I met Professor Tom Handley in his Public Relations course spring semester last year. I was immediately enamored by his big personality. From the first class to the last, I knew he had something to teach me. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to chat with him again about public relations and his experiences over the course of his fabulous career:
Alandria: What was your first experience with public relations?
Tom: “Actually, my very first experience was not with public relations, it was with promotion and it was in third grade where we were doing a bake sale for Mrs. Putzke’s social studies class. We wrote the script and then we went to the principal’s office and gave an announcement over the PA system. Seeing that I was able to write something, deliver it, and see people come to the bake sale made me see the creative process first hand. It was great. She explained why we needed to write things in the script, it was like ‘ok, now I see why this is working so well’.”
A: When did you know you wanted to work in PR?
Tom: “So, I started working for a designer, Heidi Weisel, and was running sales but saw the opportunity to get editors and stylists in and that was great! That was my immediate reaction, that was pretty great.”
A: Has anyone inspired you before or since beginning your career in PR?
Tom: “I’m inspired all the time by my students because I see that light bulb go off and it’s just like ‘oh, this is really great, this is what I like. Creativity with a bit of strategy with understanding fashion.’ So I’m definitely inspired by my students. I’m inspired, kind of, by everyone. When I work with different clients, and I see that they’re seeing that PR works and how key PR is to the whole fashion industry, that (to me) when the light bulb goes off. You’re like, wow, you can make a difference. I also think, going back to the third grade with Mrs. Putzke, I actually ended up having her in high school and she empowered me to write, to act, and to manage everything. So Mrs. Putzke is definitely an inspiration of mine.”
Courtesy of Polimoda
A: What advice do you have for anyone regarding the industry? What’s the best advice you’ve been given since beginning your career in PR?
Tom: “Read everything you can, go to every exhibit/ museum – look at it, drink it in, look at every magazine, every website, there are always things you can learn. When you’re responsible for art directing you draw on experience from what you’ve seen. I worked at Ralph Lauren for so many years, I was definitely inspired by the work of Bruce Weber. The way he lights something and his angles. I always go back to that when I need to do something that, not necessarily recreates the wheel, but emulates it. So, those things are constant advice I would give, just to read everything and soak it up. Keep a file on your computer of interesting things you’ve seen like a magazine page. Just scan it and save it on that file. Also, build relationships with everyone you can, because, at the end of the day, it’s about who you know, not only what you know. Who you know is what’s gonna get you jobs.”
A: Was there a defining moment in your career (good or bad) that affected you and what you do?
Tom: “I would say two things. One, I dressed Elizabeth Hurley for a red carpet and everyone saw the image, it went around the world. It was on websites, it was on newspapers in Russia, it was in InStyle, it was everywhere. I saw the impact that dressing a celebrity really had. Elizabeth was doing a scene in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and she said ‘Hey, I need a gown that will move with me, that can get wet, and I need six of them’. I saw what working on a film is like after that. Because of that, we created these gowns for her, and it ended up being in the movie. She ended up wearing it to a dinner with Gianni Versace (when he was still alive) and it was the big hit of the party because it worked with her body and it moved, it was easy, and it was comfortable and she loved it. That was one moment, the other moment was having a successful runway show that I produced and that was when Fashion Week was still at Bryant Park. Seeing every major retailer up and down the rows, every editor, every celebrity. We did the castings, fittings, and had to deal with the CFDA back in the day. That was a great moment because I realized I did something great and could do it again, easily. It gave me even more confidence, and I think that’s something we all need.”
A: What are your thoughts on the PR industry today? What do you believe the future of PR is going to be?
Tom: “I think PR has definitely changed in that we have an immediate contact with whomever our editors might be. If you’ve got a good relationship, you can just send a text saying ‘hey, what’re you doing, I have something for you’. The immediacy is important, but now I can see that you can pay for PR. You can definitely pay an influencer, influencer marketing has been everything. If you think of Instagram and Twitter, the power it holds is incredible. Look at Kylie Jenner, she said something bad about Snapchat and their stock plummeted $1.8 million, HUGE. The future is endless, PR is going to constantly evolve, but I think you just have to stay connected. I was the first person to teach a social media class at Parsons back in 2010 because I was like ‘Ok, we gotta be on this people’ so I created a course. As long as we stay up on everything that’s happening, we’re like, perfect.”
Courtesy of Polimoda
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(Cover photo courtesy of Blake Little)