‘I Love This Business’: Douglas K. Spong’s PR Passion

January 8, 2014

Douglas K. Spong, APR, Fellow PRSA, exhibits the same type of enthusiasm today as he likely did trying to break into the profession 30-plus years ago.

“You know, part of it is a sense that the more experience I gain, the more questions I have about everything,” he says. “The other thing is I’m challenged by the business because there is so much change to it and this opportunity to, in a sense, reinvent yourself, reinvent your firm, reinvent the work that you do in this profession every day.”

To recognize his contributions to the profession, PRSA presented its highest individual honor, the Gold Anvil Award, to Spong on Oct. 28 during the PRSA 2013 International Conference in Philadelphia. [See the video here.]

Spong began his career in 1981 at Colle & McVoy. He then founded Carmichael Lynch Spong in 1990 at the age of 31.

Here, Spong discusses his humbling start in public relations, growth as a leader and love for the profession.

How did you get your first PR job?

I went into my undergraduate education in 1977 as a bright-eyed freshman. All I knew was I wanted to write. I wasn’t sure where that was going to lead me.

In the School of Journalism at Iowa State at that time, you had four career paths: You could go advertising, print journalism, broadcast journalism or public relations.

I decided that I didn’t want to be somebody who was just reporting on others making the news. What appealed to me about public relations was the fact that I would be the one intimately involved in making the news that others report.

So at that time, you wrote a good old-fashioned cover letter, and you attached to that your printed résumé. I literally wallpapered my fraternity room with rejection letters that I got from firms from New York, Chicago, Minneapolis.

Some people might look at that as, ‘Oh, that had to bring you down.’ It was actually my motivation to keep going. I ended up getting my first opportunity at a shop here in Minneapolis, Colle & McVoy, which is now Exponent PR. I think, at that time, I was employee number four in public relations. I ended up spending the next nine years there growing up in the business before I left to found Carmichael Lynch Spong.

At what point did you think that you might want to start your own agency?

The entrepreneurial bug bit me at a young age — about 26 or 27 years old. I always saw myself, at some point, founding and owning my own thing. And then, my longtime partner, Lee Lynch, came along.

Frankly, it was one of those too-good-to-be-true things, where he said, ‘Look, let’s use my money, and you found this thing, and let’s build a PR firm together.’ So that’s exactly what we did. I used his money and my sweat equity. Together, we started Carmichael Lynch Spong in 1990.

What were some of the early leadership lessons that you faced?

We were fortunate to be a values-based business from the start. We had a well-established vision and mission for who we wanted to be, both long and short term.

There were three founding principles. The first one is we decided that we were going to be known as one of the world’s great creative firms and be the undisputed champion of best practices. In other words, set the high-water mark for great thinking, great ideas and great work in the PR profession.

The second principle talks about the staff that we attract. [We look for] like-minded achievement addicts. [Like-minded meaning] the values that they have, how they approach their work, how collaborative they are together. And, of course, we’re looking for people who have this great trail of success wherever they’ve been in their careers.

And then the third of the three founding principles talks about our clients. [We want to] represent a select but envied portfolio of great brand-name clients. We’re a shop that is picky about the organizations that we represent.

How did you develop your own management style? Were there some people in the world who you admired, some great leaders of the time or any other mentors you had?

When I worked at Colle & McVoy, Tommy Thompson was our CEO. He had a big sense of humor, and he loved to mentor young professionals. He’s no longer living, but I look back with a high degree of fondness on Tommy as my first real mentor.

Lee Lynch, my partner here at Carmichael Lynch Spong, was someone who, like Tommy, has an enormous sense of humor. The two of them really shaped the fact that this should be a fun business, and there isn’t a lot of room for people who have sharp elbows and can’t get along well with other people. And so you’ve got a choice. You can either make it fun, or you can make it misery, and by golly, let’s choose to make it fun.

The third mentor to me — it’s more of a collective — is PRSA. I joined PRSA in 1984 with this desire to learn. I was fortunate that within my first year, people reached out to me and brought me on a committee. And the people who I met on those committees, even to this day, I would consider not only mentors but longtime friends in this business.

What career advice do you give people now, particularly to new professionals?

The one thing I stress to them, especially young professionals right out of school, is the importance of lifelong learning.

The more you experience in this business, the more questions you are going to have. That’s just the way it works. And how you answer some of those questions depends on how well you surround yourself with the right kind of people.

So pick the people to network with carefully, because they’re going to have a great influence in terms of your own career.

But at the end of the day, you’re responsible for you, so reach out and don’t be shy about asking for help.

What would the Doug Spong of today go back and tell the Doug Spong starting his career as an account executive in 1981?

I think I’d say, “You’ve done all right.”

The second thing is probably the willingness to make even more mistakes. I had such a strong perfectionist personality that there were times when I could have taken bigger risks, pushed the thinking in some ways.

I was always so concerned about not wanting to let someone down that [I waited] to present an idea until it was neatly packaged and the bow tied.

How do you see expectations of the client changing, especially with this continued onslaught of social media?

There used to be a saying in the industry where it was good, fast, cheap — pick any two. Now there’s no longer a tradeoff. Clients today have an expectation for all three. And part of that is the instant nature of social, living in the here and now.

The other part of it is just a reset in client attitudes coming out of the Great Recession. There’s an expectation that you do more with less, and what you did for me yesterday isn’t going to carry you through tomorrow. You constantly have to prove yourself.

How do you think the PR profession in general is adapting to meet this overwhelmingly social world that we live in now?

It really takes a family approach to effectively raise a brand today.

This is probably heresy for a lot of PR people, but social is not the property of any one discipline.

There’s a paid component to it, whether it’s search [engine] optimization or sponsored tweets. The ability to understand how to reach [your] target socially through paid [media] is a big piece of it, but that’s not the only piece.

The second piece of it is the organic, which is historically where PR has stepped in. Brand journalism really belongs in PR. If you look back at the history of PR, dating back to Edward Bernays, that generation all came out of either military public information jobs or they came out of news. Essentially, it was old-school brand journalism in those days. There is a big opportunity to really think like a journalist and manage a brand in a social channel that way.

The third piece of it is the owned part of social — not only how you help consumers curate interesting content today, but more important, how you help consumers actually create their own original content. Some of that is through digital and apps. Vine, for instance, is a great technology, where a consumer can create a six-second little video. They can have the pride of authorship and ownership of that, and share that on their social channels.

The more brands can help consumers create their own original content, the more that consumer wants to really interact and activate with the brand.

What continues to keep you motivated in regard to public relations?

I’m challenged by the business. There is this opportunity to, in a sense, reinvent yourself, reinvent your firm, reinvent the work that you do every day. To me, that’s an exciting thing to explore — to be inventive, to take risks and to try things that haven’t been done before.

And then the other thing is, frankly, the staff that I work with inspires me to create ideas that help defy gravity for our clients. At the end of the day, that’s why I do what I continue to do, and I love this business.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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