Michelle Olson, APR is the head of the Phoenix office for Fingerpaint, an integrated marketing firm based in New York. She also leads the public relations practice for the company. I was that girl in college who knew exactly what she wanted to do with her career. Actually, I knew in high school, thanks to a wise guidance counselor. I was the nerdy newspaper editor and wanted to build a career telling other people’s stories, which to me, was through writing. My school counselor pointed me toward public relations, where she assured me there would be plenty of variety in industries and ways to communicate. I’ve been in love with this profession ever since.
What was your first PR Job?
Contradictory to my well-laid-out career plan, entry-level PR positions were hard to come by the year I graduated. So my first job was in advertising at Target Stores in Minneapolis. I was the sales plan coordinator, tasked with writing a monthly tome that told the stores where to put merchandise. I had a photo studio to shoot merchandise, collaborated with the buyers on descriptions and placement and worked with printers to get the plan designed, printed and distributed nationally each month. Doesn’t sound like PR, does it? It wasn’t, and I needed a bigger creative outlet, so I moved to the integrated agency Colle & McVoy as account support to the PR team. We had accounts of all sizes, from local restaurants and tourism accounts to national consumer packaged goods. I tackled my first big trade show while there and learned the value of relationships, comfortable shoes and the art of business socializing.
What is the part of your job that you enjoy the most?
I love working with clients to help them see what a tight communications strategy can do for their reputation, and how what we do, as communicators, helps move the needle for their business. I also enjoy guiding young practitioners in developing the critical skills they need to succeed and get as much enjoyment out of their public relations career as I have.
What would you do if you were could not have a job in the communications field?
I’m an avid cyclist and have long dreamed of coordinating and hosting bike trips in cool locales. I’d earn my chops with a group like Trek Travel, Backroads or Butterfield & Robinson and then strike out on my own to host small groups of fun people who share common passions for art, architecture, music, wine and coffee and want to see the world from the seat of a bike. Maybe we start with a tour of Arizona for PRSA members?
Why did you choose to be involved in PRSA National Leadership?
PRSA has been an integral part of my life and career for 30 years. Counselors Academy helped make me a smarter business owner and employer, and my chapter and district involvement gave me the connections and development I needed to advance in the profession. A few years ago, I was questioning the relevance of PRSA National and the quality of the programming offered to members. I didn’t think it was keeping up with the convergence of communications disciplines and it definitely wasn’t informing our advertising/marketing colleagues about how technology had changed our profession. So I ran for the board on this platform in hopes that I could help make a difference. I didn’t get elected the first time but was still fired up about it so tried again. It’s been the most rewarding volunteer work of my career. My board colleagues are among the smartest, most dedicated and caring professionals with whom I’ve worked in 30+ years and together we’ve been able to accomplish much for the Society.
What is the most important quality of a leader?
There are so many, it’s hard to choose just one. Having a vision and the courage to lead your team toward it is among the most important qualities, in my opinion. Inherent in that is being able to take action, generate enthusiasm and get results.
What are your thoughts on the future of PR?
I believe that PR will continue to be a leading influence in integrated communications, and as such, PR practitioners are poised to bring all disciplines together to develop best practices for our organizations.
Our profession is rapidly changing: the world is chaotic and unpredictable and often critical of, or confused about what PR professionals do. It’s our job to bring clarity and to subscribe to our Code of Ethics as our differentiator. We need to be multi-disciplinary in our approach to communications and stay as far ahead of technology as we can, so that we can guide our organizations through what’s next. We need to be collaborative and inclusive and be the group that invites all viewpoints into civil discourse and positive outcomes.