5 Questions with Michelle Olson

Michelle Olson, APR leads the Arizona office of Fingerpaint, the New York-based integrated marketing firm with offices in four states. She also leads the PR group for the company, which focuses its work primarily in health and wellness, pharmaceutical, and medical device marketing. With more than 30 years in public relations and integrated marketing, Michelle has served clients across the U.S. and internationally. She is a business leader and entrepreneur, having founded and led her own company prior to its acquisition by Fingerpaint in 2014. Michelle is serving her second term on the national board of directors for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), a 21,000-member trade association for which she has served as a leader at the chapter, section, and regional levels as well. She was honored with the PERCY Award for her career achievements in Arizona in 2003 and previously chaired Counselors Academy, PRSA’s national section for agency owners and leaders. She currently serves as an advisor to the organization’s 10,000-member student body, PRSSA, mentoring its national committee, and assisting at its governing assembly and leadership rally. She was named “One to Watch” by local business media and her company named one of Arizona’s Best Places to Work. In 2018 she was named one of Arizona’s Most Influential Women in Business by BizAZ Magazine, and her firm ranked #3 largest firm in Arizona by the Phoenix Business Journal. Michelle is a past chair of Arizona Forward, a 50-year-old statewide advocacy organization convening dialogue on sustainability and quality of life issues.

What path led you to your current position?

My high school guidance counselor led me to a career in public relations. I was editor of the school newspaper and loved writing, so thought journalism was my destiny. But I wanted more variety in my daily work so she suggested I investigate communications professions, where I could write every day but also create campaigns, plan big events and touch lots of industries. I went to school for mass communications and business and have been in public relations ever since. I started my career in corporate – at Target in Minneapolis – but quickly moved to an agency and have been working at national and regional agencies for most of my career. I started my own PR firm in 2002 and sold it to Fingerpaint in 2014, becoming the company’s west coast office and public relations arm. We now have 250 employees and four offices and specialize in healthcare marketing.

How does a focus on public relations help your organization meet its strategic goals?

For Fingerpaint, creating a relationship with industry decisionmakers is critical to our success, and we do this through an integrated approach to communicating with them. We’re lucky to have a corp comm department that can focus specifically on Fingerpaint’s outreach in the marketplace. Awards, stories in industry press, having a presence at conferences, sharing thought leadership and unique personal touches with clients and prospects all help us reach our goals, which for an agency, is growth and maintaining a strong reputation. Our work with our clients is similar – it connects them directly and indirectly with their publics, manages their visibility and  reputation and helps them put their customers’ needs at the forefront of their communications effort.

What other jobs and personal experiences have affected how you practice today?

Early in my career I managed numerous public involvement projects: road closures, city visioning, water table depletion, zoning cases, flood plain studies and right-of-way management. We often found ourselves on the opposite side of the table from the public, doing something that was right for the greater good, but perhaps inconvenient for the resident, commuter or land owner. They were rarely happy about what was happening and only heard what they wanted to hear. I learned early to consider the filter the recipient of the message may be listening through and to write key messaging in a way that considers their viewpoint. So now every strategic plan I write, every key message I develop, considers the viewpoint of those people we’re trying to reach and anticipates the filter they might be listening through.  

What is something you’ve learned by working in PR that civilians wouldn’t know?

I honestly believe that the adept hand of a PR person can be found in almost every news story we see today, whether it is positive or negative. A PR person likely sourced the story, shaped the messaging, trained the spokesperson and cultivated the relationship with the media outlet in order for that story to be told. Or, they stepped in to manage a negative situation not created by him or her, to repair a strained relationship through guiding and sharing accurate and timely information. Every memorable marketing campaign has a solid PR presence, one of us who shared the campaign strategy with the media or convened dialogue about it on social. PR people influence public policy, corporate decisions, nonprofit fundraising, and widget sales. We’re everywhere!

What single key piece of advice would you offer a new practitioner or someone contemplating a career in public relations?

Be curious. Dig into the industry in which you’re working so you do more than “pitch a story” but rather create stories that influence the industry in a positive way. Volunteer your talents to more quickly expand your experience and your network. Speak up. Be the moral compass for your organization, guiding it to do the right thing in times of discomfort. Don’t stop learning. Step outside your comfort zone and learn a new skill every year, whether that’s coding a website, buying media or proposing a legislative bill.

We are certainly looking forward to hearing more from Susan next week at our Women in PR event – Thursday, July 18 at URBAN CO-WORKS in Schenectady. Click here to register now!