23 Sep Ask the VPs: 6 Questions with Nicole Phelan
By Eva Pullano
It’s time for the second post in our “Ask the VPs” series. This time, Account Executive Eva Pullano sat down with VP Nicole Phelan to talk about the beginnings of her PR career, what she loves most about PR and storytelling and more.
How did you get started in PR?
I took a broadcast journalism class when I was in high school and I got to play different roles: producer, videographer, anchor. I actually loved being the one in charge. I decided I wanted to become a TV producer, so I went to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. There was a class where the woman who started the Special Olympics, Eunice Mary Kennedy Shriver, spoke about her work in public relations. She talked about being able to go into any field — you can work in the medical world, sciences, fashion, anything — and that was the moment where I realized that I wanted to do public relations.
There are limitless opportunities to explore any field, any subject or any interest, and I could change a million times over the course of a career and never get bored. I’ve worked with a quantum encryption company at the same time that I worked with a secondhand clothing company and a furniture company and in the field of technology design. There’s no area that public relations doesn’t touch, and you can constantly evolve and change and try new things. I never thought that I would ever love quantum encryption, but it’s been one of the most fascinating areas.
What brought you to LaunchSquad’s SF Office?
I was living in Seattle for five years before moving to San Francisco, and, before that, lived in Arizona. Arizona was too hot, Seattle was too rainy and San Francisco is just right. I knew I wanted to move here, and part of that desire was to work with innovative, fast-growth companies doing things that had never been done before. It wasn’t a desire to work in tech, but rather to work at ground zero of where creation and innovation happen, with completely original and new ideas. It was absolutely fascinating to me to be a part of companies that are starting something new.
I actually thought that I wasn’t going to work at an agency when I came to San Francisco, but then I met the four founders of LaunchSquad and spent an hour talking to each of them. Each conversation was completely different, but they were awesome and I just knew that I’d found my fit and that I was going to be at LaunchSquad. I started working here four days later.
What was the biggest shock when you first started?
The biggest shock when I first started was that everyone brought laptops to meetings. I am so used to whiteboarding that it was jarring. But then I realized how and when to have a laptop and when not to. It’s really fun to have collaborative pitch sessions when we all get in a room and feed off of one another’s energy and creative ideas.
I just came from a session where we were sitting in a room, no laptops, and all these ideas were flowing. think it helps, getting rid of the laptops, to make for more of a challenge in coming up with something original. It goes from doing to creating. But that was the biggest shock at Launchsquad, the laptops in the conference room and now it’s kind of an untangling of that, getting the laptops out of our faces, getting off of email, and just giving us room to really be our absolute most creative selves.
What is it that you love most about PR on a tactical level? Do you find yourself being more engaged on the content level, or are you a media-relations stickler?
I love it all, as long as it can be something that I’ve never done before. I think that’s the crazy part about our jobs. Even if you’re doing media relations, the story you’re telling and the angle you’re coming up with is not the same as a week ago. It’s just constantly reinventing and recreating. I think that sometimes when it’s been the most successful is when we can bring something to a journalist that they wish they had thought of themselves. I think we as storytellers need to be thinking about those kinds of things. And that’s the most fun part. It’s never the same story, it’s never the same pitch, it’s constant reinvention. I always see any challenge with a company’s narrative or a pitch as an opportunity to rethink and just strip it down and rebuild it into something completely different.
What advice would you give to someone who’s a new storyteller? Is there something that you wish you would’ve known earlier?
To me, there are two big things about storytelling. The first would be about really complex stories, ideas, products, companies or anything that just feels like you’re opening Pandora’s box. As I start digging through, I always try to find a way to break it down and tell it in a way that my grandmother would understand, and understand why she should care, why it should be relevant to her. That’s one of the traits of really good storytellers—they know their audience and know how to bring you along on a journey and make you respect and understand what is happening.
I think the other thing is the hook, what draws you in, what makes you read. We no longer are picking up our phones and having 45-minute phone calls. We have these text message conversations that we communicate over and people are consuming information in these very bite-size bits of information. I always tell people to get right to that hook, get right to that point, and make it matter. So the two combined is what really what brings together good storytelling.
What is important to keep in mind as you follow the path from AA to VP?
There are no shortcuts in this, and I think that can be challenging. I think a lot of what we do is about relationships, and there are just no shortcuts in relationships. I think that intuition is something that’s at the core of what we do and it takes a lot of time and experience to hone that. When I was an Account Associate it was all about how do I do the best job for the people that I work for? I just want to be the rockstar, I want to make them happy, I want to make the most beautiful media list. I was an organization QUEEN. I came up with these beautiful media lists that were color coded. My focus was just delighting my teams and the people I supported and learning as much as I could possibly learn.
The transition to Account Executive was really challenging because suddenly I was front and center with the client. There are no more training wheels at that point. At that level, I was living in Seattle and working for a really great company and ended up working with the same clients for 5 years before my transition to Senior Account Executive, and another five before Account Manager. That transition was from building and growing and having a better understanding of what a company needs. There’s nothing that you can put on paper and say, “here’s what I need to do to move to the next phase.” You just do. And it isn’t until you’re looking back that you realize that you’ve grown into something entirely different. It’s not school any longer where you progress from one grade to another and you pick up your new textbook each year.
The toughest for me was my recent move into VP. I had been an account manager for five years — half of my career. I started feeling like something was wrong with me, that I no longer had game. But I look back now and realize that I had stopped doing what kept my clients happy and had started pushing on them and my teams to do things that challenged everything that we knew to be the standard.
Getting uncomfortable was what I needed, what my clients needed. It was what everyone I was working with needed in the end. This conflict, which I really never thought of as necessary for success before, was what made everything worthwhile — the hours invested, the struggles pulling things off that no one was really asking for in the first place, the fear of the unknown — all of it in the end made us better, happier, smarter. I don’t ever want to go back to being comfortable again. It’s so much more interesting over here.
Stay tuned for more interviews with the 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.