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Behind the Curtain: PRSA 2013 Chair Mickey Nall Takes Out the Trash

By Brian Pittman, Bulldog Reporter, PR University

As the Public Relations Society of America gears up for another dynamic and challenging year of service to the communications industry, Ogilvy PR managing director and newly tapped PRSA Chair Mickey Nall sat down in the media room at the PRSA International Conference in San Francisco a few weeks ago to discuss his ambitions for 2013 with Bulldog Reporter. Palpable excitement rose from the halls of the Marriot Marquis two floors below, where exhibitors and attendees mingled between sessions.

The Society, under 2012 Chair Gerard Corbett, took great strides this year toward its goal of improving PR's level of engagement and advocacy — even as communicators struggled through some of PR's muddiest challenges yet, enduring huge shortcomings such as Penn State University communicators' failure to react with any authority as the Jerry Sandusky ordeal kept unraveling, and the confusing about-face of Susan G. Komen Foundation's PR as the heat intensified over the org's decision to disassociate itself with Planned Parenthood.

The buzz upstairs in the Marquis behind the media room's privacy curtain had as much to do with the weather outside as it did the atmosphere inside. That's because the hotel heaters repeatedly buzzed on to keep up with the changing season during our exclusive interview with Nall. Through it all, he remained as cool as could be in the increasingly "hot seat" beneath the humming hotel air vents. His relaxed smile was telling, and he was ready to pull back that proverbial curtain to reveal a more personal side than you may have come to expect from past PRSA spokespeople:

What's the biggest challenge for PRSA right now?

Our biggest challenge is to stay on the cutting edge. That's hard to do as the industry continues to expand, channels continue to expand and expectations of PR from the C-suite continue to expand. As the world's largest professional membership organization, we have to stay on the front edge of this. Our value depends on constantly answering this question to the affirmative: "Are we meeting member needs?" With 22,000+ members, 14 sections and 110 chapters, there are a lot of people with "micro-needs" they expect us to meet. We have to anticipate their needs. That's a tough thing to do.

What are you doing to stay current?

We do a lot of surveying of our membership. That's close to real time. One of the things we began doing this year — and that is yielding huge implications for our future — is finally being able to drill down into the analytics on our website. That's helping us develop new products and enhance our services.

How so?

In the old days, we'd survey our members and then take the findings to the board for approval regarding any course of action. Now, we're making decisions much more rapidly. We make decisions on a month-to-month basis, instead of year-to-year.

Can you give me an example?

Our "Issues and Trends" email newsletter is changing as a result of this. One thing we found by tracking the analytics is that everybody has been linking to breaking news, but not to our products and services. And looking at it, we realized that what we need to do is link our products and services to what's in the news. So, for example, we'll highlight a news story related to ethical issues — and then we'll link out to 17 PRSA products speaking to how to resolve ethical issues in PR. Members can expect to see that change sometime in December, when they'll see "Issues and Trends" looking incredibly different, based on what people are clicking on.

Why did you accept this role of chair for 2013—what attracted you to it?

It's a longer process than you might think. First, you work in your local chapter. You then get exposed to the planning and procedural operations of PRSA. I was a Silver Anvil judge, for example. Through things like that, you begin to see things beyond your local chapter … Then three years ago, I ran for the board for the Southeast District. There are ten districts with ten positions available. I ran and it was affirmed. I then came to the national board. I got to be part of great programming, like our MBA initiative. I also liaised with the Southeast chapters, got to hear more about what we're doing right and even some of ideas for improvement. I realized I could have a positive impact.

During that time, people encouraged me to seek an officer position on the executive committee. I did that. In the nominating process for the executive committee, the nominating committee can make decisions about where to place you. I said, "What the hell? Why not?" and checked the box for chair. I figured that if it didn't work out and they wanted me as treasurer, then fine. I was fortunate that the nominating committee chose me and affirmed it last year.

It's a long-term commitment. It's not just my serving as chair in 2013. You first serve as chair elect, then chair, then as immediate past chair the following year. Then in year four, you're chair of the nomination committee. So it lends itself to a continuity of leadership.

What has PRSA done for you as a member?

Overall, it's life affirming and validates my professional character. But before I realized that, it provided great training as my career grew. For example, I have a background in communications and journalism — and PRSA offered professional development building on those areas. Similarly, a long time before I was a manager on the PR side, I started managing some events in my local PRSA chapter. And before I did the messaging for CEOs and spokespeople, I learned how to do it at PRSA. So, it was all about professional development that helped me grow through the earlier phases of my career. As I grew to a 20-year member, it became more about the community and phenomenal networking opportunity. Beyond that, the college of fellows is there for me as a 20+-year member. So, my PRSA activities tracked with my career in PR every step of the way.

How has your work at Ogilvy prepared you for this role? Are there corollaries between serving A-list clients like Coca-Cola and serving PRSA members?

Putting on my Ogilvy cap, I need to say there is no such thing as an A-list client. They are all A-list. There is no stratification of clients. It's the same with members of PRSA — our members are our clients. We are here to help them solve challenges and look for opportunities. My work at Ogilvy helped me prepare for that.

How so?

I served on Ogilvy PR's management committee and I'm also managing director of the Atlanta office. The financial and management training received there over the span of 17 years helped prepare me for this. A lot of PR people don't think of the business that we're in. Instead, they think of the profession we're in. That changes when you're responsible for a P&L. Being the owner of a P&L in a system as large as Ogilvy has certainly helped prepare me for this. As a society of PR professionals, we need to look at our business ambitions first and foremost. We talk "brand" to death in this industry. But the aspiration of the brand can be summed up in its business ambition. We can't forget that.

So what's the business ambition of PRSA?

I think our brand is personified in the strategic plan we are operating under. There are five pillars to that plan. We've presented them in an A, B, C, D, E format:

1. Advocacy

2. Business case for PR

3. Community

4. Diversity

5. Ethics, education and organizational excellence (Note: This focuses on helping districts, sections and chapters, not PRSA national. An example includes providing website templates for each chapter next year).

We come to the end of our three-year plan next year. We develop plans three years at a time and in 2010, the plan from 2009 was put into action. So, the business ambition right now is to realize all five of those pillars so that our members understand their value and see direct results tied to each one.

Are PRSA members still worried about the economy? If so, what has the response to the dues increase been?

The recession is over, but improvements are slow. The recovery is ongoing. Yes, we had a dues increase last year. And $30 is a lot of money when things are bad. But we are up 118 members from this time last year, even after the increase.

Our members see value in membership — that's why we have a high rate
of renewals. Most dues are paid for by employers. That said, the renewal rate is in the 73% range. That's high for an organization like this.

What do members seem the most optimistic about right now?

They're optimistic about their future. Hope is not a strategy—but still, they feel very optimistic. With the decline in traditional advertising overall, PR is not just filling the void. We used to joke that we wanted to be in the "communications car" — but we are now in the driver's seat with big brands. I have been in PR for 30 years and this is an exciting time. We used to be in a box — like employee communications, reputation management, media relations and so on. But now, we get to sit at the integrated marketing table. We are becoming strategic problem solvers, not just tacticians.

What one thing could boot us from the table?

I am a believer in the premise that you earn your seat every single day. Nobody knows that like a PR person. You earn it by being thoughtful, research-driven, focused on strong metrics, dealing with facts, avoiding innuendo and working hard to listen. If I listen well, I can help my clients and companies moving forward. Falling away from that is a sure way to lose your spot at the table.

What's your sense of what's happening to PR budgets moving forward? How are things looking at the big agencies like Ogilvy?

I can't speak for all agencies, but we're seeing healthy growth. Clients are relying on PR more and working with a wider variety of stakeholder communities. We put the client in the middle and there are 9,000 communities they have to reach out to—so budgets are obviously growing as a result. But they're growing at a steady rate. It's not exploding or anything. Again, the recovery is ongoing.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I am never going to grow up.

Touché. When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was little, I wanted to be a garbage man because I loved the truck. I'd go flipazoid over the truck. As I got older, I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer because I was told that by others. Then like every journalist and PR person, I thought I wanted to be another Hemingway. We all think we have the great American novel in us.

Now I do PR damn well—so I made the right choice.

How is being a garbage man like being PRSA chair?

I think the correlation has more to do with developing an infrastructure in our communities to make them work than it does with "taking the garbage out." But to push the metaphor further, there certainly is a lot of unethical trash to throw out. We want to help clean up the ethics problems in business. I think PR has a role in that—and ethics is one of our five pillars at PRSA. That also relates to advocating for our industry.

What do you do in your free time?

I am a nut for mystery novels. I read mysteries voraciously. I buy books to read on planes. I know it's not the highest level of reading, but I like figuring it out before the author gets me there. I love a good story. I deal with factual stories all day and I like to relax with fiction at night. Beyond that, I am a big foodie. I eat too much, cook too much and drink too much. I believe in good food, good wine, good times.

How might that inform how you'll lead PRSA?

That's a big jump. But I'll play along. First off, we are a big community and we certainly gather people "around the table." I want what's on the table — whether it's a professional development session, an article or what have you — to be sustaining and enjoyable. And I want it to be trendy, when that's appropriate. Sometimes, it can be a four-course meal and sometimes it can be quick and light, like mac n' cheese. And, of course, I want a robust wine at the table. PRSA can be all that. Good times expand your mind and challenge you. A conference like this one can serve that need. It should be fun and interesting—that's what we're trying to accomplish here.

OK, let's shift gears again. How will PRSA deal with critics in the trade press in 2013? You know who they are …

We deal with them on a case-by-case and point-by-point basis. Unfortunately, we also sometimes deal with them day-by-day. There is a point in any communications narrative where you choose to give truthful, detailed answers … and they either have to be accepted or you have to quit asking the same question over and over again. If you're not getting the answer you want, then you're not being a journalist. A journalist is an objective reporter of what is truly news. If you want to be a storyteller or novelist, then go do that someplace else … That's my personal opinion on behalf of PRSA.

Ultimately, PRSA deals fairly and objectively with anyone seeking information from us and we always have. That's not going to change.

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