Ask the VPs: 10 Questions with Erica Orthmann

Ask the VPs: 10 Questions with Erica Orthmann

By Caroline Cammarano

When you walk into any LS office, there’s no way to really tell who’s in charge—and that’s a good thing. VPs sit next to account associates who sit next to partners who sit next to interns. But dig a little deeper and there is one thing that sets managers apart from those of us who are just getting our start in the industry—invaluable knowledge about navigating the PR world that’s too good not to share.

That’s why we’re kicking off a new series on the LaunchBlog. Account associates will be tapping into that wisdom by playing ten questions with VPs across our offices. As a new AA at LSBoston, I sat down with VP Erica Orthmann to pick her brain about PR and life at LS. The takeaway? There are lessons to be learned at every level, and plenty of things to keep in mind as you go along.

1. How and why did you get your start in PR?
By accident! I started as a community newspaper reporter in upstate New York, where nothing really happens except winemaking and cow tipping. A friend asked me if I wanted to move to Boston and connected me with the director of PR at a tech publishing company, where I interviewed for a then-mysterious “PR Associate” role. I knew that the fundamentals of telling a good story would still apply, but had to learn the mechanics from scratch.

2. What was the biggest shock when you first started?
That PR people make up executives’ quotes in press releases! I could not wrap my head around the fact that this happened, and asked the CEO if I could interview him for a release quote. Silly me. I wasn’t a fan of press releases then, and am still not now.

3. What’s one piece of advice you think everyone new to the PR industry should hear?
Read as much as you can about the companies you’re representing, and the industries they’re operating in. You are being paid to be smart, have an opinion, and apply an outsider’s lens on insider stuff. None of that knowledge comes without reading and being curious.

4. What have you learned about storytelling in the PR industry?
There are good ways to “hack” whether a story holds up. If you look at fantastic feature articles or profile stories there’s always some element of drama. Maybe a perfect storm of outside forces that led to an unconventional discovery. A person’s idea that defies logic. Or a question of “why is this man or woman smiling when his or her world seems to be crumbling?” Storytelling in PR is just the same as storytelling anywhere else. You just have to look for conventions of what’s interesting.

5. What’s the best piece of advice you have received from someone you have managed? From your own mentor/manager?
Shut up and listen. A big part of what we do seems so centered around saying the right thing. Listening is an underrated skill. My favorite former client introduced me to a South African word, “ubuntu.” Loosely translated, it means “I am because you are.” I live by that mantra and try my best to understand other people through listening.

6. In terms of personal development, what do you think are important things to keep in mind at each level as you progress from AA to VP?
Stop worrying so much about who you’ll be and focus on who you are. I spent a huge portion of my earlier career worried about what other people thought of me because I looked young or came across as inexperienced. Over time, I learned to just own my own disposition, and focus on making deeper one-on-one connections with people, without taking myself too seriously. If I did that earlier, I’d have made better use of my time.

7. Do you have any go-to advice for networking, whether it’s with reporters, PR people or potential clients?
I do better networking in smaller groups. I guess this relates to what I said about not worrying so much, since people get caught up in their own heads when they’re calling a reporter or butting into a networking conversation. Be smart and confident in yourself and your ideas, and make fun of your own awkwardness. It will take down the walls the other people put up for themselves pretty darned quick.

8. Have you ever made a mistake or took a chance that resulted in a good lesson that you’d like to share?
When I first started to go on new business pitches, I used to talk way too much because I was nervous. Say what you’re going to say, get in, and get out! Also, if you are listening closely enough, you can chime in intelligently rather than rehearsing some rambling, ingenuine speech.

9. As a manager, what is important to you when setting the tone of an office or the dynamics of teams?
I think this is a moving target and I’ve definitely made my mistakes here. But, I try my best to be a real person, have fun, be supportive of others’ ideas and challenge people where appropriate. We get the opportunity to work with some genuinely inspiring entrepreneurs. If you are excited about your work, others will be too.

10. LaunchSquadders know there’s a lot of great work going on around here that involves all levels of employees, from interns to partners. Having been a LS-er for so many years, what are you most proud of in terms of the company’s development and accomplishments? What do you see as the next challenge or opportunity for LS?
I’ve had the unique opportunity of watching LaunchSquad Boston grow from four people to nearly 20. We’ve had the distinct honor of establishing our firm’s reputation in a new city, and becoming a real part of the tech community here. The next big challenge will be maintaining the culture we’ve built as we get bigger. I have no doubt we can do it, by inspiring the next group of incoming people to live the values we’ve created. It’ll be fun!

Stay tuned for more interviews as AAs sit down with VPs!

What’s the best piece of PR advice you’ve given or received? Tell us about it in the comments or send us a tweet @LaunchSquad.

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