Meet Ben: PR Firm Founder, LGBTQ+ Advocate and Theater Lover
Ben Finzel was a Hill staffer, Clinton administration appointee and account staffer and then executive at five PR firms across D.C. before starting RENEWPR, a public affairs firm that focuses on energy, environment and LGBTQ+ communications. Ben is a proud LGBTQ+ advocate and started a free networking organization for LGBTQ+ communicators in the D.C. area (more on that below). When Ben is not working, he enjoys going to the theater with his husband (they’ve seen more than 100 Broadway shows!), traveling, and reading. Ben believes in the power of purpose and uses that focus to help guide his career.
Read on to learn how many continents Ben has visited, get advice on how to find your purpose and thoughts on starting your own communications firm.
Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in DC and went to high school in Houston, Texas, and attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. I was not a communications major in college: getting Hill and administration experience with the Clinton Administration was what set me on my PR path. One of my first internships was with the House Select Committee on Hunger and one of my supervisors became a mentor. He helped me get my first job in PR – as an Account Supervisor at Edelman when I left the Hill in 1995. I would say that I definitely see things through a public affairs lens as a result of my work as a Hill press secretary and a legislative assistant. These experiences shaped me, helping me understand how to use communications to promote an agenda while addressing and responding to perceptions. I’ve been in D.C. for most of my life and have built my entire career here. I enjoy living in the area, spending time with friends and hosting dinner parties (in pre-pandemic times, that is).
Q: What is something interesting that you learned professionally about starting your own firm that you didn’t expect at the beginning?
I learned that even though you may have a long career and a solid reputation, starting a business is really like starting over again because it’s your name on the door, rather than somebody else’s. Although it’s really helpful to have a strong reputation and a big network, you really are in some ways beginning again because people look at you differently when it’s your firm and what you’re doing is not just a part of some other entity. I didn’t really expect that. I don’t think you know that until you start a business. I figured out fairly quickly that I had to be even more careful and thoughtful about how I built my firm. Based on the notion that in some ways I was reintroducing myself, I have been really careful about who I work with and how I communicate what I am doing.
Also, because I have previously worked at five PR firms in D.C., I thought I kind of knew the marketplace and what the opportunities were, etc. Nope. Again, you don’t learn some of these things until you go do it yourself. It’s a much more broad, diverse market than I realized at first. When you’re working for somebody else, especially at a large firm, you don’t realize there are many more opportunities that you don’t necessarily know about because they aren’t coming to you. There’s a much bigger world out there and possibilities that I wasn’t really aware of. What I learned is that there’s room for everybody. You know, it’s not pie. There’s enough work for everybody to do. And there’s a whole lot of people who want to collaborate and work together on building their businesses and that’s pretty cool. It was a great – and welcome – realization.
Q: Did you have a mentor who guided you through the process of opening your own firm?
No, but I do have a business coach. And I talked with a lot of friends who have started businesses before starting my own business. One of them said, “Look, you have to have a business coach. You should have one anyway, as you’re building a career, regardless of where you are in your career, but if you’re thinking of starting on your own, you need a coach.” This was one of the smartest things I could have done because my coach has a lot of experience working with folks like me. He understands the PR industry and the kinds of challenges we face. In working with me, his only objective is helping me be better. He isn’t my friend, so he isn’t concerned with telling me what he thinks I want to hear. He tells me what he thinks I need to hear which is what you want in this situation. You don’t want someone to sugarcoat it, you want them to say you need to know XYZ, you need to consider ABC, etc. That advice is so helpful.
As I was working on the business plan for RENEWPR, I would call him up and talk about the structure of the firm and what I was thinking in terms of the business plans and the name. He would have me practice my pitch and kept me focused on it until it was better (it was, admittedly, pretty bad at first). He was really helpful thinking through how to do that and how to get me to where I am now. I highly recommend business coaches to everybody in PR. Many coaches are also members of PRSA, so there’s a way to search for them in the system. I’m in the Counselors Academy, which is the professional section for small, midsize firm leaders. There are several coaches and consultants who are members of that section (and likely others). There are a lot of really smart good people doing that work, who really understand our industry and who can be very helpful at a lot of different levels, some are more comprehensive than others, some more expensive than others, but it’s a really smart thing to do to hire one to work with you. It’s very helpful in building your career.
Q: Why did you decide to join PRSA?
I wanted to meet more PR peers locally. I am very happy to be a member of a professional organization like PRSA. I think it’s adapted to the pandemic really well. The increased number of virtual events has been really helpful because I always have something to look forward to, even if I’m only able to participate in some of the events given how busy I am with clients. I also have been able to connect with many PR communications professionals.
Q: What’s your proudest professional achievement?
Starting my own firm. It’s something I never thought that I’d do. Now that I’ve done it, I could never see myself doing anything else. I’m having a blast.
Q: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
Well, that’s a hard question because I’ve gotten a lot of great advice. I’ve tried to remember and use all of it. When I was starting my own firm, one of my former FleishmanHillard colleagues said to me, “You need to figure out what your focus is. You need to have one or two easily understood areas of focus so that when someone asks you what your firm does, you can answer in one phrase. It doesn’t mean you can’t do other things. But it does mean you have to have a tight focus so people can understand what it is you do and how to consider working with you.” I took that advice to heart, and it is proven true time and time again. So, if you asked me what I do, I would say that my firm is a public affairs firm, and we focus on energy, environment and LGBTQ+ communications. If you want to know more, I can tell you more. So the next sentence would be, and we do four things: strategy, messaging, media, and partnerships. So there, I very clearly told you what my focus is, and then what my offerings are. If that’s all I ever say, you’ll know something. If you want to know more, I can keep talking. But the point is to be able to be really tight and concise to get people’s attention. It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t at the time. For me, at least, it was smart advice and I’m so thankful to him and I give him credit for sharing that little bit of wisdom with me.
Q: On the flip side of that, what is a piece of career advice that you would be enthusiastic to share with others?
There are so many. I talk to college students and PR professionals and others a few times a year. One of the things I say to them is: “learn how to write.” That’s always going to be important, regardless of what you do in PR. I think sometimes that gets short shrift. If, for example, you’re focused on being the best events person, or the best influence marketing person, or whatever, regardless of what you do, you’ve got to know how to write.
Another thing I tell folks is: really try to understand and learn how to network effectively. I wish that when I was starting out, we had things like LinkedIn and other tools that allow you to build a network virtually and keep in touch with lots of people. When I was a young Hill staffer, I met all kinds of folks, and kept in touch with some, but I wasn’t necessarily smart enough to keep in touch with others. And they’re now captains of the industry and titans of communications. I wish I’d been smarter about understanding the value of networking then! Learning how to network and really focusing on building out your professional network as you grow your career is really smart. Now with all the great tools we have it sort of comes with the job, but I don’t think we all spend time proactively thinking about that. It’s something we should do and it’s important to building your career, particularly in a place like Washington.
Q: Could you talk a little bit outside of work. What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies you’d like to share?
I love to travel, attend live theater and spend time with friends (all pre-pandemic, of course). I try to read beyond the stuff you have to read for work. I subscribe to a bunch of magazines, for example. For me, it’s really interesting to not just read business stuff like Bloomberg Businessweek, which is super helpful, but also to read magazines like Entertainment Weekly, which keeps you connected to pop culture in a way that maybe you don’t always have time to do when you’re a public affairs person. I also read a lot of travel magazines and local LGBTQ+ publications like the Washington Blade and MetroWeekly. I’ve found that I will be reading an article about something that I’m just reading for fun and there’s some nugget of information in there that’s really useful for clients and I file it away. Then I can bring it out and mention it at some point. So even though I’m reading for fun, it can be really useful for work.
I was a history major in college, and still enjoy reading about history. So I tend to read a fair amount of nonfiction, as well as fiction, just to try to learn. And that’s just a really nice escape sometimes, particularly right now, given the state of the world. It’s nice to kind of focus on something else for a while and learn something.
Q: What are your favorite magazines to subscribe to? Where do you like to travel? And with theater, is there a specific genre you really like?
I love live theater. My husband and I have been to something like 100 Broadway shows together. I have a collection of some of the theater posters from shows we’ve seen on two walls in my home office. In addition to Broadway, we go to shows at Signature, the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage and the National Theater here at home.
In terms of travel, I would say anywhere since it’s been so hard with the pandemic. We used to go to New York a lot. And we love going to Provincetown on Cape Cod. We love California and we love international travel. We’re looking forward to traveling again once it’s safe to do so. I’ve been to five continents – South America, North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. We haven’t been to Africa, so we’ll have to work on that someday.
Q: What are causes you really care about?
LGBTQ+ equality. I spend a good bit of time on that, whether it’s supporting political candidates who are focused on LGBTQ+ equality or organizations that are focused on advancing those goals. That’s one area that I’m passionate about in addition to clean energy, environmental protection and natural resources protection and sustainability.
Q: During the pandemic, what was something interesting during Pride month that you got to support virtually?
Thanks to PRSA, I was invited to write a blog post about Pride during the pandemic, which was featured on the PRSA blog. And I got to participate in one of the Diverse Dialogues events that PRSA did as a part of their series on diversity, equity and inclusion in our industry. I was really happy to be invited and I got to meet some really amazing people; the other panelists I worked with are just total rock stars. That was a lot of fun.
Q: What’s one piece of advice would you have for getting involved right now with LGBTQ+ issues? Do you have an organization you volunteer with or do you volunteer besides PRSA for that matter?
Well, if you are an LGBTQ+ communications professional yourself and you live in the D.C. metro area, you should be a member of DC Family Communicators, which is the group I started as a professional networking group for LGBTQ+ comms pros in D.C. It’s free. The whole purpose is to create a network of LGBTQ+ communications professionals in D.C. to help build the industry, link us together and boost career opportunities. We share job leads, mentoring, connections and friendships. It’s been very helpful, and a couple of people have gotten jobs through it, which is great.
There are so many other groups. I’m a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce D.C. chapter and then I’m also certified by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce as a gay business. If you’re in the business community, that’s really helpful because it gives you a certification that is useful in building out your business. Another group I’ve done a fair amount of work with is the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which is focused on electing LGBTQ people to office up and down the ballot. I was on their Campaign Board for ten years: being a D.C. political guy, that made sense given my interests. The Victory Fund is terrific. But there’s so many more, like the Trevor Project, PFLAG and GLAAD.
Q: That’s awesome. It’s really cool to see how involved you are. You must be so busy running a business and then also volunteering and all these different places. That’s pretty cool.
I need to learn to say no.
Q: Can you recommend a book or a show you like?
I am so late to the party on this, but during the pandemic I have discovered two shows: Grace and Frankie and Schitt’s Creek. I’m late, because both of them have been out for a while, but I love them and have spent a lot of time watching them. I gravitate to comedy and, particularly right now, it’s very helpful to have that escape.
Q: What else have you been doing to pass time during the pandemic?
Watching shows and reading. Maybe it’s because I have my own business but I’ve been really busy. I mean, I’m very fortunate because I’ve had a lot of client work this year, thank goodness. And so other than the challenges of doing our jobs during this terrible time, I’ve been keeping very busy and haven’t had a lot of downtime.
One thing that has helped me during the pandemic is keeping busy and knowing that I have a purpose. In 2019, I was one of six firm founders who started a national network of multicultural and LGBTQ PR firms to collaborate on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. It’s called The Change Agencies. One of the members of our Advisory Council is Patrice Tanaka, who was one of the first Asian American women to own her own PR firm. Patrice advises PR and other industry professionals about finding your life’s purpose and building your life and your career around that idea. I think that’s really smart and really helpful. And I think having a purpose and being focused on that is helpful because you need something to guide you during a time when it feels like everything is untethered. I mean, as a country, we are dealing with so much – COVID-19, structural racism, recession. So during these difficult times, having a purpose has been really helpful. Having really interesting client work to work on and then having all of these additional things I’m doing both to build my business and also to build community have been really important. And so that’s what I’m doing and just taking each day as it comes and realizing that we’re all in this together and I’m not the only one dealing with these challenges – far from it!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the interviewed members. “Meet the Members” is a PRSA NCC initiative whose goal is to spotlight our members, their thoughts and ambitions by connecting and introducing them to more members of the PRSA NCC community.
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