PR guru Lois Paul recounts a brilliant career on the eve of retirement

Lois Paul
Good luck, Lois

I’ve known Lois Paul as a PR exec and journalist for 35 years and now she’s retiring from the high tech PR company she built,  Lois Paul and Partners. It’s antithetical that for the past three decades, Lois has been running her own PR company given her humility and innate disdain for self- promotion. Lois exudes integrity and was my features editor counterpart in the wild and woolly startup days at PC Week (now eWeek), which became, thanks in part to her, an IT newsweekly juggernaut (I was news editor). She was a rock when it got rocky, which was often. More significantly from a career perspective, Lois has been a quiet but powerful force in the Boston area’s tech PR community even though her firm’s clients are global in every respect.

I interviewed her on the eve of her retirement and the Q&A below should be required reading for any PR professional, Millennial or journalist. As an aside, this is the first post for the redesigned and upgraded Dodge Retort. Please let me know what you think.

Q: Please provide a summary of your professional experience and watershed events since you left PC Week in 1986.

Lois: As you know very well, I was recruited by my former partner (and a friend of yours), a great marketing and PR genius (the late) Dick McGlinchey, to form what was then McGlinchey & Paul. We created a new kind of agency that specialized in enterprise business-to-business technology and took a newsroom style approach to PR that would be great for journalists (with my view into that) and for marketing people (Dick’s purview). After seven years, Dick and I amicably parted and I changed the name to Lois Paul and Partners to retain the name equity we had built into the brand. I sold the agency to FleishmanHillard (FH) in January, 2000 and became part of the FH and Omnicom global network of agencies. We’ve continued to run the agency as an independent brand within FH and Omnicom since then, but broadened into healthcare and health technology about eight years ago, which has been very successful under Melissa Zipin’s leadership (Zipin takes over for Lois).

Q: What are the most significant changes you’ve seen in tech over your three decades running a high tech PR company?

Lois: When we started the agency, the bellwethers of technology were the big mainframe application and database players like Cullinet Software and IBM. Our first large client was Software AG, a database player based in Germany with a strong business in the U.S. Microsoft was gaining traction because of its operating system for the growing PC market, but it was still in the fledgling stage. Lotus was primarily known for its packaged software for PCs, particularly its 1-2-3 spreadsheet and was at the early stages of building its disruptive groupware technology, dubbed Notes. When we began working with Lotus in 1991, we focused on this new technology, while keeping the packaged software business visible as well, as it was the cash cow for the company for many years until Notes took off. The internet wave began years later and we had one of our VPs spend more than a year just exploring this for us to determine how it affected our own workings, offerings and clients.

Amazing as it may seem, we (as a firm) started with PCs and printer sharing software and fax machines. Instead of constant emails and texts, people actually wrote messages on pink slips when the telephone rang and the person was not there — and the telephones rang a lot more back then. And when we finally had cell phones, they were big heavy things that you carried in a gunny sack and kept in your car. And they were a luxury. It’s hard to even imagine how we got everything done that requires pinpoint precision with such tools, but that was the state of the art back then.

And we also walked 10 miles to work through six feet of snow, uphill, both ways, every day.

Q: What changes have you seen in your clients? In in the workplace? And in PR?

Lois: The biggest change for us was broadening into healthcare and health technology. The goals regarding coverage and thought leadership and positioning are the same, but the issues and the regulatory restrictions are vastly different. It’s been very interesting for our teams to work at the health technology intersection, which is a sweet spot for the agency, bringing both the technology experience and contacts and the deep understanding about the trends and advances in healthcare that set our clients apart. New markets were created and we created a few of these ourselves in groupware/collaboration software and digital rights management.

We saw unicorns like our Powersoft client emerge, disrupt and then combine with a more traditional database player like Sybase. We saw Nortel through many financial issues and leadership changes, always keeping the air cover of their technology strength to sustain them through the rough patches.

Regarding the workplace, a lot is written about Millennials, but, honestly, every generation thinks they are different from the ones that follow them. Certainly, we have seen the shift from lifetime commitment to companies to a more personally-focused approach to get what you need from each job along the way and move on. But our teams and people have embraced our culture and been great all the way through. We have helped build some of the best PR and marketing talent in the industry. You can send the thank you notes directly to LPP.

As for PR, the answer to the next question tells the story. It used to be about driving awareness and coverage through news announcements, press tours and events. That has changed entirely. There is so much self-publishing by companies and the social channels have created so many new ways to speak directly to customers that PR has to be a much broader and more integrated function. The primary job today is to help companies determine their story, figure out how it differs from the competitors and why the story matters. And then figure out who the best carrier of that message is and what vehicles and channels make the most sense to bring the differentiated message to market. We are still about content and thought leadership, but we are much less about flogging news.

Q: What advice do you have for tech clients and your PR brethren?

Lois: The biggest piece of advice I can offer (and have given) is that what truly constitutes “news” has changed radically. The bar is ridiculously high and, although a new product or service or directional change may be the biggest thing that a company has done in years, it is very unlikely that it, on its own, will be considered “news” by any national media, either business press or even national technology or healthcare media. The “news” has to be connected to something that indicates real change and has to be part of an opinion or viewpoint from an interesting senior executive. It must bear the right title and market viewpoint, or a customer of a name brand company who can attest to a major change that the product or service is effecting. We tell our clients all the time that they need these opinions and interesting customer demonstrations of the market change before they can interest the journalism community in taking a meeting, let alone writing a story.

Q: What type of clients did you like the best? And the worst?

Lois: That’s like asking an actress who her favorite and least favorite leading men were. They never answer it. I can tell you that the clients who are in my Hall of Fame (and they know who they are) are the ones who worked with us in an atmosphere of mutual respect. There was clear understanding of what our job was and what their job was and how we could work together, dividing and conquering, to reach our goals. We were in it together. The most difficult client relationships we have had over the years have been with companies who insist on a client/vendor relationship, where they give the orders and the agency executes. LPP PR people want to be engaged fully in the programs and to have a voice, even if they have to always be ready with a Plan B and a Plan C, if their Plan A isn’t workable. But we don’t like to just ask what you want done and then go do it. It only uses part of the PR brain and our people have big brains.

Q: Who were the most significant tech execs you worked with and why?
Most memorable and why?

Lois: There are way too many to list them all here. You and I worked together on a number of these, from different sides of the desk. Jim Manzi, of course, comes to mind. Winning the Lotus business when we were tiny and having the chance to work directly with Jim was a career highlight for me. Working with people like Jim, Mitchell Kertzman of Powersoft and then Sybase and later NuoDB, John Landry at Lotus, David Litwack also of Powersoft, Ron Sege at 3Com and, more recently, many of the brilliant people at GE Digital and GE Capital, including Bernie Anger, Rich Carpenter and Charles Galda, has been like another graduate level program for me. It was a real privilege.

I always appreciated the smart executives who were not about their own promotion and egos, but who would put themselves out there with opinions and viewpoints about the industry and not just talk about their products. These people who were changing the marketplace and understood the value of PR in that change, and who worked with us toe-to- toe were always my favorites.

Q: If you had something to do over again, what would it be?

Lois: I would have made some decisions quicker than I did. Having multiple conversations about an issue before action is taken is a waste of time.

Q: What were the most adrenaline-filled and biggest PR blunders in your experience?

Lois: Well, you must be talking about my competitors as LPP just doesn’t make PR blunders-:). Honestly, I used to do a best and worst list of PR moves in our LPP blog. I’ll need to dig these up for you; there are some classics in there. Usually the biggest PR blunders occur when someone goes off half-cocked and doesn’t ask for — or take — the advice from their experts regarding what to say and what to do. Being transparent and honest quickly, and without embellishment, is really the best way to avoid a blunder.

Q: What do you like best and least about today’s tech companies and tech startups? And about running a company?

Lois: It’s difficult for tech companies today to really have something that is truly new and different and that is, as John Landry used to say, a “need to have, not a nice to have.” There is so much parity that it is hard to stand out and have something truly disruptive. I like the companies that are being built to last and who have a mission, not just a product or tool they think can catch fire and then be flipped for a tidy profit. Those are the best types of companies for PR to work with. And when they become part of a larger company, they still are providing strategic value and direction to that company which makes it better. Those are the fun ones. We worked recently with a great young company in New Zealand, Performance Lab, which is truly going to impact the fitness market through an amazing data engine based on years of work with world-class athletes. Companies like that are great fun to help, as you know they will do a lot of good.

Q: Do you think Richard Duffy (brilliant and legendary, but at times, difficult editorial writer and reporter at PC Week in the 80s. One of his most famous tales a la gossiper Spencer Katt was his determined effort to crash Bill Gates’ wedding on Lanai in 1995) would have been a good PR exec?

Lois: Ah, Richard. So many memories. The fist fight between him and you on the PC Week bus back from the NYC Ziff Holiday party (on a bus in 1983 returning from an over the top Christmas in the Guggenheim Museum). Him swapping his tie with my scarf at my going away party from PC Week. Richard may not have liked the client-service aspect of PR, but I believe his strength as a writer and storyteller and his charm would have made him successful if he wanted to go that route. PR execs, more than anything else, need to be trusted counselors that you don’t mind spending time with. Richard certainly meets that criteria.

Follow @thedodgeretort on Twitter.

While riding my bike this weekend, I thought of one key question I didn’t ask in the original set of questions. Here it is. Lois’ answer is long so instead of inserting it, I added it on. It is quite illuminating especially for me who was Lois’ news counterpart in the founding of PC Week.

Q: Tell us about your journalism career and why you switched from journalism to PR.

Lois: I majored in journalism for the writing discipline, but did not want to be a daily reporter. My first job involved writing and reporting on the results of the grant-making of the William Penn Foundation. When Ken’s (her husband) IT job took us to New England, I started taking courses to learn more about the burgeoning technology industry.

With just enough programming experience to be dangerous and five years of professional writing experience, I took a pay cut and became a staff writer at Computerworld, which was the the IT largest weekly then — it made a thud when you dropped it on the floor. I think that was my favorite period — getting to report on all sorts of things. But I quickly specialized on software, the largest section, and when my editor moved up to managing editor, I was promoted to software editor. I loved covering the software industry and saw many of its real pioneers develop. Larry Ellison gave me a private demo of the next version of DBMS (database management system) at his user conference. This was before the company was called Oracle and when Larry was more a shy technologist (my, how he’s blossomed/TDR).

As the PC industry grew, publications began to emerge and I was recruited (as were you, John) for PC Week and the three years I spent there running half the publication — features, reviews and columns – were my most formative as a journalist and, honestly, as a person. We witnessed an amazing wave of change in the industry and helped build one of the biggest technology journalism success stories. It was wild, creative and non stop work. I bonded with many colleagues and am still in touch with them today. And, as you know, there were lots of amazing stories of all types, some that I’ll take to my grave.

By the end of the third year, PC Week was becoming more stable financially and politics were beginning to emerge and that’s not me so I was plotting to parlay my masters in computer information systems from Bentley University into a career change into IT management when Dick McGlinchey approached me about the starting agency. I respected Dick’s style of public relations, but didn’t think much of PR. But we talked about doing it differently so journalists like me would get what they needed without any fluff, and marketing people would get the help they needed from people who actually understood their products. The focus would still be on writing and content development in a young industry I’d come to love. I almost turned back after that dinner with Dick when one of the earliest clients – a mild mannered man – told the filthiest jokes I’d ever heard. I told my husband “I think I just sold my soul.” Then again, I had spent six years in newsrooms so there wasn’t much that could shock me. The rest is history.

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