As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Coyne.
As founder and chief executive officer of Coyne Public Relations, Tom has created a strategic communications firm offering a full range of marketing services to worldwide interests. Tom’s vision and dedication have led Coyne to become a top 20 independent firm in the United States.
Under Tom’s strategic direction, Coyne PR has garnered more than 1,000 industry awards for communications excellence in the past decade, including being named PRWeek’s Midsize Agency of the Year, Consumer Agency of the Year and Creative Agency of the Year by PRovoke Media, PRNEWS Midsize Agency of the Year and Top Place to Work in PR and Best Place to Work in New Jersey by NJBiz. Most recently, the agency has been recognized for being a Best Place to Work by both PRWeek and PRovoke Media in 2020 and 2021 for its innovative approaches to living its mission through the pandemic.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I opened my company upon graduating from college. I did not work for anyone or have any internships in the field. I had my textbooks from college and a library card, and a credit card which allowed me to buy a computer and printer to get things started. It is funny to look back three decades on that decision. I was too young to be scared. To ambitious to give up. I had a dream and was going to chase it. I loved the idea of communications as I believed, then and now, that it can change the world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I started the company without ever working in the industry or at any other firm, so there are lots of stories of exciting firsts. One that stands out was a visit when we had only about 20 employees in the firm and someone wanted to “buy” us. I didn’t get it at first. I think I said, “Buy us; what do you mean? You want to buy people?” He then followed with an acquisition conversation for more money than I ever imagined back then. I think it was about a million dollars, and I couldn’t believe someone would offer that to us. Since then, I have received dozens of offers to be acquired for much more money, and I have always turned it down. I am thrilled the allure of the money never captured us. I will never forget the first offer and smile about how naive I was (in a good way).
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was starting the company and was working on any jobs I could, just to pay the rent. This project was a brochure for a literacy program that taught senior citizens to read. In the pamphlet, believe it or not, I had a typo. It had a headline, “You’re never to old to learn,” when it should have read “You’re never too old to learn.” Well, that mistake cost me what felt like a million dollars back then as I paid for a reprint. I learned the value of proofreading everything. I think it was worth the $400, which will give you a clue on my state of finances back then.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
So many people helped along the way. But I will focus on the start-up days for the company. First, my parents were beyond supportive, from buying my first suit to helping furnish my first office with second-hand office furniture to being my spotter for any client news stories breaking daily. Second, two Toms did a great deal for guiding me to open the business. My uncle Tom encouraged me, networked with me, and provided me with jobs at his labor union; and there was also my cousin Tom, who has a very successful marketing and advertising firm, who told me to believe and supported me with advice along the way. Lastly, my then-girlfriend, who became my wife, always believed in me and paid the bills for us in the early days on her teacher’s salary.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
All companies need to have a diverse workforce, especially in communications and marketing. Having a diverse team provides for ideas that are always on target for your client programs. The field of public relations, advertising, and marketing has worked hard to get a more diverse population to choose these majors in college to create a balanced workforce. There is more work to do in this area, but I know my colleagues are taking positive steps in this direction. Our company is beyond the industry average but has adopted a diversity-first hiring policy to take our efforts to the next level.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Each company should take advice and counsel from its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) committee. Our Coyne PR DE&I Committee aims to foster innovative actions that create and support a solid DE&I workplace. Employees set the agenda and spearhead initiatives to enhance the workplace experience and ensure that everyone, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical ability feels welcome and always included and sees a concrete path for career growth. Our committee has recently led efforts to educate and support many vital issues, including Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Pride Month.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
CEOs are half-problem hunters and half explorers. We seek out problems to solve before they grow in our organizations. CEOs also look across the industry and business world to identify trends and important topics to our world. Good leaders manage significant issues; great leaders seek out minor problems to solve before they grow.
We are also explorers as we need to be watching the horizon for innovations and improvements in our craft. We need to be breaking new ground and bringing these approaches to our clients in the form of best practices.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
CEOs are not cold and calculating. CEOs are people; they have feelings and genuinely care about the company and team. They are not in an ivory tower looking down; the best CEOs walk the floor and ask about job satisfaction. CEOs want honest feedback and want to solve your problems.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought the CEOs work “in the business” most of the time, when in truth, they work “on the business.” CEOs must master the company’s service, but beyond that, they must constantly work on the business to make sure there is a balance and flow to work. Great CEOs can make the journey from orchestra stage to holding the conductor’s wand; both make the music happen, but they are very different roles.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Do not become an executive if you do not want to work long hours, carry stress with you most of the time, have a thick skin, and cannot empathize with your team. Employees have tough days from 9–5, but executives also carry that stress from 5–9.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Live your mission. Our mission is to be the best place to work in our industry, and we use it every day as our true north. We use it to measure our policies and day-to-day decisions. It is not easy, but it keeps us on the path as we believe you can not be wrong when making decisions to take the best possible care of our people, for it is they who care for our clients.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Since our inception, Coyne PR has given millions of dollars in time, talent, and resources to causes in need. In addition, we have raised awareness, funds, and friends for charities around the world. It is essential to always give back, especially when your skills can do so much for others. We also appreciate the good karma that comes back to us as we help others in need.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Sometimes Your Worst Days were the Best Thing That Could Have Happened. I have learned perspective on this over the years. For example, an issue with our CFO leads to hiring a better CFO. A lost client opens the door for a new client in the category. Sometimes an employee departure allows for great promotions for younger talent. Try not to judge a situation too quickly, as there may be a silver lining you don’t see yet.
- People Hire People They Trust. I have been in literally thousands of new business presentations on all sides of the table. The final decision always comes down to one question: do I trust those at the table to the job well and deliver on their promise?
- Creativity Makes All the Difference. We are in a creative business. We challenge ourselves to think of ideas that others cannot, whether for Disney Parks, Hard Rock International, or Shell. We continually raise the bar on our marketing and PR creativity, but it doesn’t stop there. We are creative in our mission, benefits, team building, and offices. We believe that true innovative thinking improves everything.
- “Scrappy” is a Major Compliment. I recall the first time I heard a client describe us as scrappy and wasn’t sure if I liked it. They then explained why. We never give up, always find a way, and fight hard when needed. I then found that term turning up more and more when people described us. We win awards for our creativity but win hearts because we are scrappy. I will take it.
- When You Take Care of People, They Take Care of You Right Back. Our mission is to be the best place to work, which means taking your team’s exceptional care as job one. By giving, we receive and flourish. Always start with people first, and you will have the ability to lead with clarity and vision with each decision you need to make.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Racism and hate are taught at the kitchen table; it is critical to address at the boardroom table, but it is more challenging to change people’s deepest views. We need to reach children in pre-K to educate them that they are all the same on the inside regardless of color, culture, sexual orientation, or religion. We need to break the cycle as discrimination causes needless pain and suffering, leading to widespread hate and even war. There is one race — the human race — and we need to remember we are all created equal and deserve fairness in every way.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quotes both come from my father. The first is PMA which stands for positive mental attitude. He believed that attitude means more than anything and will be the key to success. I agree with him. The second life lesson quote is “enthusiasm generates enthusiasm.” He knows that the way to get things going in the right direction requires enthusiasm to get it moving. I still hear his voice in my head whenever we try to achieve something extraordinary — a positive attitude with lots of enthusiasm.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to have lunch with Pope Francis. I am a Catholic, and I greatly respect his leadership and the changes he is trying to make. I want to offer him my counsel on how to best communicate globally on so many topics to support the many charitable efforts of the church. I would encourage him to focus on the church’s intent and not the rules created centuries ago.