Communications alumnus and recent School of Communication and Information (SC&I) Alumni Association Annual Distinguished Alumni Award winner Tim Sullivan ’96 has certainly earned the skills to now be called a CEO. From obtaining his Master’s degree in Communications to a Johnson & Johnson Fellowship to holding down the high-ranking position of Directory of Publicity on the top-rated The Dr. Oz Show, Sullivan then decided to utilize his years of experience into launching his own PR firm, T3 Shamrock Public Relations. We recently spoke with Sullivan on his storied career, most memorable professional experiences, and why he chose to start his own company.
Why did you choose to study journalism and communication?
I had a really hard time as a pre-veterinary major, so in changing direction I knew I always loved to write and was fascinated by investigative reporting, so journalism was the only thing that seemed to fit.
Did you have a favorite instructor/professor? If so, who and how did that instructor effect your career path or studies at Rutgers?
I had several professors who made a lifelong impression on me. Roger Locandro, Ph.D. at Cook Campus taught Environmental Science and was the former Dean of Students. He took me to Alaska and Newfoundland, Canada and all kinds of places to cover them as a journalism student – usually with a team of science students studying ecology. In the journalism program I was lucky enough to have Tom Hartman during the 1992 presidential election. He taught a course called “elections” which was about how press covered elections. It was two semesters – spring for primaries and fall for the general. I remember him telling us in January that he had become an advisor to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton who was completely unknown – then we watched him win the presidency. Very exciting.
Professor Steve Miller taught a lot of classes and granted me special permission to take the introductory course then called “Mass Media and Urban Life,” which entered me into major. The most practical ones that became my career were all the television courses. Throughout all the courses he taught, he constantly emphasized ethics and networking – you don’t realize the importance of either until you are a working professional. Steve still advocates both those elements on behalf of all alumni, which has made a monumental difference for myself and thousands of alumni. As most alumni will attest, Steve never really stops being your professor, advocate, friend or connector. You can call him any day of any year and it’s like you saw him five minutes ago and he wants you to succeed.
Can you describe your fellowship at Johnson & Johnson during your graduate studies, and how it helped you professionally?
It was wonderful and invaluable. It was real work at a real company doing real things. The staff in the department at the time were known globally as being the best communications professionals and crisis managers in the field. They were highly enthusiastic about training the Fellows and developing our growth. It was a privilege to be granted the insight into how a multinational Fortune 50 company worked and what was expected of you. There was a top-notch television studio at the corporate headquarters on George Street so I got plenty more television training. The company is a public company, so I saw and worked firsthand on how a public company is required to operate its communications and stay compliant and all the underlying regulations and principles. Also, Johnson & Johnson is more than 150 years old, so they took reputation management pretty seriously and it was great tutorial in brand communications. There was old school American pride in that company and the role it played in the region and the world. It occupies a position and historical pedigree that only a very few small handfuls of companies still do. I have enormous gratitude for that fellowship and can’t say enough good things about it.
What would you say are three specific things you learned from your program at SC&I that equipped you for your career?
First – What is news and how do you write it, find it or shoot it. You won’t be a success in journalism or PR if you don’t understand the basic elements of a news story.
Second – The television production courses were hands on, very practical and even though the technology has drastically changed, the production principles have not.
Third – The best defense against libel is truth. If you are being truthful, telling the truth, reporting the truth or pursuing the truth may get difficult but ultimately you will be ok.
You recently received the Rutgers School of Communication and Information (SC&I) Alumni Association Annual Distinguished Alumni Award. What does your connection and relationship with SC&I mean to you?
I was surprised and humbled to receive the award. I know the caliber of the alumni I graduated with and for anyone to suggest that I’m worthy of any recognition next to the enormous talent that has come out of that school is a terrific affirmation. Also, I always admired and looked up to the faculty so to be on their radar at all is also really a wonderful feeling.
You’ve served in roles across a wide spectrum of areas in public relations – television, healthcare, social services, music to name a few. What skills do you feel were vital in being able to work across such a variety of industries?
I was genuinely interested in all those areas, so I brought a curiosity or passion that made that work interesting and rewarding. I think you should think about what you love and try to get as close to it as possible. I never did surgery or played music in a stadium, but I did get to work in plenty of operating rooms and giant concerts – and I loved every second of it. Bring an interest and a passion, and you’ll find a role close to what it is that you love. Another crucial skill is versatility and being able to engender cooperation across a team. People aren’t successful because they are the smartest or work the hardest – they are successful because they make others want to help and be part of the effort. If you can’t enlist the cooperation, good will and teamwork of others there will be no success.
You won several Emmys for your work on The Dr. Oz Show. Is there any experience during your eight years there that stands out to you?
There are so many – countless A-list celebrities were guests so there are endless stories that are both funny and intriguing about things that happened off the set and sometimes on set. We recorded a song with rap icon Doug E. Fresh, made a video and got to perform it at the White House – that was exciting and fun. In our first four seasons, we taped at 30 Rockefeller Center across the hall from Jimmy Fallon, so you never knew who you were going to literally bump into in the hall or rest room. I got to see some unbelievable sound checks of the bands that would appear.
But one of the experiences that was transformative was in December 2012 – I had the TV on in my office and the Newtown tragedy started to unfold. I called the dressing room to let the host know and we decided to get a car and go. We got there late that afternoon and started news gathering to put together a show for the following Monday to help the country try to make sense of the tragedy. The experience was surreal and personally overwhelming, but I felt the show we did was a small step in starting the healing that was needed. We were in a unique position to help and that was what was called for.
Why did you decide to open your own public relations firm, T3 Shamrock Public Relations?
Public relations can be the best job in the world UNLESS you have a bad client. I wanted to be able to pick which clients I took or did not take, and I am doing that. I can pick work I care about or is a lot of fun. I can help clients that I like to work with or whom I admire or like personally. I wanted to be in a situation where if I was going to have to work as hard as it is to succeed and stay in the game, I at least wanted some control over what I was working on so I felt it was all worth it.
With social media flooding all forms of communication today, how do you think it has affected the public relations industry?
It’s profound. It completely usurps everything that used to be a routine element in reputation management. You aren’t dealing with media outlets with various checkpoints and accountability. You are dealing with a complete free-for-all that sometimes brings out the worst qualities in people, rewards bad behavior and has created a faux parity between authoritative ethics bound entities like The New York Times and some angry failure living in his mother’s basement. Its way way out of balance and very few companies have a good grasp on how to handle it. You are dealing directly with customers and consumers on social media rather than trying to earn editorial – and people are giving it equal value. Social media has added a volatile and dangerous variable to maintaining the respect that so many brands, celebrities and companies spend their life earning. I don’t think people truly understand how led they are by social media and how it shapes their world and thoughts or the discretion and intellectual judgement they relinquish when they spend their time on social platforms.
What are the top three skills you look for when hiring for your company?
I want to know what news the candidate reads – are they smart enough to look beyond their social media feedback loop? Do they understand the points of view of those with whom they disagree? Do they know what was the lead story in The New York Times this morning? If not – why should I rely on them, pay them or a client trust them?
I need to know the person is smart. I can teach someone just about any part of this business – it’s not rocket science. I had an old boss say to me after I was saying how great a staffer’s work ethic was, “Yeah but Sully you can’t teach someone to be smart….” And the point was that everyone has their limits – they will excel as far as their aptitude allows which is innate. I try to get a sense of how smart a person is when I’m hiring and it’s more obvious than you may think. By smart I mean their problem-solving abilities. I always tell staffers that I expect them to make mistakes and I have their back, but indecision or lack of action is unacceptable. Do something, make a decision, get it done. Its ok if you screw up.
I usually ask what music a candidate likes – I can a tell a lot about someone with that answer. I’m testing to make sure they don’t just say what they think I want to hear and have the guts to have an opinion and own it. When someone answers “I listen to everything” it’s a tell they have a long way to go in growing into their own confidence.
What advice do you have for current Rutgers students and upcoming graduates who want to launch a career in media?
Never underestimate the power of networking and never burn a bridge – my father told me that and I didn’t realize its importance until I needed both. Also, see yourself as a news professional not a marketing professional. You are in the news business even if you are publicist. Let the marketing chiefs worry about the color of the packaging and how many billboards to buy – your job is to earn the story, get the story right and help your client navigate the chaotic combat of the news cycle. Lastly, practice staying calm. Sometimes being the calm one in the room – in both good and bad circumstances – will be of the greatest value to you and your client. Lastly, I’ve spent 25 years in the business of hype – don’t ever believe the hype!
For more information on SC&I’s Journalism and Media Studies program, go to https://comminfo.rutgers.edu/academics/undergraduate/journalism-and-media-studies-major