A Reflection on a Notable PR Career and Advice to Those Taking the Reigns
My last official day at Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Public Relations (NST) was March 31, 2023, eight years after merging Gable PR with NST on April 1, 2015. As I reflect on my career, I can’t help but reminisce on my first encounter with the firm almost five decades ago.
I was the business editor of the Evening Tribune (a separate competing paper, pre-merger with the Union). Dave Nuffer stopped by my desk sometime in 1975 to pitch a story for my column. Unlike some of the publicists linked to advertising agencies who would dance through the office pitching all sorts of puff pieces on their clients or a new product, Nuffer had ideas for how his story was different from others I’d covered, good data and a few thoughts on what would interest our readers. This approach, plus Dave’s affable nature, helped get his clients covered. These ethics, values and principles also ensured that NST would grow and become a major independent PR firm rather than the back office of an ad agency.
After seeking out other financial news and local PR opportunities, I started Gable PR on Feb. 1, 1976, with three small clients and $631 in first-month billings. The timing was fortuitous. The PR landscape was semi-barren. My news background paid off and I started getting leads from local companies and organizations that wanted to bring their stories to life with fact-based, hype-free, credible media relations.
My breakthrough was creating a crisis PR program for the American Tuna Boat Association, to turn around the image being promoted by Greenpeace that the fishermen were wanton porpoise killers. Using a fact-based campaign, supported by outside experts in government agencies and universities, I was able to turn around perceptions and delay government actions that would have forced the fleet to leave San Diego (although this did happen a decade later).
My agency gained strategic communications experience and made new connections by taking on political campaigns for the San Diego City Council and Board of Supervisors. This led to business with some of the civic, community and business leaders of San Diego, including Malin Burnham, Ted Gildred and leading real estate developers. We were invited to work on an increasing number of landmark regional programs and important economic, business, cultural, civic and community initiatives.
The biggest era of growth for our profession started in the early to mid-1990s as we evolved from media relations and publicity firms to offer integrated marketing communications. We saw an amazing evolution of tactics and tools to support strategic programs. Companies and organizations saw the growing value of building image and reputation as essential to long-term success and competitive advantage.
As a native San Diegan, I’ve marveled over the years at how our regional economy grew in so many different ways, evolving beyond the Navy town image, with PR needs everywhere. This gave us opportunities in traditional and emerging industries: tourism, recreation, residential and commercial real estate, downtown emerging as a vital financial and business center, new communities developed up the interstate highways, expanding the San Diego Trolley, healthcare, biotech, medtech, wireless and digital technologies.
Our successes were far-reaching. We developed programs for major local initiatives, such as the approval of plans through multiple agencies for creating Carmel Valley and Carmel Highlands; a proposition for approving the land swap to enable the construction of the final link in Highway 56 to connect I-5 with I-15; and the approval of a land swap for constructing the new Naval Hospital in Balboa Park. We created the CONNECT brand for the UCSD Program in Technology and Entrepreneurship. Guild Mortgage, now a client for 12 years, became an industry-wide success story as it expanded from its base in the West to be in 49 states and listed on the NYSE.
We had great clients, and I enjoyed the work, but as I approached 70, I was looking for a future exit strategy. Coincidentally, I was talking with then NST President Bill Trumpfheller about a joint pitch to a major infrastructure project, an extension of the Trolley to University Town Center (UTC). Gable PR had the trolley experience. The RFP included important areas with proven talent at NST: public affairs, and internal graphic design and digital expertise. Long story short: our cultures aligned, and we merged rather than just partnering on the project.
Looking back, I can say one of the highlights of my time at NST was the transition that followed when the leadership team of Teresa Siles, Mary Correia-Moreno and Price Adams bought the firm. They launched comprehensive plans to improve every phase of the business (technology, systems, processes, procedures, standards) and built a fun team culture dedicated to achieving great results for our clients.
After nearly five decades in the industry, my advice to those just starting out would be to become an avid reader with a focus on building on what you don’t know and finding best practices in the profession, in books, case histories, trends, and the annual winners of the PRSA Silver Anvil Awards. And finally, as NST advises, keep exploring. Learn something new every day, be an active listener and dedicate yourself to continuous improvement.
A note from NST:
If you need Tom, he’ll be working on wine and travel articles, consulting on occasion, spending time with his family, traveling and sampling wines of the world. Tom Gable has left a legacy for our profession, his clients and the community and we’re so grateful for his experience and additions to NST. Cheers to your retirement Tom!