Listen: Jeff Heckelman '02 on "Chaotic Career Paths" to Communications and Public Relations

In the fall, Jeff Heckelman '02 returned to campus to explain his career path from Swarthmore to his current position at Finsbury, a global strategic communications firm. 

As a special major focusing on psychology and sociology, Heckelman helped shape The Daily Gazette in its infancy, wrote for The Phoenix, and played intramural sports and golf. While thinking about life after Swarthmore, he networked with alumni and discovered, as a senior, the field of public relations. 

Heckelman now works with clients in a variety of industries and talked about public relations, communications, crisis management and media relations within sports, entertainment and additional areas. 


Audio Transcript

Speaker 1:                       Thank you all for coming. This is awesome ... was not expecting this many.

                       So I'm class of 2002, so it's been about 15 years. This is actually my first time really being back here. Like Christy said, I have over the last year or two have had a couple of conversations with individual students. I actually bumped in to some students at an industry conference in Boston about a year ago and that was the first time that I really started thinking, you know what, maybe it's time for me to start giving back a little bit and giving some of my time.

                       The main reason why I wanted to do this is because at the time that I was a student, I ... let's put it this way: how many of you think you have a good idea of what you want to do with your career and life after you leave here?

                       Okay, good. I was expecting more hands, and I was going to tell you you have no idea. Because I was in a position where I actually did think I had a good idea of what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be a journalist, specifically a sports writer. During my time, I ... I was one of the first editors at the Daily Gazette, which I'm incredibly proud to see is still not only in existence but thriving in a real institution on campus. At the time, the Daily Gazette was an email I sent out from my dorm room before going to sleep at night. It was just text-only in a body of an email and we had no idea at the time how kind of ahead of its time it was, in terms of it being five to seven years before the rise of blogs and social media and shorter forms of journalism.

                       But anyway, I thought I wanted to be a journalist and was totally going down that road. I was ... again, this was before blogs so the path to being a journalist back then was you get an internship at a newspaper, cover obituaries and whatever, maybe high school sports, whatever the more established journalists didn't want to write about. And maybe in 20 or 25 years, if you played your cards right, they'd give you a column and let you actually write your opinion about things.

                       I think if I was maybe five years younger, I might have stayed down that path because by the time 2007-2008 rolled around there were more blogs and websites and social media started becoming a thing. Now, you can just start up a Twitter account and kind of do the job and be a journalist. You can start up a blog on media and you can post things whenever. There weren't those same avenues back then.

                       So long story short, literally April of my senior year, I decided I didn't want to be a journalist anymore. And said well crap, now what am I going to do. And I went through the alumni directory, just looking for advice and looking for anyone who was remotely connected to the world, the media, communications, marketing, you name it.

                       And I found about eight names of people and just reached out to them cold and asked them if they'd be willing to spend 15 minutes talking to me and giving me some advice, and it just so happened that one of those people, who I never knew because she was about five to six years older than me ... she happened to work in the PR department at the U.S. Tennis Association in New York. They're the national governing body for tennis, and they own operate the U.S. Open in the fall, and at the time that I happened to reach out, they happened to need one more intern for that summer in the PR department. And she was at least able to get me in the door for an interview, and I got that internship that was supposed to last three months, and 15 years later, here I am.

                       And realizing ... looking back on it now, and really the crux of why I wanted to come here, I remember feeling at the time, and I don't know how much of this was reality and how much of it was my own perception or insecurities or whatever, but I remember feeling as a student here that if I didn't want to either stay in academia, become a college professor or become an investment banker or a lawyer or go off and join the Peace Corps and save the world, that that was somehow frowned upon. That you had to kind of go down one of those paths and if you wanted to do anything, quote unquote regular or normal or out-there or working in the corporate world, in the non-investment banking, in your law setting or if you just wanted to do something fun and interesting, that that was frowned upon, like you weren't contributing enough to society or whatever.

                       And that, combined with not feeling like there was enough of an alumni network to help give me advice for that ... so all of that has been swirling around my head for the last year or two, ever since I encountered those couple of students at an industry conference, and I think one or two reached out to me separately just finding me on a weekend or whatever. And so I just got talking to people and got connected with Christy eventually and said you know what, I want to be one of those people who makes students realize ... I figured there'd have to be some people, now, who are students who feel the way that I felt at the time. And so, here I am.

                       So going back to my path, like I said, I started at the USTA that summer. It was supposed to be a three month internship. Was in the PR department, which ... you know the communications field can mean a lot of different things, depending on where you're working and what you're doing. In my experience, with the USTA, it was a lot of getting ready for the U.S. Open. It was a lot of dealing with the media. Reporters from around the world come to cover the U.S. Open so we would ... it was kind of a dual-role. On the one hand you're reacting to questions they might have and information they might want, and so you're fulfilling those requests. On the other hand, you want to proactively pitch them stories or suggest things that they might not be thinking about to write about and cover.

                       And then separately, from the U.S. Open, again, they're the governing body for the sports so they're charged with growing tennis nationwide and so we would work on community programs around the country, tennis programs in the parks, and what-not, and it would be my job to find the local reporter and town [inaudible 00:07:16] and pitch them a story about something interesting the USTA was doing. It was all fine and good, and I enjoyed it for the time. I got a lot of experience and learned a lot. But I also wasn't someone who wanted tennis to be their life. I was more interested in the communications field, more broadly in the sports industry. Also, their offices up in White Plains, in Westchester County, and it's a fine place to live, but when you're 24-25 and you're 45 minutes away from Manhattan, you kind of want to be in the mix and be doing more.

                       But the main reason for me wanting to move on, was the U.S. Open was this amazing, awesome event, where journalists from around the world would come, and I was able to form relationships with people. That's really the life-blood of what you do as a communications person ... is performing relationships with reporters, with others in the business, so I was doing that and then the U.S. Open would end and there'd be 11 other months in the year and there wouldn't be as much that I would have to share with them. So I felt I wasn't growing as much as I'd like to as a professional in this business.

                       So, I was fortunately to get a job at a PR agency, a communications firm called Edelman. They actually happen to be the largest in the world. Their New York office had hundreds of people. I was there for about two years, and there, the way a communications firm works, is other companies will hire the firm to basically supplement their own communications efforts. Every company and entity, they might have a staff communications person, but that one person or even if they have a larger team, might not be fully equipped to do everything that they need to do. So instead of ... your choice is basically, we can hire 20 people ourselves and put them on staff and pay them benefits and everything or we could take much less money and hire a firm and just bring them in for the three months we need or for a specific time period. That was where I worked.

                       And that was great, because in a very short period of time, I was able to get a lot of experience working on all sorts of different things. I would have ... it's almost like you get to work at 10 different companies all at once, based on who your clients are. Within two years of working there, and again at the time I was very focused on the sports industry and the business of sports, so every client I had was in that world.

                       And I pretty much got to do something involving every major sport at some point or another, either working for the sport itself or a team or more often a company that sponsored that team. If you watch sports, you see there's sponsors all over the place. And so, in that short time in two years, I went to Super Bowls, I did the Olympics in Beijing back in 2008, which was awesome, and I also worked on ... probably one of my favorite projects was I worked on the opening of Prudential Center, the arena in Newark, New Jersey, where the Devils play. That was interesting because it wasn't really about sports at all. It was about what it meant for the city of Newark to open this facility. Cory Booker, who is now a famous senator, at the time was the mayor of Newark, and we did a whole lot of press conferences with him where he wanted to talk about the arena's [inaudible 00:11:00] revitalization of Newark, which didn't really wind up happening. It never happens the way they think it's going to. They always think that if they just build an arena, then all of these bars and restaurants and hotels will pop up around it and tourists will flood in from everywhere. It never really happens like that.

                       But anyway, so I worked on that, and I was very happy there and learned a lot. I would have stayed there much longer, except I came back from Beijing and someone who I had previously worked with at the USTA, let me know that they were looking for someone at Major League Baseball who did exactly what my specialty was growing to be at the time. I was able to get in for an interview there and got that job.

                       For seven years, I was the Director of Business Communications and Public Relations for Major League Baseball for the League office and when I say business public relations, that means I was focused on the business-side, which meant ... in the sports industry there are two sides to communications and PR. There's the on-field side, which there are media built-in that will come and cover beyond major sporting events. So, if you go to a Phillies game there's always journalists who are sitting in the press box and they're writing their game stories for that night. Someone has to work for the team to support their efforts. They're the sports writers, they're already coming to the game, so you need to answer their questions, you need to provide them with the stats and game notes, you need to give them information about players, you need to tell them when the manager is going to be available and who will make those interviews and things like that. That's a very important job. It was never what I wanted to do.

                       What I was more interested in was the other side of the coin of communications in the sports industry, which was more on the corporate side and from a media relations standpoint, it meant being a little more proactive. We were always targeting the media that weren't automatically coming to games. So outside of the sports section. Anytime someone who happened to write in the business section or entertainment or something like that wanted to write about baseball, we would be the ones to deal with it. We did a lot of proactive outreach for things like morning shows, late night shows and magazines and things like that. Baseball still, but especially at that time, really was having an issue where, as strong as the business was and remains, they were kind of falling behind the NFL and the NBA in terms of cultural cache and star power.

                       If you think about the biggest athletes in the world right now, it's LeBron and Tom Brady. It's not really baseball players, and a lot of that is the sport has gotten very, very local. You could be a huge a baseball fan but you're really just paying attention to your team. Then as soon as the season ends, you kind of lose interest. We just had an awesome World Series, but it wasn't an automatic that if you were a baseball fan that you were watching it. Maybe if your team wasn't in it, you'd lose interest. That did not used to be the case.

                       It became my job to try and make those players bigger stars on a national stage so if the individual teams weren't really doing that, if anybody was going to get a player profile in a GQ or booked on Jimmy Fallon or something like that, it was probably me or someone in my department because we felt it was our responsibility to grow the game on a national level. [inaudible 00:15:10]

                       The most recent piece of my career has actually been transitioning a little bit away from the sports industry ... as much fun as it is and as interesting as it is, I reached a point a couple years ago where I wanted to be a little more well-rounded and felt like as great as the sports industry is, you can get kind of pigeon-holed, and if you do it for too long, it's the only thing you're associated with. I'm working now at a company called Finsbury, which is a communications firm, similar to Edelman, but very different. They have a specialty in not-so-much ... there's a term called crisis communications, which is helping companies deal with crises, very tough situations where they're in trouble for some reason or another. It's some of that but we prefer to think about it more as issues and reputation management. We work with companies, not just in the midst of when they're in a crisis, but a lot of times before. The truly smart companies hire a firm like ours well before they have a crisis situation so that they are prepared for when it happens.

                       I was just telling someone before, I'm just old enough that when I started my career in this business, because of the way that the media landscape was, you'd wake up in the morning and there'd be a bad story in the paper about your company. That would suck but we'd have all day to sit around and gather the lawyers and the business people and strategize, "okay, how are we going to get a better story in tomorrow's paper?" And maybe if it was a really, really big deal, maybe you'd get a phone call from a TV outlook looking for a comment in time for the 5:00 news that night. But for the most part, you had that entire day.

                       Now, you basically have 10 or 15 minutes before something that someone has posted to Twitter becomes conventional wisdom and is spread around everywhere. So you don't have that time to sit around and talk. If you look at all the situations where companies and individuals get themselves in trouble, very, very often it is made worse by their reaction to it and how they handle the situation. Very often, the fall-out and how they handle a situation, turns something in to something worse than what the original situation was, and if they'd just, quote unquote, had their act together and had the right thing to say right away ... it doesn't make it go away entirely but it helps a great deal. That's a lot of what I do now.

                       I have multiple clients. Some of them are within the sports industry still because based on my background, whatever clients we have that touch the sports world, I'm going to work on them because there's really just myself and my boss who have any experience in the sports industry. But even within that, there's still issues and in things like that, there's still the Finsbury-style of clients. There's some of the things I've done in the past that are just more focused either on the field or just about reaching consumers, is not really what we do. We're more behind the scenes reputation.

                       Perfect example ... are you guys basketball fans? We represent the NBA players association, the union that represents the players. Just about a year ago at this time, they were finalizing negotiations with the League on a new collective bargaining agreement, the document that basically governs all the rules and regulations about basically everything about the sport-- how players are compensated, scheduling, rules, drug-testing, you name it. Our firm worked with the players' association behind the scenes during the negotiation process. We helped them with strategy. We helped them think through what positions they were going to fight for, not fight for. How it might play out in the press. We did a lot of, basically planning, for the worst-case scenario, which would have been an actual work stoppage. If they were not able to reach an agreement, then the owners would have locked out the players and it would have been a huge ordeal. We were preparing for that possibility, all the while, hoping that it didn't happen because nobody wants a work stoppage. Believe me, we were prepared. We were ready to go to war if we had to.

                       That's the kind of thing that people like us do.

                       But then, like I said, being at this firm, I've been able to branch out and work on things that have nothing to do with sports. What has been most interesting to me are two things. One: for a while there, I felt like the experience that I had in the sports industry was very specific and could only be applied there. What I realize now, is just how transferable a lot of the skills and abilities are in really any industry. It certainly helps to have a high level of knowledge about a specific industry, but once you learn the core principles of communications, which, by the way, you all know a lot of them already. You learned them in maybe 4th grade when they talked to you about the six steps of problem solving. It really isn't much more elaborate than that. You can really apply those principles to anything. So even though my experience was in the sports industry, I can join a meeting on something involving a client in the automotive industry or the banking industry or healthcare or whatever, and it's still okay, what's the problem, what's the situation, who are the key audiences, who are we trying to reach, what message are we trying to send, what's the best way to reach them, let's hash it out, [inaudible 00:21:56] All of that still applies to whatever it is.

                       The other piece that I've learned in the last couple of years is that communications itself can mean so much more than just working with media. Early in my career, the jobs I happened to have, the priority was media relations. It was pitching stories to reporters and trying to place stories. And that's still a part of my job, but it's maybe 10-20 percent of my job. Much more of what I do now is behind the scenes strategy, and the media is very, very important, but it's not the only means now to communicate with key audiences.

                       So depending on who you're trying to reach, media might not be the way to go. Sometimes ... I have a client where their most important audience and the reason why they're paying us, is to communicate better with their own employees. So we built the whole internal communications program for them. I'm certain that's a priority here at the college. Your Swarthmore has a communications department, and some of their time they spend talking the Philly Inquirer and the New York Times and whoever might want to write something about the school. But they spend just as much time, I'm sure, crafting speeches for the president and sending out emails to students. If there's some new thing they're instituting on campus, they have to figure out how to best position that to you guys.

                       It just reminded me of something else I wanted to share with you guys. During my time here as a student and as a student journalist, I would say the kind of crowning achievement of my time as a student journalist and the thing that also I would say put the Daily Gazette on the map for real, was I was here for the school's decision to eliminate the football program. That was in the fall of 2000, I think, and that was a really ... you guys can imagine what a big deal that was. It actually was on the front page of the New York Times. Not the sports section, the actual New York Times, on the front page because at the time, it was one of, I think, the 10 oldest football programs in the country. And it became kind of a flash point in this larger debate about the relative merits of academics versus athletics and the trade offs that the schools make in order to do this.

                       The quick history of that was, about two or three years earlier, the football team had had an epic losing streak. I think they went two or three years without winning a single game. It was insane, and they made the decision, alright let's see what happens, what would we have to do, what would we have to invest in the football program in order to get it to be respectable. And they did. And they took a shot.

                       They started making it more of a priority with missions. They brought in a real coach who knew what he was doing. They staffed up. And they got, I think, that last year they were maybe 5-5, which still, I mean it's Division III. They're playing Johns Hopkins. But still it was a big deal to even be 5-5. But they just decided that it was too much of a drain on admissions. I knew the guys. They were great guys, and they were smart, and they deserved to be Swarthmore students. But when you actually start doing the math and look at okay, what is the average class size ... 350 something like that, so 50-50, it's 175 men, so out of that, in order to field a respectable football team, you'd need to admit about 20 or so kids every year who had football as a priority. So, more than 10-15% of the male student body were going to have to be football players. It became too hard for them to find the 20 Swarthmore students out there around the world who could also be football players.

                       But, as you can imagine, it caused quite the uproar, and it wasn't just ... it wasn't a matter of okay, [crosstalk 00:26:29] we've eliminated the football program, sorry, it's over. Because we're Swarthmore, it set off a week of gatherings and Quaker meetings and candlelight vigils and all sorts of events where the president and everybody had to be dragged out to take questions and give everyone the opportunity to talk about their feelings about it and everything. But for me, just being a student journalist, it was awesome because here I am at these events, standing alongside. I mean, there were news vans with the satellite poles up. Again, a reporter from the New York Times. And there I was at the same press conference with them, asking questions to the same people. And again, selfishly, because of what I was doing, compared to the Phoenix, they had to get an emergency budget to print the special issue mid-week. They printed it on regular paper. And there I was, like I always have been, back in my dorm room every single night, churning out the story. It really became a thing that put the Daily Gazette on the map in terms of a source of actual news in a timely fashion, which again, we didn't realize at the time that we were on to something in terms of the larger shifts in the media landscape.

                       So, that's basically my career path. If I would impart any type of advice to you guys, it would be a couple of things. Most importantly, try not to put too much pressure on yourselves right now to figure out what you want to do with yourselves. I never would have imagined that I'd wind up doing anything like what I'm doing now at the time. It is totally and completely okay to not have the right job right when you leave school. It's okay to not really have a clear path five years after you leave school. It is okay. You will also probably change your mind multiple times about what you think you want to do. You might have an idea of what you think is your dream job, and either you might actually get it and then realize once you have it, it's not all it's cracked up to be [inaudible 00:28:59]. Or you could get to a place that you think is the be-all, end-all and maybe not get there at the right time or not be in the right position. It changes, and it takes time. And it is totally okay for you to not really have a clear sense of what you want to do just yet.

                       That is really the main thing.

                       And, I was talking to somebody about this just last week. Again what I said at the outset, I don't know if it's still the vibe here, but I definitely remember feeling like the kind of things I was interested in were frowned upon or I was looked down on for not contributing enough to society or the things I wanted to do weren't as meaningful, quote unquote. I would say the world needs more people who are as smart as you guys are in the kinds of fields like I am in. If you think about even what I do for a living right now, corporate crisis communications, the perception might be, so all you do is help evil corporations skate out of trouble when they do bad things. No, actually what we do is we help them move past those bad things and get better and do a better job in the future and communicate the steps they've taken to be better citizens.

                       So if you think about it, if the only people who do what I do are bad, evil, soul-less, corporate types, than they're the ones who keep winning. There are non-profits out there that need smart marketers and communications people. There are government organizations and non-government organizations that do really good work in the world and really contribute to society, and they need people who understand the media and can work with reporters and help place stories.

                       There are political campaigns. Think about ... I'm sure you guys have all closely followed everything that's gone on in the last two years. Think about how often you've heard talk about oh, if only Hillary had a better message or a stronger this or that. Like that's what I do. We work on messaging and help people ... you hear people talk about oh, they weren't able to break through, they weren't able to break through the clutter, media are focused on this instead of that. All of that is what I do. We help try and influence what people are focusing on. We help try and influence what the message is when they're out there talking about themselves and communicating with people. And again, the world needs more people who are doing that while also having a good heart about it, in order for us to win against those who would do those same things and use those skills for evil.