A few years after obtaining his Bachelor of Arts in English and Sociology from University College, Cork, in Ireland, O’Sullivan began working for his father’s firm. There, he gained valuable experience doing work for companies such as Pfizer, Ford, Novartis, Motorola, and Roche.
“The agency my father founded is one of the best-known independent consultancies in Ireland and one of the most successful,” O’Sullivan explains. “It was a great place to learn the intricacies of effective public relations—which my father defines simply as ‘reputation management.’ I was thrown in at the deep end and helped develop and implement a diverse array of programs and campaigns. That exposure really fast-tracked my training, not just in terms of PR but in terms of overall business.”
Seeking an even greater challenge, in 2002 O’Sullivan made the decision to move his career to the U.S.
“Cork, and even Ireland, is ultimately a pretty small market,” O’Sullivan says. “So while I felt that I was good at what I did and was achieving a certain amount of success, I wanted to test myself. There’s only one place to go to test that, and that’s here in the U.S. To my mind, the U.S. is still the foundry for new ideas in PR. If I wanted to see if I was any good, it would have to be here. To operate at the leading edge of the industry this is the place to be.”
Once in the U.S., O’Sullivan started working in internal communications for an organization that held intervention programs for at-risk youth. While he met some “exceptional individuals” in this position, he felt that the company lacked ambition. So he made the move “back to the agency environment,” where he worked as director of public relations for a regional B2B marcom agency.
“We had clients in biotech, transportation, and engineering, as well as clients in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries,” O’Sullivan explains. “I developed and implemented a large number of media relations campaigns (still the bedrock for too much of B2B PR) there, developed through leadership campaigns, and found myself doing a lot of consultative work with clients, as well as some event management, internal communications, and lead generation.”
However, he still “wanted more.”
O’Sullivan seems to have found his niche in his current position as director of public relations for Brownstein Group, as he says the agency possesses “a determination and sense of urgency that is infectious and exciting.”
“Working here is allowing me to be part of a group of very talented, very ambitious individuals who are pooling their expertise openly and honestly for one reason: to be the best,” O’Sullivan says. “And that means being the best for clients and for ourselves, for employees and for partners. At a time when there is so much opportunity and yet so much confusion as to how that opportunity can be exploited, within the PR industry in particular, Brownstein Group is busy moving to the head of the agency pack.”
As director of public relations for Brownstein Group, O’Sullivan is responsible for a team that develops communications strategies and PR campaigns for the firm’s clients. O’Sullivan says that with the position also come the responsibilities of “administrative, budgetary, HR,” and other business roles. But, he explains, his main role is “building an effective team, empowering them to succeed consistently, and enabling [his employees] to grow as PR practitioners.”
After gaining experience in the public relations sectors in both the U.S. and Ireland, O’Sullivan has noted some differences regarding how the two countries practice public relations:
“PR here [in the U.S.] is much faster, in the norm, and you need to operate with greater flexibility and more alacrity. There are also so many more media outlets and sources of information here that simply keeping track of them and deciding where to expend your resources is a significant task.
“In Ireland, there’s also a greater focus on community relations. Partly that may be to do with the social model in the country; partly it may be because Ireland’s a small country, so even small issues have the opportunity to attain widespread coverage if you’re not careful.
“It also seems to me that members of the media here [in the U.S.] are much more accepting of the PR function and are more likely to view PR people as a resource when building a story. In Ireland, the relationship is much more fractious, and the media can be quite overt in their disdain for the work we do.”
As a successful public relations practitioner, O’Sullivan offers the following advice for students and professionals who would like to begin careers in the field:
“Basically, to be successful in PR you need the four Cs, which are easy to list but surprisingly difficult to sustain in real life. Your success is, in my view, ultimately dependent upon how well you can bring these elements to bear: common sense, creativity, clarity of purpose, and conviction.
“If you want advice on breaking into this field, too many people are focused on tactics, too few on strategies. Also, increasing numbers of people seem to underestimate the importance of strong language skills and the value of understanding how business operates. You need to be persistent, and you need to read a lot, listen a lot, and speak only if you have something worth contributing. This is advice I’m also trying to take myself, and I know it’s hard to follow. Observe how people behave, try to understand why, and infuse your planning with that knowledge.”
|Q. What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t working?
A. Philadelphia has a great array of BYOB restaurants, and there’s always somewhere new and enticing to try. I also enjoy spending as much time as possible with my wife, especially in the mornings, when I’m invariably told that the clothes I’m wearing don’t match, and then finding solace and comfort in the company of our two dachshunds. We both like to travel and take regular jaunts to Mexico with our friends.
Q. Who is your role model?
A. Professionally and personally, my wife is my role model. She is the single most diligent, organized, determined, and insightful person I’ve ever met.
Q. What songs are on your iPod right now?
A. I have the new Kanye West single, the new album by British artist P.J. Harvey, always a lot of U2, and some Coltrane.
Q. What was the last magazine that you read?
A. I subscribe to Travel & Leisure, and it’s always a good read. I’ve also just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy and highly recommend it.
Q. What is your favorite quote or saying?
A. “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”—Sun Tzu.