Reflection on a Career: A Q&A with David French

By Jenna Barone

To earn college credit for interning with RLF, my career counselor at Elon requires all students to interview work colleagues for industry insight. I love interning with RLF, but I can’t say I was exactly psyched to write a seven-page paper detailing the work environment and my colleagues. Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to interview one of RLF’s two vice presidents, David French, who kindly agreed to let me bombard him with questions about his career development and position at RLF. David made the assignment easy by providing me with excellent snippets of advice, reflection, and stories when answering each question.

After completing the assignment, my internship supervisor suggested using David’s interview answers as the basis for a blog post. Students who aspire to work in the field of public relations and seasoned professionals alike can relate to the sequence of events making up David’s career path and how it influenced his professional development. My main take away—work hard and find the fun, and everything really does come full circle.

What is appealing about your job?

“I enjoy the challenge of devising communications solutions to an organizational issue, concern, or need. In essence, it’s why I chose this as my career. Since I’ve been on the agency side, I’ve really enjoyed the diversity of clients because there’s always something new to learn. I’ve worked with healthcare companies, nonprofit organizations, banks, small businesses, etc. Each client has very different organizational needs and specialized strategic communications solutions. I love that my job requires life-long learning. I can’t think of anything deadlier than doing the same thing for the same organization day-in-and-day-out for the entirety of my career. I would be bored out of my mind.”

What are some of the challenges of your job?

“A lot of the same things that appeal to me are at times also the challenges. This is true in life, too. Clients can be difficult; they can be resistant to our best attempts to help and guide them. I’ve had to work on honing my skill at diplomacy! Sometimes we walk a fine line between what we know is right for the client and what they think they want. You have to be able to convey your case in a professional and respectful way.”

What do you read to keep up with the professional industry?

“I read pretty much everything in my inbox from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). As a member, I receive newsletters, magazines, print/online material, etc. I also consider myself a voracious consumer of news media. It helps you spot public mood, opinion, trends, and if you can somehow relate them to a client or their business, then it can be very beneficial. I am partially a counselor in my job, not just a technician. It’s important to stay up on current social, political, economic, and business trends.”

What skills are vital to your job?

“I think this will be true until the end of time—first and foremost, good writing skills are important regardless of the career you choose. I don’t think anyone comes out of college a fantastic writer but knowing the fundamentals will help your skills develop over time. At some point, you will have to be able to write, inform, educate, and persuade using several different writing formats in the field of communications.

“Second, you need to understand client perspectives. Never project on them what you want to hear, see, or read. This requires understanding the client and their culture to communicate a message or call to action aimed at a particular audience. And this all comes back to writing—everything starts with something written. Because we’re communicating on behalf of clients to an audience, we also need to figure out what’s going to resonate with, catch the attention of, or lead the consumer to taking an action. It’s difficult to communicate unless you understand what touches people and what’s meaningful to them.

“Lastly, it’s important to have great presentation and persuasion skills. We don’t realize how many times a day we’re trying to convey a message and persuade someone, both personally and professionally. These are fundamental and foundational skills.”

What’s your advice for a student just starting out?

“When I was in college, there was no PR degree—people came into the industry with an English, communications, humanities, or journalism background. I’m very happy to see that internships have almost become a requirement in school. Internships are fantastic and provide the opportunity to polish your communications skills, whether on campus or through other organizations. I think there’s great value in internships in building a network and making yourself known.

“I’ve always felt the smaller agencies (big enough, but not massive) or nonprofit organizations are a great place to begin a career. The need is there, but the staff and the resources are usually not, so you often get to try out a lot of different things—figuring out what you like and don’t like. My starting out at a nonprofit afforded me this opportunity, but you must be aware and alert to take initiative. I know several young people just starting out who felt stuck and pigeonholed in a specific role when working in large organizations or large agencies.

“In terms of my portfolio, I always tried to show a diversity of tasks—various kinds of writing, publications, projects, videos I had produced, etc. When looking at your work, ask yourself the question: ‘So what?’ Because people who are looking at your portfolio are going to be asking, ‘Why should I hire you?’ Make sure to show results or outcomes, not just output. Everything you do doesn’t have to be a home run, but it’s important to say and to show the objective, here’s how it was or wasn’t met, and what you learned or would do differently.”

How did you begin your career, and what was your career path?

“I sort of back-doored it. I originally went to college with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. But I did not have the math and science skills to pursue this career path.

“The decision to think about an alternative career path came to me early in my sophomore year of college. I happened to be taking a communications class, and I really got along with the professor who happened to be the head of the department. When I was in high school, I participated in a summer workshop in North Carolina for radio, television, and motion pictures. Based on my writing skills and interests in high school, my professor encouraged me to look into communications. I soon became interested in journalism, also.

“During college, I completed two internships in the news department of two different television stations. After the second internship, I knew for sure I didn’t want to stay in television news. I still liked to write, but there had to be something better for me.

“While still in college, I found a local chapter of a professional organization called the International Association of Business Communicators. I was able to get my hands on a list of members, and I called several of them to introduce myself. Ten people agreed to meet with me and offer career guidance. This is why I always feel obligated to talk to any student who’s making career decisions. I built a network, and through that network, I landed my first job at a nonprofit in Raleigh.

“For three years, I helped produce television and radio spots while writing for their monthly publication. I expanded my network. Two people I met later became my future bosses and one of them my mentor. Next, I took a job as a public information officer in a state government department for the next four years. My mentor then called me up and offered to refer me to Burlington Industries where I started my next job managing corporate media relations for the largest textile company in the world, at the time. After four years there, my mentor hired me at his own company where I worked for the next 15 years. I started out doing external communication, moved to internal communication and eventually ran the company’s charitable foundation.

“Next, I worked for the Trone agency in High Point, North Carolina. This marked my transition from organizational business communications to agency life. Here, I met Monty, who was my boss as president of Trone PR. We worked together for a little over three years until Monty founded RLF Communications. I eventually joined him, and I’ve now been at RLF for seven years.”