Can California High Speed Rail Authority’s PR team save itself and its grand plan?


Last week the CEO of California High Speed Rail Authority (@CaHSRA), Roelof van Ark, submitted his resignation, giving fodder to many proponents who are calling for the end of the state’s grand plan to build a fast and eco-friendly transportation medium that will connect the major metropolitan areas of the Golden State.

In addition to this news, @CaHRSRA has been plagued with ongoing criticism for its growing cost estimates, which now peg the statewide project at nearly $100 billion, as well as the ever-changing time projections it will take to actually complete the project.



And let’s not forget about the farmers, who over 150 years ago complained about railroad tracks impeding their land, are back at it again with complaints about high speed rail lines going through their farm land. The challenges to this project are super-sized to say the least, especially in a state like California that took the brunt of our country’s housing collapse and subsequent recession, leaving behind excessive budget gaps that have taken their toll on state funded programs like college education, law enforcement, welfare, etc.

While these challenges have grown louder and louder, the Rail Authority’s PR program has been absent from the picture, allowing pundits free reign to continue their attacks. Essentially, it’s a Lincoln-Douglas debate scenario, but “Lincoln” is nowhere to be found.  The Rail Authority only has itself to blame for being missing in action, part of which is due to its indecision last year on the direction of its PR program that finally cost Oglivy Public Relations Worldwide its contract. In December, the Rail Authority chose to back out of its review of other PR agencies and instead pursue a course of hiring several full-time staff members that would be based in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Fresno (San Joaquin Valley) and southern California. Now, as the Authority begins selecting candidates to fill those positions, a new challenge remains that can quickly spell the end of not just the Authority’s PR program, but the organization itself. So what is this challenge?


While California has a slew of qualified candidates to fill the needs of the Authority’s PR team, it doesn’t really have any candidates that appreciate and understand the complexities and needs of each part of the state that will benefit from high speed rail. Most of these candidates will be from the Bay Area, Sacramento and the Los Angeles and San Diego areas. But what about Fresno? As the fifth largest city in the state (pop. over 500,000 people), it is the least known (of the major cities) and traveled to by people who live in Northern and Southern California. While working in Silicon Valley after receiving my college degree I was asked by my colleagues countless times where Fresno was. Mind you, these were smart, well-educated PR professionals from both the Bay Area and LA, and no, their sense of geography wasn’t to blame either. Unless people from the Bay Area and southern California have relatives or good friends living in the Central Valley, they really have no other reason to visit Fresno, which is why the city (and the San Joaquin Valley) will be oblivious, including its intricacies, to so many qualified PR candidates seeking employment with the @CaHSRA.

For the rail authority to have any chance of growing public support and seeing its high speed rail plans come to fruition, it needs to be able to determine what the candidates’ views an d familiarity are of Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley.  If the authority dismisses these valid points during the interview process then it risks creating a disjointed PR team (and effort) that has no compassion and understanding of Fresno and the greater San Joaquin Valley, and more importantly, how the two are an integral part of rail authority’s grand plan for high speed rail.

Note: These comments are strictly the opinion of its author, David Splivalo. Splivalo was born and raised in the towns of Visalia and Fresno and later worked in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles following receipt of his communications degree at Fresno State. Splivalo has also worked in Detroit, Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington D.C., where he founded Freestyle Public Relations in 2006. Follow Splivalo on Twitter at @dspliv or contact him at



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No, no, no….Why It’s Bad to Always Agree

The reality of PR is that your client is your boss. They are your revenue stream and it is important to keep them happy, but this does not mean the client is always right. They hired you because you are the expert.

Unfortunately, telling your client they are wrong can lead to some uncomfortable conversations. A few years ago, I was working with a client (who’s name I will omit) that was certain their product’s name was unique and creative. They were right, if unique and creative = perversely inappropriate.

Our team tried to delicately explain the name was inappropriate and probably wouldn’t be well received by the media, but the owner insisted the name was a winner. After pitching to a few trade publications, we received some emails from reporters who did not care for the name and were able to give our client a third party perspective. This quickly convinced them to change the name to something less offensive.

Later on, this client wanted to help the product launch by booking a booth at the largest adult (think XXX) conference in the country. The client also set me up with a list of people I could contact for interviews with the media and on it I found a famous adult movie actress.

I’m not trying to say there is anything wrong with the adult industry. It is a lucrative and honest industry, but had we known from the beginning that the client wanted to go in that direction we would have probably chosen not to work with them. An agency’s clients are a reflection of their work and we just couldn’t risk our other clients being offended or put off by one client.

Ultimately, the best practice is total communication with your client. If they come up with a bad idea, do not be a yes man/woman. They are paying you for your expert opinion so give it.

-Wendy Parish, Account Specialist


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Preparing for your real life entry into the world of Public Relations Part 2

Hello again to everyone that has read my blog! Sorry for the slight delay in my posts but boy, has it been busy over here at Freestyle (and what a great reason for the delay)! We continue to evolve and provide excellent results for our wide array of clients.

Now where did I leave it…oh yes, I wrote about how to prepare for full time employment in the public relations field and how important writing skills are in this line of work. I want to continue on the path of providing valuable skills every PR pro should have in order to survive. One skill that is continuing to make its mark upon the public relations industry and PR professionals alike is having a strong sense of curiosity.

Cu·ri·os·i·ty [kyoor-ee-os-i-tee] noun. The desire to learn or know about anything; inquisitiveness. In the public relations business the only thing you can count on reliably is that there is a constant state of change. Armed with a strong sense of curiosity, you will be driven to want to learn more, uncover new insights, offer fresh ideas, ask questions and think about how to be more productive in our field in new and exciting ways. There have been plenty of circumstances in which I have been asked to write a press release about something that I am not necessarily familiar with and without my curiosity to learn more about that topic I would not be able to do my job effectively. In the public relations industry, information truly is our currency. By that I mean to keep up with your clients and their specific niches you must be curious in finding out additional information about competitors, new trends and daily news to keep yourself informed.  Without this curiosity, you won’t be able to gain the understanding or vision about the business you’re researching that will allow you to not only keep up, but to provide fresh and innovative ways to help your clients shine!

I’m hopeful you find my observations helpful and please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have. I am excited to continue providing you tips and advice based upon my real world public relations experience here at Freestyle PR.

Be on the lookout for my next blog.


Michaela Sabin
Account Assistant

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Preparing for your real life entry into the world of Public Relations

As a college student majoring in public relations, preparing yourself for full time employment in the public relations field can be intimidating, confusing and sometimes downright difficult! As a recent college graduate I know how scary it really is by wondering if you’re doing the right things to adequately prepare yourself for your first foray into the exciting field of public relations.

First, a little about me. My name is Michaela Sabin and I was raised in Des Moines, Iowa and went to college at Iowa State University. Go Cyclones! I graduated from the Greenlee School of Journalism in May 2011 with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with an emphasis in Public Relations. Throughout my many adventures at Iowa State there was always one thing lurking in the back of my mind and that was graduation and finding my ideal public relations position. Since that was my goal, I had to find the things that worked for me in this regard, realize what things didn’t work for me, and along the way stumble across things I wish I would have done and of course run into those things I now wish I didn’t waste my time on. My transition from higher education to a public relations career is a happy one. I am now an Account Assistant here at Freestyle PR. I couldn’t be more ecstatic about starting my career with such a great public relations company! The purpose of this blog entry is to offer some advice to college students that are struggling with the age old question, “So how do I best prepare for my grown up job in public relations?”

The first thing I like to share with public relations students is to make sure you build your writing skills as much as possible. Writing is one of the most important skills a public relations practitioner has in their arsenal. From writing press releases to pitches and even email communication, all of them require a solid writing foundation. A few ways to help you build this critical skill is to work for your student paper, take an extra writing class or two that fits into your schedule or offer to write for any organizations you are involved in for free. I also recommend you read as many public relations documents that you can get your hands on. Do a Google search for anything ‘public relations’ and there is a wealth of good examples to peruse. As straightforward as it sounds, often times simply reading the different types of public relations documents you will be asked to create will really enhance your baseline understanding of the writing mechanics that go into each type of document you may encounter in your daily work life.

These tips can help you frame quality writing skills that will assist you in your road to becoming a valued professional in the public relations field.

I sincerely hope you find this helpful and please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have. I am very excited about my current position and love the opportunity to talk to others about it and about Freestyle PR! Be on the lookout for my next blog.


Michaela Sabin
Account Assistant

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Trepidation to Education: My Summer Internship

I think it is safe to say I started my internship at Freestyle Public Relations with a fair amount of trepidation. The word “intern” had my mind instantly conjuring up images of how my summer would be spent: making coffee, trying to figure out how to translate that skill to my resume, and working for someone who would probably mispronounce my name for three months. As my internship wraps up I am glad to say my preconceived notions have been proven false. Now when I hear the word “intern” another word comes to mind­— “opportunity”. Contrary to what I had previously believed, I spent my summer learning about the PR industry, furthering my skills, acquiring new real-world techniques and immersing myself in the industries of Freestyle’s clients. Also, my name was pronounced correctly every time.


The Top 5 Things I Learned from Freestyle


1)Lots of work and RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH, go into everything


One thing that particularly struck me while working at Freestyle was just how much work goes into a successful public relations effort. When I see a company profile in a magazine, or an interview on TV, I now realize just how much work must have went into securing that placement. Meetings with clients, research on reporters, digging up statistics and drafting and re-drafting a pitch, are only some of the steps I learned I must go through before finally receiving the satisfaction of a response. And even then, success was not always guaranteed. When we didn’t reach our goals, the answer was simple— do more work, more research.


2) Don’t be a cookie-cutter image.


Walking into my interview at Freestyle I kept repeating in my head the slogan I had read on their website, “communication without boundaries.” I was trying to think of a way to tell them that is exactly the type of work I would like to be able to produce. Over the next few months I was able to witness how this was done. The agency didn’t just use the same plan with every client and they didn’t copy other PR firms. Instead they looked at their clients and came up with a plan that would suit their needs in a unique way that was right for them. This is something I want to emulate as I continue on my career path, and I hope I can stay mindful of not falling into a mold.


3) Keep learning.


I’ll admit that at times it is hard to find the motivation to work an unpaid internship. But while I rolled my eyes at my parent’s and teachers’ comments about the invaluable gift of “experience” and “opportunity”, they could not have been more right. I was able to work in an environment in which I felt comfortable asking questions, but was still given independence in completing and managing my assignments. David would occasionally sit us down and talk to us about the industry or about hints that would be helpful in our work. I can’t imagine many company presidents mentor their interns in this way.


4) Confidence is key.


The first time I had to pitch to reporters on the phone, I was terrified. Sure, I can write a good e-mail, be either persuasive or eloquent in a given situation, but on the phone I’m fairly certain I sound like I’m five. And what if I was asked something I hadn’t looked into yet? David gave me some sound advice to match my tone, volume and speed to the person I was talking to, which would at least give me some fake confidence. As for the not knowing something, the answer was again that I had to have done my research. After a few pitches my fake confidence grew into real confidence, a lesson I’m guessing will be repeated throughout my life.


5) Sometimes you need a break from work in order to produce good work.


Whether it’s a game of ping-pong or just a time-out to share funny stories, I learned that sometimes focus comes after some planned un-focus time. I’m sure there’s some research about how releasing endorphins helps you think more clearly, but it wouldn’t really pertain to me since my ping-pong skills were one thing that did not improve during my time at Freestyle.


More than anything else this summer, I learned that being uncomfortable can be a good thing. I don’t ever want to settle into a routine at work or in school or in life. If I don’t continually challenge myself, I won’t learn anything new. And it’s all well and good to say these things, but working as an intern and seeing what I want to do, everyday, in front of me, gave me the backbone to not just say what I want but to strive for it.

–Hayley Mason, Intern

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My Georgetown Decree

My day in Washington D.C. this week, reminded me of the power that communication has over our daily lives. An idea that I thought of two years ago is now being shared amongst certain lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and if my client and I are fortunate enough, that idea could transform the way we all drive in the U.S. As I type this blog from a Georgetown hotel room, what impresses me the most, is that I deal in a world not dictated by the sciences and mathematics that bind most other industries. Technologies like Facebook and Twitter, while cool and hip, are still limited by the very forces that keep our feet on the ground. But in the communication arena we’re not bound by the same rules: 2 + 2 doesn’t equal 4 in my business. To me, communication, or Public Relations, is an art form. Even my college degree appreciates the fact that communication is art, hence my B.A.

What I’m driving at here is that, in the coming weeks, Freestyle will be showcasing some of its new “art.” I’ve always been a big believer at being a trendsetter in my industry; testing out new methods and unconventional processes that can help drive results for my clients. It’s time the PR industry transformed itself. To do this, public relations practitioners need to view themselves as artists. One way to make this metamorphosis, is to stop copycatting what every other PR department and agency is doing. Sorry to burst your bubble, but yes, too many of my colleagues, from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley, copycat themselves. And then there are the so-called-experts who post blogs and Tweets thinking they’re helping the industry by sharing ideas and processes that instead make more of my colleagues robots rather than artists. If every painting in the museum looked the same would you go visit it? Chances are you wouldn’t. But for whatever reason, people associated with PR keep going back to the same museum.

In July, Freestyle will launch SiliconIowa. While details about this new project are still under wraps, I can say that it will be a trendsetter. While I can’t guarantee it will be a success, I can guarantee that it’s unconventional, refreshing and is sorely needed, not just in Silicon Prairie, but from coast to coast.

In the meantime, as SiliconIowa gets prepped for takeoff, I’ll be working with my counterparts on Capitol Hill to create that piece of art that I hope we will all benefit from.

Keep dreaming and keep creating!



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The One Who Got Away

You know that feeling, that moment in time when you tried to hook up with that girl or guy and nothing you could do or say would make it work? Well, I have to admit that I’ve experienced the same, but from a professional level.  I’ve been very, very fortunate in my PR career to work with most of the top tier press in the U.S., which helped lead to significant media coverage for my clients. Whether it was a feature of my client Jim Stickley in TIME magazine, an Associated Press article on my client Ben Milne of Dwolla, or the Memorial Day feature segment on the NBC Nightly News of hundreds of thousands of WWII Merchant Mariners that never received the GI Bill of Rights when they returned home from the war; I’ve never been able to secure an interview for a client on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Yes, I know that’s not something to be down about, but for me it is. I’ll never have a chance now to see one of my clients on her show. I tried for several years to get my client Jim Stickley on her show; his ability to penetrate banks’ security and expose hundreds of thousands, if not millions of consumers’ identities, was very appealing to the mass media. If I could guess, Jim Stickley has received (including all his Associated Press articles) nearly a 1,000 stories on his very cool social engineering profession. But for the producers at the Oprah Winfrey Show, Jim’s story apparently never caused them to commit to a segment.

For those that know me well, they realize the energy and creativity I put into my clients’ media relations programs – and the results always show. Never in my decade plus career have I not been able to secure a story or segment with a media outlet – until now.  It’s almost worth getting a tattoo with the words, “OWS – I will never forget.” Well, maybe I won’t go that far, but it is tempting! I don’t want to end up like these people.

For those in the PR profession, I encourage you to work for a client that will allow you to talk with almost any media outlet. The experience you’ll gain will be second to none.  And I’m not just talking about securing coverage. The beauty of working with Stickley is the ability to do work you’d never be exposed to, such as  working with attorneys at NBC Universal to hammer out NDA’s, serving as a glorified assistant producer when on location filming a segment, and going to Capitol Hill to work with U.S. legislators to beef up their ID theft bills.

As for Oprah, maybe I’ll have a chance on one of her network shows to place one of my clients.

–David Splivalo, President

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Forecasting PR and not the weather

Now more than ever companies are asking PR agencies to substantiate the results they should anticipate when considering their services.  But how is this done? How can you measure the results, let alone the impact of a PR program for a company? It’s certainly fair to ask, every company employing the services of an agency should be held to some form of metrics. But what if the company is asking for metrics that are more in line with business performance, for example people visiting the web site following the publication of a story, or the amount of users who sign up for a particular service following a segment that appears on the NBC TODAY Show? The bottom line, PR is very tricky to measure. It’s sort of like forecasting the weather, only God knows if it’s really going to rain tomorrow or not.

The best thing a PR firm can do is be a weatherman when it comes to providing a fair set of metrics for a program. I’ve worked for nearly 100 companies (from startups to industry bellwethers) since getting involved in the PR agency business back in the late 90’s while in Silicon Valley, and so I’ve seen my fair share of metrics that work and don’t work for clients. During that time, I’ve learned one very important thing, the best way to size up a PR firm isn’t necessarily based on the metrics they offer you, but on the results they’ve achieved for other clients. Some PR agencies can promise the heavens, but in reality they’ve produced very little results for their current clientele. Any good agency that is producing consistent results for its clients, whether it be press releases or media coverage, will employ the same methodical approach to the tactical programs of all its clients. One way to measure this is checking the websites of its current clientele for media results, just keep in mind that every firm most likely has a different size PR program so results will and can vary.

At Freestyle, all our clients except a couple are on sustained (recurring monthly) type programs, where we measure our performance on both a monthly and quarterly basis. In fact, quarterly measurement is the best tool when evaluating the performance of a media relations program. Why quarterly? Media relations is a tricky business. When dealing with third parties like reporters, who have no affiliation to the PR agency or the client, it’s up to the reporter (as well as their editor) when a story might appear. With this in hand, it takes time for media coverage to appear, which is why quarterly checking in on the metrics is more ideal than doing it monthly  because it gives you a more holistic overview of the program.

Example of a good metrics tool is below. It’s important that ranges are built into metrics (a low and a high) so clients and new business prospects can understand that there’s a variance to the results that can be accomplished, especially with media relations. If a PR firm provides you without a range in terms of metrics, ask them if they’ll guarantee those numbers. When dealing with media relations, it’s almost impossible to hit a specific number since the agency is dealing with a third party (media). Moreover, there are variables to consider when dealing with PR. So many different parties contribute to the overall PR program that all it takes is for one product marketing manager to get sick and a press release they were suppose to approve ends up getting delayed until the following month. This then delays the pitching of the press release and the subsequent coverage, which was all suppose to happen the previous month. The next thing a client knows, the metrics that were set for the month are completely off. Keep this in mind when setting metrics with a PR firm, since clients are just as responsible for helping to contribute to a certain results for the program as the agency is, too. It’s a team effort when it comes to a PR program and achieving the metrics set in place.

Metrics Table (sample for enterprise tech firm):                          

2011 Q2 PR Program

Media interviews: 10 to 14

Analyst briefings: 2 to 4

Press releases: 6 to 10

Media coverage (standalone article):  2 to 5

Media coverage (inclusion in industry article): 5 to 7

Product Reviews: 1 to 3

Twitter followers (new): 75 to 100

Facebook followers (new): 50 to 75

-David Splivalo

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#SWDSM PR Services Contest

It’s remarkable how fast a startup can be born these days. From concept to reality, all it may take is a weekend. As someone who has worked for over 80 startups and established tech brands since the late 1990’s, I can appreciate the sacrifices someone can make for a startup. Everyone else might not believe in your idea, but you still hold out hope, and rise above those early challenges from beta version to version 1.0.

Freestyle commends those entrepreneurs who sacrificed the past three days during Des Moines Startup Weekend. Now you have a beta version and are ready to take the next giant step in the very small, infant life of your startup. To help ensure your early stage startup can succeed on the  marketing and communications front, Freestyle PR is graciously going to help one startup it feels can best succeed in the real world by offering pro-bono services. With experience helping startups like go from a private firm to a publicly traded business, to local sensation Dwolla that it helped launch nationally, Freestyle has constantly been helping startups achieve success.

If you’re interested in a chance to receive pro-bono services from Freestyle PR, please schedule an interview with agency president, David Splivalo. Startups will go through an interview process as well as submit an application ahead of the meeting. Once an interview is setup, the agency will forward over an application.

Questions regarding this opportunity can be directed towards agency president, David Splivalo, at Requests to setup an interview can be directed to Alisha Clay at The agency will make a decision no later than April 30th.

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George “friggin'” Clooney and Media Tours

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about the movie “Up in the Air” (the one with George Clooney, not the curmudgeon in the floating house).  While I don’t necessarily agree with Bruce Wayne’s (aka George Clooney) isolationist and “pre-portioned” lifestyle, I can appreciate the Zen-like tranquility that accompanies a life that fits either under your chair or in an overhead compartment.

How would you rather get fired?

In the movie, Up in the Air, Danny Ocean’s character, Ryan Bingham, struggles with the threat of losing his solitary ways for a permanently grounded existence. Opting for a more cost-effective (and environmentally friendly) approach, his corporate downsizing firm decides to implement a new video-conferencing employee termination process that would eliminate the need for air miles, pre-portioned meals, and security checks.  The interaction, which can be done from a partitioned square in an Omaha office ranch, forces Seth Gecko to defend the human element his job provides during the indelicate and emotionally tumultuous process.

Well, the same could be said about media tours, kind of.  They’re not always easy to line up, nor are they always cheap, but when everything does come together your clients will be rewarded with a much more potent and authentic relationship. See over the last few weeks, I’ve done a bit of traveling (check my @Uppward if you don’t believe me) for our clients, Vivisimo and Dwolla, helping orchestrate and facilitate several media tours. This marathon of interviews and meetings created vital touch points with the media, building credibility with journalists and thought-leaders with each handshake.

As PR practitioners, our job is to ultimately refine those conversations and create added value for both parties in those interactions. We do this by studying the competitive landscape, extracting industry insights, and, most importantly, empowering your client with the knowledge to resonate with a writer or a producer.   In doing so, we justify the human element, much like Captain Billy Tyne was trying to do in “Up in the Air.”

Jordan Lampe

Note: $10 Amici Gift card to the first one that can list the corresponding movies of the 4 George Clooney characters mentioned in the post (e.g. George Clooney played Everett in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

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