Tom Williams is Managing Director of Communications for Maryland Public Television where he plans and executes both institutional communication and production-related publicity and promotion for the statewide public TV network. He also supports MPT communications with local, state, and federal elected officials; contributes strategy and content for social media engagement; and handles a range of internal communications and external relations assignments.
Did you always want to be in public relations?
As a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, (laughs) but all kidding aside I wasn’t a star student in math and science in high school. In college I entered St. Bonaventure University as a Communications major since I enjoyed writing, and felt my way through those four years in an effort to determine what I wanted to do with my degree. It wasn’t until my senior year that a possible career in public relations came into focus.
What is it that appeals to you?
What I love is contributing to an organization’s success by whatever the key measures or objectives are. The communications team here at MPT works hard to both protect the reputation of our statewide public TV network and enhance that reputation with key stakeholders. We have great stories to tell about the value of public television and we attempt to capitalize on those opportunities to grow relationships and engagement with Maryland citizens and increase viewership.There are times, too, when we contribute to issues management and help overcome organizational challenges. It can be very satisfying to troubleshoot an issue, deal with it, and come out on the other side without harm being done to the organization or minimizing the issue’s impact. Knowing I’ve made a mark in all these areas, I find that very rewarding.
Describe your start in public relations.
I found a job out of college as an assistant account executive for the N.W. Ayer advertising agency in New York City, working on the U.S. Army account. This is the agency that created the iconic “Be All You Can Be” campaign for the Army. I worked there two years, a portion of which included helping to coordinate PR campaigns for the U.S. Army Reserve. At that point I moved back to my hometown of Buffalo to join an agency there, and continued for another year as an advertising account exec before moving laterally within the agency to the PR department. I remained at that firm for seven years before moving to Baltimore.
Was there one thing, person or event that you reflect back on, as something that propelled you forward in PR as you began your career?
I had a tremendous mentor early in my career, a real strategic public relations pro. His name is Bill Collins and I worked for him at Collins & Company, a PR firm in Buffalo. Like me, he graduated from St. Bonaventure University and he took a sincere an interest in my professional growth and development. His impact on my career speaks to the value of having a mentor willing to share their knowledge and experience with you and provide feedback to steer you in the right direction. Bill was certainly supportive of me, and when I needed redirection or a critique he would be quick to tell me how I needed to change or how I should adjust my approach.
Can you identify anything specific that you learned from him?
One particular area I remember, Bill taught me how to be a counselor to clients – not to be bashful about putting forward my ideas and recommendations, and expressing a point of view. That’s hard to do as a young professional. But he would tell me, ‘move forward with that recommendation’ or would say, ‘that’s what they’re paying you for.’
How else has mentorship impacted how you work?
When I moved to Baltimore I was also blessed to secure a position working for Sandy Hillman at Trahan Burden & Charles (TBC), another great mentor. Sandy is a remarkable PR counselor and project manager. Here again, I was able to observe and learn from a wonderful boss. Sandy is fully dedicated to providing clients with the highest level of service possible and helping them meet their campaign or project objectives. She possesses a unique combination of strength and kindness. I try to approach what I do professionally using the example she showed in the years I worked for her.
Do you advocate for mentorship as a PR leader?
Yes, I do. In many of the places I’ve worked, including here at MPT, I’ve taken a lead in standing up or managing an internship program. I’m cognizant of the value of a good internship for students and what that can do to propel them forward in their careers. I put a premium on providing students with a rewarding and beneficial internship experience, offering advice and counsel, and helping them any way I can after they graduate and enter the job market. In a few cases that has evolved into a longer-term mentorship relationship with particular students.
What advice to you have for students considering a career in public relations?
I tell students that if you want to work in public relations, develop two important capabilities – critical thinking and writing skills. It’s very important to be able to assess an issue or opportunity and provide good counsel and it’s essential to develop strong writing skills. Both are foundational for a successful career.
Are you still challenged in the work?
Working in a media organization has been both fun and challenging. I’ve spent four years here at MPT and I’m still learning quite a bit about public media. Part of that learning is understanding the ways our industry is changing and the potential impacts of these changes. It’s not just about broadcasting anymore – it’s streaming, direct to consumer video, creating relationships with our viewers, and taking advantage of social media channels. For instance, MPT will soon be a streaming company. By the beginning of 2020 MPT will be available on YouTube TV in our DMA, livestreaming our main channel (MPT-HD) for the first time. It also give us an opportunity to offer viewers a live stream of the channel on our website and MPT app. We already provide a livestream of the PBS KIDS channel, which parents with kids absolutely love. It’s very exciting to be a part of these kinds of changes. We’re taking advantage of technology so that more and more people have access to our content and can benefit from what Maryland Public Television has to offer.
Describe your PRSA membership. Has it been helpful along the journey?
I’ve been a PRSA member since 1989, first with the Buffalo-Niagara Chapter, where I served on several committees and eventually served as Chapter president in 1994. While in Buffalo I also passed the Accreditation exam.
When I moved to Baltimore I joined the PRSA Maryland Chapter, where I got involved on committees, and eventually served for seven years as chair of the accreditation committee. During those years I enjoyed working with our chapter’s accreditation candidates and seeing many of them earn their APR designation. We added some 40 new accredited members to our chapter during those years. I also served for several years on the chapter’s board of directors and the national Accreditation Marketing Committee.
I’ve benefited greatly by being a member of PRSA both in this market and where I came from previously. The organization has provided wonderful learning and professional development opportunities and a setting to build and grow relationships with others in our field.
Connect with Tom on LinkedIn.