Exclusive Member PRofile:
70th Anniversary Edition
Featuring: Steve Lubetkin, MBA, APR, Fellow, PRSA
by Wendy Harris, SHRM-CP
In celebration of the 70th Anniversary of PRSA Philadelphia, over the next few months the
newsletter will feature several leaders and members of the organization to share their insights about the PR field, moments from their careers, challenges they’ve faced, and advice they have for the next generation of PR professionals.
This month, we provide a Q&A with Steve Lubetkin, APR, Fellow, PRSA, Managing Partner, Lubetkin Media Companies.
“I've always believed that if you're in a career, you should make a commitment to professional development, professional leadership networking, and learning about what you're doing. So, PRSA seemed like the natural place to learn more about the practice of public relations to sharpen my skills to gain credibility.”
Q: Why did you choose public relations as a career?
A: I was a print and broadcast reporter for about five years and was hoping to spend my career as a journalist, but the joke was you could either be a journalist or buy groceries, but you couldn't do both. I had just gotten married out of college and really needed to kind of hit the cash register a bit more. So, I was writing for a print publication and one of my beats was commuter transportation. I wrote a couple of stories that got the attention of the folks at Conrail, who were operating the commuter railroads in New Jersey at the time. They liked what I wrote, and they called me up and said we would you like to come to work for us. Once I discovered that it was going to pay a lot more than being in the newspaper business, I started working for the railroad and I spent almost 10 years working for Conrail. Within two years they relocated me to work at Conrail’s corporate headquarters. I continued to move up and got involved in some very interesting media relations and crisis communications work.
Q: Who were some of your early influences in this business?
A: My first supervisor on the railroad was a long-time railroad executive named Don Campbell. He started his career as a ticket agent, worked his way up through supervising ticket agents, and ended up as the manager of commuter relations. It was a PR and customer relations kind of a role, but he was the person who schooled me in corporate etiquette, politics, and generally and taught me how to behave in the corporate world. By the time I was working at Conrail’s Philadelphia headquarters, I got to the point in my career where I knew I needed to get a little bit more of the principles of public relations and I started studying for the APR exam in the mid-80s. I took the Philadelphia chapter’s “Seven Professional Evenings” class which was taught by David Kirk and Tony Fulginiti. Tony is a Professor emeritus from Rowan University. David ran his own PR firm and was an APR and a fellow, and Tony was an APR and a fellow, and they were terrific instructors. I learned an enormous amount about PR from them.
Q: What do you enjoy most about working in PR?
A: I like the challenges of trying to communicate to non-technical audiences about technical issues that the companies I work for are facing. I spent all of my PR career on the corporate side, in transportation with Conrail and technology with Unisys. I also worked for companies in the financial services sector. The bulk of my work was explaining complex issues to non-technical audiences and using my writing ability and communication skills to do that.
Q: What are some of your most memorable moments working in PR?
A: The biggest one was in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration came into office. One of the things they decided to do was to privatize Conrail, which been federally owned and was the conglomeration of five bankrupt northeastern railroads into a single company. At the time Conrail had just turned the corner and was starting to make a profit. The Reagan administration wanted to break it up and sell the profitable pieces to Conrail’s competitors. Our management decided to launch an effort to keep Conrail independent through a public stock offering. I was tasked with running a large portion of the grassroots communications effort to get other constituencies, audiences, and stakeholders to advocate for Conrail getting a chance to be independent and to be sold in a public stock offering. I spent a couple of years traveling all across the country to visit with editorial writers at newspapers in very small towns, not because the small towns were so critical, but at the time the newspapers in those towns were influential on the members of Congress who were going to be voting on this situation. We needed to go to the hometown district and get the hometown newspapers to urge these Congressmen to vote in favor of an independent Conrail and, ultimately, they did. It was a major victory for the railroad. Conrad was privatized in what was then (1987) the largest initial public stock offering in U.S. history.
Q: Why did you join PRSA and how did it help your career?
A: I've always believed that if you're in a career, you should make a commitment to professional development, professional leadership, networking, and learning about what you're doing. So, PRSA seemed like the natural place to learn more about the practice of public relations to sharpen my skills to gain credibility. I thought getting the APR would be a real important credibility bump for me. I started the APR while I was working on my MBA. While I was at Conrail, I was working on my MBA by going to school one night a week. I took one class a semester and it was going to take a long time to finish, so I set the APR as an intermediate goal I could achieve first. I got my APR in 1988. PRSA was really the place where I got a lot of practical skills going to seminars that the Philadelphia chapter ran. Later, when I started working in New York, I got involved in the New York chapter too. I also spent time as chair of the Technology Section and Financial Communications Section, before spending five years on the Universal Accreditation Board.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a board member, chapter leader or national leader?
A: I think the biggest challenge was getting the National Board to embrace the accreditation program fully. There were people in national leadership who felt that the APR doesn't deliver what it was intended to deliver. I think some of that has to do with the bottom- up approach that PRSA takes to the APR in that it's a personal credential. There isn’t a lot of incentivizing people to make the APR an important professional credential, you have to be very self-motivated.
Q: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing PR practitioners today?
A: I think that the biggest one is credibility. There's an enormous amount of “Astroturf” publicity being done, where an organization that has been concocted by some special interest appears to be an independent advocacy group, but it has a hidden agenda. There's an enormous amount of that being done by people who do not subscribe to codes of ethics like the ones embraced by members of PRSA and other communications professional organizations.
Q: What is your philosophy regarding the role PR plays in shaping a company's brand and culture?
A: I think public relations people are the story tellers, the public face of the organization, and if they're going to have any credibility, they're going to have to be brutally honest with corporate executives and tell them things that they may not want to hear. We live in an age where, increasingly, employees want their company to stand for something, to have some kind of values beyond just making the best widgets. Companies that don't walk that walk honestly and transparently are going to face damaging credibility issues in the marketplace. A company can't credibly claim, for example, to stand for LGBTQ rights on one hand, and then use corporate PAC money for donations to politicians who are voting against LGBTQ rights.
Q: What message do you have for young people who are considering a career in PR?
A: I would say be true to yourselves and don't compromise your values or your principles because you're afraid you're going to anger someone you report to in your corporate career. Give your clients, if you're working in an agency, honest advice. Tell them how things are going to play out and give them options; don't be afraid be the canary in the coal mine. Don't be afraid to give truthful, valuable advice. And be prepared to change jobs if you are asked to violate your ethical standards.
Q: If you could change one thing in your career what would it be?
A: I have to say I wish I had had the courage to become an independent practitioner sooner; to start my own firm sooner. It's turned out to be an exciting rollercoaster, but it's also turned out to be a place where I've had more freedom and more ability to do some exciting things then most of my corporate jobs.