J. Peterman Company. In a sense, would you say that you do public relations for them every day now?

Absolutely. I’m kind of identified with the company. We are one and the same, and it’s the funniest story of American media. When Marshall McLuhan once said that the message and the medium will eventually become indistinguishable, I’m the living example of that. I liked the role so much that I bought the company. And I’m clearly identified with Peterman, and he’s kind of a cliché or a little colloquialism in pop culture, and I don’t mind it — I love it. It’s nice. I love to be able to take that half-look over my shoulder and see that you left something on the table that people still remember.

But in terms of doing public relations for them every day, absolutely, I do. Everybody always says, “How are things going over at J. Peterman?” Well, if I’m on Fox Business or if I’m on CNBC or if I’m on the “Today” show, they always want to talk about it. Of timely coincidence, actually, I’m heading to Costa Rica in two weeks with J. Peterman himself, John Peterman, to begin filming the sizzle reel for a Travel Channel pilot called “Uncommon Goods,” which is the travels of the real Peterman and I together.

What relationship do you see between theater, acting and public relations? Does one inform the other for you?

Yes, because I move back and forth between corporate communications now, as a spokesman for many companies, and I do a lot of motivational speaking.

I find that the storytelling continues. I went into it because I wasn’t as interested in telling someone else’s story as I was my own, I guess — my own interpretation of things that you do in theater. You add your personal view rather than the corporate view, and that’s what attracted me to acting and what kept me in it. It’s more of the personal poetry, rather than the business poetry. However, the business poetry has never left me. I still find myself engaged with corporations now, from Xerox to Coors. I’m the spokesman for a bunch of people — like AARP — and I’m telling their story through who I am. So I love that too, but I find the parallels are very similar.

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of PRSA's publications. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.

 

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