David Oates: Founder, Stalwart Communications

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David Oates is a 24-year marketing and public relations veteran who holds extensive experience in developing as well as executing successful and measurable programs for a wide range of agency, corporate and government organizations. Prior to founding Stalwart Communications in 2006, David was Marketing Director for Financial Profiles, a 35-year old financial planning software company based in Carlsbad, Calif., where he directed all marketing-related strategies and programs, including lead generation, partner/reseller, customer/sales support, brand enhancement, public relations, competitive analysis and market strategy/situation analysis programs. He also draws great strength from his days as a U.S. Navy combat and public affairs officer, where he honed his skills in leadership and corporate communications in various forward deployed operations, including Haiti, Hong Kong and the Middle East. David is an accredited public relations (APR) expert affiliated with the Public Relations Society of America, and serves as the Chairman of the Board of Advisors for Operation Homefront, California as well as on the Board of Directors for Rotary Club of San Diego. He received his MBA from San Diego State University’s Executive Program in 2004 and his bachelors of arts from the University of Maryland in 1991. David was named among the 2009 “40 under 40” list of top professionals by the San Diego Metropolitan.

How did you get into the industry?

I have to admit that I stumbled into this profession in an unusual way. Though I did a very brief news stint with my college radio station at the University of Maryland (more like a footnote), I was set to receive a commission in the United States Navy and head off to San Diego to begin my surface warfare career. About halfway on my first ship tour, I was given the chance to take on the part-time, collateral job of Public Affairs Officer in addition to all my other duties.

Through some on the job trial and error, I began drafting news announcements for local media and the base newspaper in addition to coordinating all the community and media relations when our ship visited various ports of call. In those first few months, I realized that I found my calling and applied for a transfer to the Navy Public Relations field, a job specialty held by only 200 active duty Navy officers around the globe. Through perseverance, I got in, did several tours of duties including stints on board the aircraft carrier USS JOHN C. STENNIS and in Haiti with a joint U.S. military operations. My career was on its way, and I’ve been grateful for the opportunities ever since.

Any emerging industry trends?

Local news will continue to shrink, leaving a very large vacuum for PR practitioners to fill. The job of informing the public on important activities to the organizations involved. They will need to do so through a variety of means, including YouTube, social media, email and other influential groups. Good PR people must need to respond by acting more like a news organization than ever before.

What’s more, the digital landscape continues to blur the lines between advertising, marketing, SEO, social media and PR. We’re all “skating to the same puck” with audiences being able to not just access more information than ever before, but also provide real time feedback. Communications channels can also change at the click of a mouse, and organizations are less in control of how and when their brand is being discussed than at any time in history.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

For me, there’s never been a better time to be a PR practitioner. We’re in a much better position that other marketing disciplines to respond to audiences desires to be talked WITH, not AT. That’s because we’ve always worked hard to develop real, honest, mutually beneficial relationships with influencer groups of our targets audiences. We’ve don’t dangle an ad budget over a reporter’s head or a sponsorship opportunity with a key advocacy group when we approach them with opportunities. Instead, top PR professionals rely on our understanding of what makes news, approach our work with integrity and facts. Marketers who are accustomed to uni-directional communications through 30-second television ads and radio spots will have a difficult time adjusting to the industry’s new normal.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

I operate on a Pay-on-Performance model for most of my work. That means I align half of my projected fees on my ability to secure positive press, qualified web traffic, social media engagement and new customer/partner/investor interest. I wanted to do this after working for two traditional agencies after my Navy career. During that time,  I felt the retainer revenue model disincentivized me to work smart, and while my bosses were happy when I secured press coverage for a client, they were more concerned about the hours I had left to bill. I felt PR and marketing agencies should be held accountable for the outcomes they helped generate, not just the time clock they punched. So 11 years ago, I did something about it.

What this requires is for me to be as selective about the clients I take on as they are hopefully doing in evaluating agencies. I need to have a reasonable expectations that I can do some good for them, otherwise it’s not a profitable engagement. So I ask a lot of questions at the start such as what are the business goals, what are the type of PR assets I can leverage in my efforts, how committed is the management team to marketing and the like. It’s a bit more time consuming in the beginning, but it saves me a lot of time on the back end.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

In addition to what I mentioned before, PR practitioners will be called upon to perform more crisis communications work than in years past. That’s because any unpleasant event that occurs in some part of the country can become a national news scandal with one Facebook post. Take United’s disastrous handling of a passenger earlier this year. A decade ago, such instances would have taken days to surface, if they did at all. Now any miscue can be broadcasted from an iPhone in real time.

I’ve seen this in my own practice. I’m fortunate to have extensive experience in Crisis Communications starting with my Navy days. I get asked by many PR firms to be their outsourced service arm in their field and train fellow professionals in the skills that are need to not just answer media inquiries during a crisis, but the arguably more important audiences of employees, customers, partners and investors. Many organizations fail to address the needs of these groups in a Crisis Communications plan, and will pay dearly at the cash register for doing so.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

I have several, but probably the biggest ones is to tee up business opportunities for clients that equates to at least 5 times the amount they spend on my efforts. In a crisis communications, I set metrics on how quickly I can assist the organization to get back to normal operations. In both cases, I can see the real, impactful contributions that I made, and that’s what truly matters in our business.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

The trend in how traditional media’s influence was waning was one I didn’t pick up right away and it costs us clients and revenue for a few years. Like many PR practitioners, I certainly keep up on the trends showing television rating and newspaper circulations were shrinking, but just assumed those outlets would offset these losses with their online properties. What I didn’t see what that folks were going to a host of non-traditional sources, such as industry experts, directly and bypassing the news organizations altogether.

Moreover, I didn’t catch up the importance of companies being that direct news source for audiences. It makes sense in hindsight. If I want to know what my City Council Member is up to, I don’t need to wait until the article runs on SDUnionTribune.com, I can just follow my elected official’s Twitter feed. The same is true when I want to see what the Green Bay Packers are up to. I had to play catch up, and spent a lot of resources revamping my business processes and organization’s infrastructure to make it happen.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

Most of our clientele are small to mid-sized businesses, with the exception of our Crisis Communications work (our market for that service runs the gamut of companies). For the rest of our offerings, clients will find we’re a regimented service that relies on developing stories weekly, anchoring them on the company’s blog and distributing them via email and social media in addition to news sources. This multi-pronged approach is disciplined and full of daily activities. For clients that embrace this methodology, they will begin to see increased awareness and interest in their products or services within a three months, and cascade from there.

The tradeoff is clients need to spend at least 2 hours a week working with us on approving topics and content as well as conducting interviews. If they do, they’ll see a measurable increase in their offerings. Clients that just want to hire us and not be involved regularly in PR activities are not good fits and will be disappointed in the process.

How do you motivate others?

Nothing beats being successful on behalf of a clients. The rush is tremendous. But in addition to that, I try to show my gratitude for efforts and articulate how someone’s contributions made a difference. I think that desire is widely shared by most PR practitioners. They want to point to something and say to themselves “The work I do matters.”

Career advice to those in your industry?

Be inquisitive. Ask as many questions about PR and non-PR activities with clients, partners, fellow practitioners and the like. If you come across something you don’t know or understand, take the time to learn about it. Broadening your scope of business, organizational behavior and marketing will pay big dividends. Never rest on the idea that you’ve learned enough.