Rick Oppenheim on survival
The Chinese Dracaena has stood as a silent sentinel in the front office for 10 years, growing slowly but surely, expected to bring its owner prosperity, luck and harmony. In many ways, it has. But most of Rick Oppenheim’s success during his 25 years in the public relations business more likely comes from his own personality, creativity, stick-to-itiveness and dedication to providing a “full service” business for his clients.
Social Media Man Rick Oppenheim embraced change to succeed By Linda Kleindienst Originally published in the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine
The Chinese Dracaena has stood as a silent sentinel in the front office for 10 years, growing slowly but surely, expected to bring its owner prosperity, luck and harmony.
In many ways, it has. But most of Rick Oppenheim’s success during his 25 years in the public relations business more likely comes from his own personality, creativity, stick-to-itiveness and dedication to providing a “full service” business for his clients.
He opened the doors to RB Oppenheim Associates on Aug. 5, 1985, starting with $1,000 in the bank, three credit cards, a mortgage, two monthly car payments and a three-year-old child. His home was his office.
“The first day, I put on my suit, hitched up my tie, picked up my briefcase, walked in the den, set down the briefcase, loosened the tie, hung up the coat … because my wife (then) had no confidence I’d have the discipline to work in the house. She thought I’d be watching TV, goofing off all day,” he remembers with a laugh. “While I scoffed at that, inside I knew there was a risk. So for the first three months, every morning I dressed for work and went in the den.”
Although Oppenheim was a solo practitioner, a friend and financial advisor cautioned him against building his reputation as a freelancer working alone. It would be far better, he was told, to build the perception that he was a company. And so, RB Oppenheim Associates was born. He was even urged to steer clear of using an answering machine for his calls and instead opt for a professional answering service that would sound similar to an office receptionist.
“The whole idea was to convey the image …that I was a firm,” Oppenheim says. After the first year, he felt comfortable enough with the direction in which the business was headed to buy himself a Nissan 300ZX sports car.
Over the years he has served more than 200 local, state and national clients covering a wide range of interests, from government agencies to the health care industry to insurance, real estate and non-profits. He’s won more than 200 awards, including the Dick Pope All-Florida Grand Golden Image Award for the best public relations program in the state in 2005 — earned for the City of Tallahassee’s Blair Stone Road expansion project.
Oppenheim, 58, said that even as the economy began to slip in 2008 he relied on serendipity — if one door closed, surely another would open. But late that year his strategy stopped working. By the end of 2009, he came within a hair’s breadth of getting out of the business, nearly crushed by the economic tsunami called the Great Recession and several long-term government contracts that ended. He didn’t take a paycheck himself for four months but he did make payroll, tapping whatever source he could find. “My staff didn’t even know how close we came to locking the door,” he admits.
But he decided to hang tough and then 2010 turned into a surprisingly banner year, “the busiest we’ve had in 10 years and I’m cautiously optimistic about 2011.”
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Oppenheim’s family moved to Dade County when he was young. He attended Miami-Dade Junior College North, was an English major at Florida State University, wrote plays and then went to law school at the University of Florida. He left Gainesville after four months. Back in Tallahassee he wrote art reviews for the local newspaper and then took a public relations class. He was hooked and earned a journalism degree with a specialization in public relations from Florida A&M University.
After a stint in state government and working for another agency, Oppenheim started what he describes as a “pristine public relations consulting firm.” At first he didn’t want to “sully” his business with advertising, but he soon embraced the idea of forging down the “full service” path — offering synergistic marketing that had public relations and advertising work together. Pretty soon he was giving speeches about breaking down the walls and the importance of developing a strategic toolbox to meet all a client’s needs.
Lesson learned? Be a leader and an early adopter. In following his own example, he embraced social media when it was still new. He’s active on Facebook and Twitter — and develops social media campaigns for his clients.
“This is the new media. It’s not only powerful, the best thing of all, it’s free. These are tough economic times. To communicate with an audience you have to find innovative ways to build a relationship and connect with customers.”
And Oppenheim says his expertise in this new media helped him get over the hump during the recession.
About two years ago he was at a non-profit board meeting in Jacksonville when he heard a presentation on how social media could be used.
“I had heard about it, but mostly it was people talking about how ‘My coffee is too hot’ or ‘My bacon was crisp today.’ But while listening, all of a sudden a light bulb turned on and I realized I had to learn how it works. Literally, while listening to the presentation I set up my Twitter account,” he remembers. “I spent a couple of hours every day for the next couple of months reading articles and experimenting. I said, ‘This is something we’ve got to do for our clients.’”
Oppenheim and his staff spent time learning how social media and digital marketing works and explaining to clients how it could benefit them.
“This is not a party, this is serious business communication,” he explains. “These are tough economic times. (Businesses) need to find innovative ways to connect with their customers. This is a free medium, but it takes some expertise.”
Because of the economic stress of the last couple of years, Oppenheim admits it’s going to take awhile to recover and “I’ll be working a little longer than I had planned. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I might take an afternoon off for golf every now and then or commute from the beach, but I’d still do this. I can’t imagine not doing this.”
Oppenheim on business
How have you survived 25 years in business? We, as a firm, have never remained static. We’ve adapted to changing economies, changing technologies.
How did you handle the economic downturn? When things started really getting tough, by the last half of 2009, I probably worked harder than I’d ever done before. I realized a little late that I was being lazy. I like doing the work, I don’t like the solicitation (of business). But I learned quickly, it’s either soliciting business or handing out shopping carts at Wal-Mart.
What’s your philosophy on selecting and then working with your employees? Skills can be taught, but behavior and personality can’t be. I think we have a good familial work environment here. We have a massage therapist come once a month. We have Martini Mondays, although not every Monday. Nurturing and mentoring and helping employees grow, that’s all very important to me. Your employees are one of the main ingredients in the cake. You have to have the right people and the right chemistry. Sometimes you have to hire for personality.
What’s your primary business philosophy? It’s what I tell every new employee when they start. If you put your client’s needs above your own, then your own needs will be met. Too many agencies worry about the revenue they’re going to get from a client. Serve their needs — don’t tell them to do something because you’re going to make money from it.
What’s your best advice on business survival? Be a chameleon, learn how to adapt to your environment. And that means seeking out and looking for the next wave. What’s the next thing out there that is going to make our client successful and have their competition chasing them, then make sure they’re leading and not following.
Follow Rick Oppenheim on Twitter at RickOpp or RBOA_PR