A self-proclaimed political junkie, our conversation with Jonathan Rosen, co-founder and principal of BerlinRosen, shed light on many questions we'd been curious about. We asked about his journey from being a law school student to owning one of the most successful agencies around, what his predictions for the PR industry's continued evolution are, plus tips from his greatest entrepreneurial learnings. The result is an inspiring read on leadership, team building and the single concept that threads together his love for law, politics and PR: storytelling.
You graduated NYU School of Law. How did you find yourself in the comms space?
I was a political junkie growing up and worked on campaigns from a young age. At the end of college, I knew two things—I wanted to be in New York City and I wanted to do something that would bring me somehow closer to city politics (in that order)—so my college roommate and I applied to law school. Pretty soon at NYU, I realized I liked politics more than the law and began to look for a campaign to jump on. At the beginning of my 2L year, I joined a candidate for Mayor’s campaign staff in the wake of 9/11 and while I finished law school by the skin of my teeth, I never truly went back. One of my first professors at NYU had a saying: “good lawyering is knowing how complicated your client’s story is and telling it simply.” Politics is the same way. And so is comms. I started gravitating more to the storytelling side of politics which led me straight into communications. It’s the same skill set—being an active and deeply engaged listener.
How did you meet your co-founder Valerie Berlin and how did the agency get its start?
Like every other good thing in life—it was totally unplanned. During my first summer in law school, I was interning at a law firm. Our co-counsel on a case was a New York state senator. Valerie (Berlin, co-founder of BerlinRosen) was his Chief of Staff. I met her at a meeting of our mutual client. I told her and the Senator that studying law was not for me, that I desperately missed politics and if they had any work for me to give me a call. Four weeks later on the first day of my 2L year, she called me and offered me a job on Mark Green’s campaign for Mayor. I walked out of class and showed up at the office. We worked together on campaigns for the next four years—eventually running the New York Senate Democrats campaign operation. One day in the office, we looked at each other and decided we could have more fun if we did this—building campaigns—on our own and not just for politicians. We had a hunch that running campaigns in the most cutthroat media market in the country would have applicability to all sorts of clients—corporate, nonprofit, political. We made a list of everyone we knew, told them we were in business, asked them for a meeting and when they asked: “Can you do this kind of PR (for whatever it was)?” We would look at each other and say yes. Then we would walk out the door—look at each other and ask each other in a worried voice “Can we really do that?” We just started our 16th year so our hunch has panned out.
BR employs over 200 people. What are your tips for successfully scaling and managing a large PR firm?
Hire the best people you can, trust them, empower them and let them do their thing. The best decision we ever made was about five years in when we were an 8-10 person firm and we had the opportunity to hire some senior people that we honestly couldn’t afford without major growth. We swallowed hard and decided we couldn’t really grow unless we took a leap and hired the kind of people who could really help lead and grow a business. It was the single best decision we ever made. Our management team continues to be led by the people we hired in those early years and trusting them to have real ownership over their practice areas and lines of business has been the single greatest lever to our growth.
In terms of management - we’re constantly learning and evolving - but our main focus is instilling culture and an approach to the work that is consistent with our values and campaign approach. We want every single person in our agency to wake up every morning wanting to win the day for their client - not to look at the to-do list and check things off, but to step back and think proactively about where their client could be going next. It’s on us to pick up the phone and call our clients before they ask and to fight for our client’s success as if it’s our own.
How has Covid impacted your business? Have there been any big changes to your offerings, logistics etc that you can share? Are some of these changes you’re embracing and plan to keep?
The first months of Covid were terrifying. We lost clients in the travel industry, hospitality, lifestyle, performing arts. But then - shockingly - things leveled out and we returned to growth by the back half of the year. In a crisis and a time of rapid change and tension - clients need clear-headed strategic counsel in real-time. We saw tremendous demand for strategy and creative execution across every vertical. We also learned and innovated on the fly - helping one of the world’s biggest tech companies take their product launches online, moving awards ceremonies onto Facebook, helping clients create online town halls for their members. Even in some of the hardest-hit areas like airlines - there has been a need for employee and customer comms as the public health situation and travel rules change.
Big picture - Covid accelerated the embrace of digital not as a silo but as an integrated piece of every plan. It forced every organization to realize communicating with employees and stakeholders is job one. And it reinforced that there is no substitute for good strategy and storytelling.
For our own organization - being remote has forced us to be a lot more intentional about internal communications and culture. We instituted weekly all-staff video calls, found ways to find some levity from each other's pets, kids and baby pictures, and most importantly started some really difficult and important conversations about racial equity that we are continuing to focus on intensely.
You have two young kids at home. How were you finding a balance between home and work pre-Covid and how have you managed since we’ve been in the Covid era?
Pre-covid - my secret is that I skip most night events. I am a big fan of breakfast and lunch meetings. But I always tried to be out no more than 2 nights a week out of 7. During covid everyone has discovered those events didn’t mean very much - so now everyone will be on to my secret.
In the covid area - I’m home 7 nights out of 7 - we all are. So that’s been amazing. That said, the first few months of the pandemic when clients were in a rolling crisis there was no break. We call ourselves “always on” but there were many weeks when I had my first Zoom at 7 am and my last at 11:30 PM as clients dealt with the new reality. That has thankfully leveled out a bit - but we still have many more innings to go.
Among your more traditional practice areas of real estate, travel, healthcare etc, you also have some ‘newer’ areas such as renewable energy and environment and issue advocacy. Are these areas of personal interest/passion for you?
Yes. Valerie and I grew up in politics - it’s who we are. We’re excited that we get to work with and support so many incredible organizations and leaders impacting the world - from a global level with clients like UNICEF to here at home where we work on expanding access to abortion, criminal justice reform and supporting workers rights. We’re passionate about all of our clients in every sector—from major technology and real estate companies to professional sports to travel and lifestyle and hospitality—but we are deeply committed to the parts of our work that center on social impact and that will always be part of our DNA.
‘PR’ is a term that’s evolved to encompass many areas over and above traditional media relations. Where do you see the industry evolving to and how are you future proofing the business?
So I’m on both sides of this debate. We have invested and continue to invest heavily in digital content, strategy and analytics. We have a huge team of digital strategists and creatives and this year we launched and began to scale an in-house data and analytics team and an advertising planning and buying platform. As consumers, we find our products, our news, our causes - everything via social. As communications strategists, we have to help our clients dominate across these platforms.
At the same time, the most shared content continues to be good stories written or produced on legacy media. That requires strategy, storytelling and relationships of trust with journalists. There are fewer reporters than ever and they are bombarded with nonsense from our industry. I think we’ve developed a reputation for bringing credible, important and timely news to journalists that have created deep relationships of trust. Our staff are subject matter experts in their areas. They know their fields cold and know what’s news and what isn’t. That makes all the difference in landing stories or in navigating a crisis.
You’ve received many accolades for your work and participate on boards of various organizations. What’s been the most satisfying to receive or be part of?
Recognition from within the industry is always amazing. I have a ton of respect for my peers and in many ways, we are the new kids on the block among firms our size. So whenever our agency or our staff get recognized by an industry publication - like yours! - it means a ton. In terms of boards, I am really passionate about transforming the criminal legal system. Our carceral system is our nation’s greatest shame - so I’m honored to be a board member of the Federal Defenders of NY - they are the federal public defender services for the Southern and Eastern District of New York and they defend the hardest cases in federal court every day. During COVID, our team did a lot of pro bono work highlighting the massive public health risks facing people in our federal prisons and calling for a greater release of people who pose no risk to society. I’m also a fanatical obsessive about art - painting in particular. The way some people follow sports - I follow figurative painting. My Instagram therapy is just hundreds of painter and gallery accounts that I scroll through every night, so being on the board of the Brooklyn Museum is like being a kid in a candy store. Anne Pasternack and the curatorial team she’s assembled have made the BKMU a global arts destination. Our past few years of shows from Bowie to Frida Kahlo to Soul of a Nation have been blockbusters and it’s amazing to be a small part of it helping them tell their story.
What have been some of your greatest learnings in entrepreneurship?
Persistence is underrated. The most successful people I know in this business - or any business actually - are unabashedly who they are and never give up.
Who you pick to go into business with is second only to who you choose to marry. Your partners and management team are the difference between success and failure. None of us are good at everything and we all need people who we can hear who will tell us when we’re wrong or off track. I am deeply blessed with both from my partner to our leadership team.
You never figure it out. There is always the next thing to learn, fix, change, grow. You have to want to start every year and wake up every day with a mindset about how you and the organization you lead can be better.
And you have to make a decision. A mentor of mine in politics said the only job of a good campaign manager is to make a fucking decision. Inertia is a powerful thing. Taking risk is hard. You have to make hard decisions with imperfect information all the time. That’s the job.
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