March 25, 2008

A Day in the Life of PR: Interview with Ian Cheeseman

Ian Cheeseman has spent 25 years in the communications industry as a journalist and public relations executive. He has extensive experience in creating and executing communications strategies for a variety of US and European corporations. He is the president of LVA Communications, a global public relations firm which has provided provided support for a vast array of clients ranging from the Fortune 100 to early start-ups in its 18 year history.

What's your title?


How do you explain your job to your mother?

People pay me to make them famous. (The thought that I could make money by advising people how not to be foolish has always struck her as highway robbery.) If my clients have been bad, I keep them out of the newspapers. If they’ve been good, I get them in articles and on TV.

How did you get started?

I came out of the Royal Marines and was offered all sorts of jobs, none of which I liked. Someone suggested that computer programming was the thing to do. I went to IBM and received the lowest score ever on their programmer evaluation. [The decision came down to operator vs. programmer – I became an operator]. After two years, I started writing articles for the trade press about operating computers. Eventually someone offered me a job as a writer for the British version of Computer World. I worked as a journalist for four to five years, becoming editor in chief because none of the writers had management experience and I had a little and in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

[My wife] Holly got pregnant and said, “I’m not working any more,” which was a problem at the time because she earned four times what I did. I said, “Oh!” and began asking my friends what I should do. They said: “Go into public relations.” I went to work for a PR company in the UK and from there was headhunted to be director of PR for American Express Corporation. I worked for a couple of years in New York and [did not care for] corporate America, but got my MBA and left to start my own firm. I initially intended to be a one-person consultancy, but then ended up doing so much PR for people I knew when I was an editor and ended up with lots of technology clients so the company grew.

What was your last project?

We prepped a company to be sold. It was an Israeli software company that was acquired by NetApp. Topio [Our client] came to us two years ago and said, “We are basically in a niche software space.” They couldn’t make enough money to be profitable on their own so the best thing was to be bought out by someone else. [We had to] position them so they were an attractive candidate. After two years of strategic placements, they were acquired for $160M dollars.

Describe a typical day (or week) in your life when you're working.

[I spend] 50% of my time traveling. A typical week is in the office Monday and Friday, usually spending time with my staff going through what they’re doing; they work well on their own. During our agency meetings, everyone goes through their client lists, we discuss what they’re doing, if they’ve hit any walls, and need help brainstorming. If anything particular comes up, we spend an hour or two with each one to troubleshoot. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I’ll fly out to the west coast and spend time in client meetings. At my level, you don’t do a whole lot of writing; you still write speeches, but mainly you’re thinking of ideas and message development.

Seriously, at this level, it’s more important for clients to see you. One of the strangest things about this business is that your clients want to see the president, but he’s the person doing the least work on the account! I’m trying to explain to clients to spend more time with account managers because the account managers work for them on a daily basis.

How do you sharpen your skills continually?

One thing I persuade everyone to do is to read, listen to the news, and see why people are succeeding and failing. Don’t read management “how to” books; all you’re doing is standing ten pages behind whoever read it before you. The way you stay sharp is by a) working with people more intelligent than you and b) paying attention to what’s going on in the world.

In 1999, my staff busted me to go after dot com companies and I refused; I wouldn’t have any of them as a client. The reason I wouldn’t was because I couldn’t’ see what they were selling. In this business, you can make stuff up about people for six months but then it comes crashing down.

However, you can sell, write articles about and publicize good products and good companies. The key to staying sharp is paying attention; thinking hard about things; [looking at the] cost benefit analysis. Let me give you an example: if you look at ethanol it seems like a great idea on the surface but it’s a disaster. If you do a cost benefit analysis with intellectual rigueur, ethanol can’t possibly do what it says it can do for a variety of reasons. Converting land to corn to ethanol wouldn’t drive US oil consumption for two days because of the one-to-one exchange ratio. Every pound of green stuff in is one pound of energy out. On the other hand, one gallon of crude oil is 60 times the energy.

Something else: don’t take things on face value. Take the shrinking ice cap for example; it’s a normal phenomena. In 1848, it was possible to sail north around the American continent which means that 150 years ago, the ice cap was smaller than it is now.

Look for anomalies. Just because everyone says so doesn’t make it right. Hang out with really intelligent people, and talk to them.

What advice do you give to those who want to join the profession?

If you want to do PR, don’t get a communications degree. Get a degree in English or one of the sciences or anything that has real world application. It’s a lot easier to understand the world if you understand the more complex parts of it. I’ve only hired one person with a communications degree. Everyone else is either a writer, an engineer and so on. It’s easier to teach people to write to style than to think intelligently.

A series of questions:

What motivates you most about your job? What do you hate about your job?

I love seeing my clients’ name in lights: picking up a copy of the Wall Street Journal and reading about a client and knowing that we helped place them there. What I hate most are people who pay me to do my job and don’t take my advice.

Favorite job to date? Nightmare job that still haunts you?

I loved being a Marine. As for the nightmare job,I had a job when I was on leave once at a meat packing factory. I have not eaten canned meat since.

If you could go back in time and meet your pre-professional self, what would you tell him?

Run away fast! No, actually: don’t get an MBA, do a MSc (Master of Science).

What's your motto?

Leave me alone and let me get on with it. I hire the smartest people I can. I give them good direction and then leave them alone to do what they do well.