Q&A: Rich Silverman, Senior Partner, Silverman Communications Group

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Describe how you came into the business and how your career developed over time.

I got into financial public relations very much by accident. I'd been a journalist for 12 years and was covering Wall Street for Dow Jones News Service. The largest company on my beat was Merrill Lynch. Naturally, I got to know their executives and communications staff quite well. Ultimately, one of the senior communications executives recruited me and I was asked to oversee media relations for their institutional franchise - the capital markets and M&A businesses. Shortly after Merrill acquired a UK brokerage house, I was transferred to London as head of media relations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. After two and a half years in London, I was promoted to global head of media relations and returned to the U.S. in 1999.

After the Sept. 11 attacks on Lower Manhattan - in which I lost a member of my staff - I needed a change. I left Merrill and joined Honeywell International as head of global media relations and crisis communications. But I missed the financial sector. So, in 2003, when I heard Lazard had an opening for a global head of communications, I grabbed it. After an exciting three-plus years at Lazard, I left and ultimately accepted a partnership with Brunswick Group, a global PR firm, overseeing its North American financial institutions practice. Along with my work for clients, I enjoyed the challenge and competition that was business development. After realizing that I enjoyed looking for new business, I decided in mid-2008 to scratch my entrepreneurial itch by opening my own strategic communications shop.

What are the key skills for getting a foothold in financial communications?

Writing. You have to know how to write. It's something you can't fake your way through. You must be comfortable with your writing ability so that you can quickly produce assignments that will invariably require writing.

In terms of financial PR, you have to know what's going on in the markets. Today's news is outdated by tomorrow.

If you're going to go into financial PR you have to have a fundamental understanding of accounting. One of my biggest regrets is that I never formally studied accounting. I believe that anyone looking to get into the PR business should seriously consider taking some accounting classes in college. The world of numbers is a different language and you have to be able to speak that language. There'll be times you'll sit down with your employer's treasurer or CFO and, if they don't feel that you understand what they're saying, it's unlikely they'll be willing to spend their precious time with you. That reduces the value you bring to your client or employer.

Any other advice for students aspiring to make a career in this field?

In addition to accounting, I'd recommend learning a second language, preferably Spanish. Demographic trends indicate that more and more people in the U.S. will be speaking Spanish in the future and being able to communicate with that community enhances your value tremendously.

Has the financial crisis changed the mix of skills that financial communications professionals practice?

Part of being a strong communicator is knowing how to convey sophisticated themes and ideas in a way that is easily understood, without appearing to be insulting or by dumbing down the issues.

Of course, a good financial PR pro must be able to understand complex issues themselves. Often, journalists that reach out to PR people are either unclear or misguided about the issue du jour. If the PR professional can respectfully educate or enlighten that journalist, then he or she has successfully accomplished a very important service for their client.