Power Players: Making Connections
Working as a tour guide fresh out of college might not seem like a dream job, but for Tom Hughes, now senior vice president at Hope-Beckham public relations and marketing agency, it was ideal.
“I was on the front lines of public relations,” he jokes. “Turner [Broadcasting System] had a great reputation for hiring for entry-level positions from within, and there were three places to get a job: the mailroom, tour guide or Turner Temps [an in-house temporary agency]. I saw the job as a stepping stone. So I signed a contract with Turner and gave tours.”
Hughes, who earned his degree in journalism from the University of Georgia in 1989, knew giving tours would afford him the opportunity to work on what he viewed as his professional weakness. “I didn’t enjoy public speaking,” he says. “I really had to hone in on that skill and knew if I forced myself into that role I would sink or swim. Fortunately, I swam.”
Just months after he started giving tours, Hughes was hired to work in corporate communications at Turner Sports, and now, 11 years later, he continues to thrive in the public relations industry.
At Hope-Beckham, Hughes recently guided the retailer Belk Inc., based in Charlotte, N.C., through a re-branding process that took three years and included the company’s first logo change since 1967.
Hope-Beckham is a mid-sized firm with a national reach serving such clients as Aaron’s, Caribou Coffee and the Cartoon Network. The firm’s roster also includes an assortment of sports teams and organizations such as THE TOUR Championship presented by Coca-Cola, the Atlanta Dream and the Atlanta Sports Council.
Hughes also worked at SportsSouth, where he assisted in the birth of the Atlanta Thrashers and served as the team’s first senior media relations director. “Opening night [Oct 2, 1999] was probably one of the most exhilarating highs of my career,” he says.
Crisis management is an important facet in communications, and Hughes got a taste of it in 2003 when Dan Snyder, one of the Thrash-ers’ stars, died from injuries sustained in a car driven by his teammate Dany Heatley.
Hughes dealt with media throughout the accident aftermath, a difficult time for him and the organization. He remained unflappable and accessible.
In 2004, Hughes was tapped to head communications for the Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers as well as Philips Arena when he went to work for the Atlanta Spirit, LLC group.
Though his time there was not without its rocky moments, Hughes calls it an “amazing” experience.
He was asked to help Dominique Wilkins craft his 2006 NBA Hall of Fame acceptance speech.
“That was a highlight for me, personally,” Hughes says. “I had developed a really good relationship with Dominique, and when we sat down together he started telling me, ‘I had a coach in high school who was really tough and made us memorize this speech.’ Then he started reciting the same speech he learned in high school. It just went from there.”
Despite his work in Atlanta sports, Hughes was happy to make the jump to Hope-Beckham in 2007. “I knew I didn’t want to be in the box of being just a sports PR guy,” says Hughes. “It was a conscious decision on my part.”
He describes success in his business as making connections, inside and outside the agency, and it hinges on a willingness to learn.
“I think you have to go after new business for a reason,” says Hughes. “You need to have a connection that you’re passionate about or a prior relationship for things to really click. You know, this isn’t rocket science. It’s relationship building.”
It also helps to have people around you who feel the same way. “As I grew in my career and was able to take on more staff, I realized quickly what an important role they play,” he says. “It’s important to coach people ‘up.’ They need to find their way, and it’s important to provide ways for them to succeed.”