Michael Fineman has more than 25 years of public relations, media relations, crisis communications and corporate consulting experience. Michael formed Fineman PR in 1988 in San Francisco. Michael coined the term “Brand PR” by defining the concept in an article for a major food trade industry publication, then creating and distributing the agency’s Brand PR Newsletter™. He has personally led many of the agency’s key accounts. Michael is also one of the nation’s leading crisis communications counselors and has been recognized for his work in directing highly successful responses for clients embroiled in high profile crisis situations.
How did you get into the industry?
As a nascent high school English teacher in Oregon, and waiting on tables at night to survive, I searched for a new career that would match my capabilities, talents (especially writing) and interest. I interned at a small public relations agency in Eugene, Oregon, one summer, and decided I had found my calling. The following year, I moved to San Francisco which afforded a larger market and found an entry-level position at a medium-sized, independent agency and excelled at my work (with a major client, the legendary rock & roll impresario Bill Graham). Within a short period, I was offered an A.E. position at another agency, enamored by its charismatic owner and who I credit with teaching me the business. I began bringing in a host of new accounts as a result of networking, general hustle and, thankfully, the word of mouth that was generated by the results I garnered on behalf of my clients. After six years at that agency, I was offered an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. An ex-client, the founder of a large architectural firm, asked me to work for his company as an independent contractor while I built my own business. Within a few years, the business grew to half a dozen staff, and today, after 28 years, my agency continues to grow and flourish.
Any emerging industry trends?
Multicultural communications, whether it be in languages other than English or in being sensitive to niche cultural norms and expectations, is increasingly important for all industries. Our nation is ever the melting pot; however, these days, large segments of minority populations do not subscribe to immediate and total assimilation, proudly guarding their individual, cultural identities. Organizations hoping to earn the trust of these populations with ever-growing importance must build upon this recognition.
One only has to look at the numbers, despite the recent political winds, to understand the diversification of America is here to stay. Forty-three percent of those born after 1980 are non-White and, by the year 2060, Latinos will be almost one-third of the U.S. population.
This influences the foods we eat, the media we consume, and the tunes to which we dance. In the U.S., salsa now outsells ketchup. Colombian-born Sofia Vergara is now the highest paid television actress in the country. The increasing influence of Latino culture is ongoing and marks growing opportunities for communicators to refine their approach accordingly.
Communicating with multicultural audiences is not simple, and it is much more than a matter of translation. Various Latino communities, each with their own identity, both share similarities and complex differences. For all of them, there are different levels of acculturation, native ethnicities, lexicons and geographic origins. Essentially, there are millions of youth growing up multilingual and multicultural, and the mainstream marketplace will most effectively reach their minds and hearts with culturally savvy insights and communications.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
The proliferation of openly biased news, the practice of click-bait and the death of fact-checking is a challenge to public relations and the journalism profession. As news outlets continue to struggle for survival, it is unfortunate that outright bias and salacious headlines are becoming common strategies for capturing reader interest. Reporting unsubstantiated stories to get the scoop is common practice even among the old guard news outlets that one would expect to uphold the principle of fair and balanced reporting. But the news isn’t all bad. I see excellent journalism coming out of the new generation of media such as BuzzFeed Big Stories and even neighborhood-focused outlets like Hoodline in San Francisco.
The growing influence of algorithms in how people discover and access information is both an opportunity and a challenge. Virtually all online/digital/social content is customized to each person based on past behavior (search, purchases, clicks, etc.). This means that there is significantly more competition for people’s time and attention while presenting an opportunity for communicators to be more targeted in their approach. There’s, even more, impetus now to create integrated campaigns with synergies between paid, earned, owned and shared media.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
I set out to own my own business because, frankly, I didn’t want to be tethered to someone else’s vision or way of doing things because “that’s how they’ve always been done.” I found success over the last 28 years because I have sought new, unique ways to tell compelling stories and build brands. Fineman PR celebrates diversity in everything we do. We prioritize independent, strategic thinking and have a talented team of professionals who will continue lending their voices to our agency long after I’m gone. We are an ever-evolving strategic solutions firm.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
With passage Nov. 8 of Prop 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act in California, Fineman PR is ramping up its legal cannabis practice. Revenues from the legal cannabis market could balloon to $6.5 billion by 2020 – in California alone. We provide a full suite of integrated marketing services for clients looking to gain an edge in this rapidly growing market.
In the short term, we plan to continue growing our multicultural division as we get stronger in sectors such as health care, consumer product offerings, technology, education and community-based non-profit organizations. These are all sectors in which we foresee growth. Additionally, we are seeing demand from Latin American-based businesses as they enter the U.S. market.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
• Strategic partnerships with digital marketing firms
• Developing multicultural communications services
• Building niche industry strengths, even for generalist firms
• Risk management partnerships with legal and insurance for crisis firms
• Ever-increasing sophistication in research and analytics
• Adaptability to industry and client trends while affirming the core tenets of brand PR and crisis communications
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?
My most difficult moment in business occurred during the dot-com implosion, which drastically affected our business from 2000 to 2005. This period would be a test for anyone who considers themselves entrepreneurs. It took every bit of my family’s and team’s support, my powers and courage as a business owner and professional communicator to dig far enough down into my stores of creativity, self-belief and dogged determination to come through it. Failure was not an option. In the end, our agency became stronger, more focused and battle-tested.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
Most of my most memorable client experiences have come because of our crisis communications practice, and there have been many. Whether it was a client dodging a bullet because of the point of view we articulated, or because of the preparation and positioning we counseled, or because of our advocacy for balanced and fair reporting, our clients were especially eager to acknowledge the expertise we brought to the table. The relief demonstrated in their demeanor afterward was palpable and genuine. In matters of community crisis, natural disasters or tragic circumstances, being acknowledged as a key partner is rewarding.
How do you motivate others?
I treat my staff with respect, encouragement and praise, and I do not micromanage. I take pride in having built a collaborative team of diverse talents who support each other and our clients. I promote from within and have always prioritized their professional learning and development.
Career advice to those in your industry?
• You must be a voracious reader of the news and contemporary culture.
• You must continually work to be a good writer and storyteller; no typos, no grammatical blunders, easy transitions, and no overkill.
• You must keep up with the latest tools and trends of our business.
• You must find something that differentiates you from everyone else on staff so that you can be a go-to on that issue.
• You must go beyond tactics and think of situations creatively and strategically. Be solutions-focused and avoid naysaying.
• You must be a team player; you cannot create continuing difficulties that define you as difficult to work with. Show your appreciation for the help you receive.