Working In Tandem

Tandem Public Relations COO Michael Tierney talks work, fun and ‘No comment’

Q&A with Angie Fenton

Photography by Andrea Hutchinson

Michael Tierney isn’t just a public relations guru. The chief operating officer at Tandem Public Relations is a passionate powerhouse in the industry, where he’s worked for decades with clients including KFC, MCI, Vanity Fair, the Conference of Mayors, SC Johnson Wax and Kraft.

Michael took the time to talk with The Voice of Louisville’s Editor in Chief Angie Fenton and got candid about his profession, passions and the people – and pet – who are most important in his life.

Angie: How did you land in Louisville?

Michael: I’m going on 12 years here. I was recruited by Laura Melillo to run the [public relations] office at KFC for Yum! Brands. … Having grown up in the Washington D.C. area, it was a big change, but I could tell when I first moved here that it’s a unique place. And Laura is a special person.

What motivates you?

I love solving problems, and I love telling stories. Because I’ve worked on the agency side and the nonprofit side and the corporate side, I understand precisely the lens that they [clients] are viewing their situation through. Walking in their shoes, I can help them problem solve in a way that sometimes they don’t have permission to.

For many of us, the perception of public relations is that your role is only to tout the great aspects of your clients and their businesses. What’s the reality?

People generally don’t call us because they’re having the best day of their lives. We sometimes get to know people on a very close basis because they are in some of their most trying times. A lot of the business is fun; we certainly try to inject fun into all of our relationships. What separates the really good communicators are those who can step back and really look at the strategic opportunity. Public relations is also a lot of grunt work. It’s a lot of researching, it’s a lot of writing, it’s why the program I went into is in the journalism department.

What is it like working for Sandra Frazier, CEO/managing member of Tandem Public Relations?

I have to say it is a hilarious pop culture-laden, irreverent, wonderful challenge every day. Nobody has that rare combination of intellect and humor like [Sandra] does. She is also the ultimate truth-teller. I think this is why we get on so well.

Tell me about your family.

I have three kids who are in college, all of whom are pursuing very different things. [Emma] is interning at Edelman, a [public relations] company I used to work at. I suspect she will be taking up the mantle. She really loves it. My middle daughter, Lily, has traveled the world. Her real passion is feminism. She focuses on equality, particularly in the Middle East where she studied Arabic language and culture. … And my son Jack studies music production. He’s a self-taught musician. From the time he could make decisions for himself, he has been fascinated with  music. From the deep catalogues of the ’70s to today, he’s just so passionate about it. He started playing in a band with his schoolmates in the third grade at Kentucky Country Day, but as the years progressed, they found out how talented they are. He uses his talents as a musician for production.

Are you musical?

[Laughs.] I played piano, bassoon, clarinet proficiently. [Jack] can listen to a song, pick up a guitar and blow you away. My kids all live in Florida now. … And then there’s my partner Lee [Buckholz], who is the artistic director at Derby Dinner Playhouse and produces amazing shows. We have so much fun! We get to go on all these wonderful adventures in New York when he goes up for auditions for upcoming shows. … We met through mutual friends. He came down here as an actor 30 years ago. … And then there’s Miss Buggy, a rescue, who I think is 7, thanks to pet psychic Latifa Meena. Buggy is a one-dog girl and she’s blind. She sleeps anywhere she wants. She is the only creature at 18 pounds that can make a king-sized bed feel like a twin.

What do you and Lee do for fun?

We travel back and forth to our place in Michigan. We have a place in Saugatuck. When my father passed, he left just enough to get something we always wanted. So now we grab the dog, hop in the car and go stare at the water and hide from the world. It’s southwestern Michigan just outside of DeVos country. It’s technically a village. Part of its charm is it has a tiny little Cape Cod vibe to it. We can get on our bikes and ride west and in a half mile we’re on Lake Michigan. We can literally take bike rides to the beach. It is so darling. Our time there largely consists of lots of dog walks, collecting stuff on the beach and lots of PJ time. It’s amazing. It’s like a Hallmark movie. I need to recharge my batteries. I like people and the excitement of banter and interaction, but I really like my me time. I think it’s crucial.

When you are alone what are you doing?

Spending quality time with my television friends.

Who are they?

I’m not one to kiss and tell.

What has been your method for success?

From the time I declared my major, journalism, I always knew what I wanted to do. I’m one of those lucky people who has been able to work in their chosen field since day one.

When did you know you were good at what you do?

I always loved English, literature, writing and I took a journalism and communications class on a whim, and one day after a presentation, a professor took me aside after class. He had come out of corporate public relations and was teaching at the university and said, “If you haven’t declared a major, I have a recommendation for you,” and we had a long conversation and I just knew afterwards that it was what I wanted to do.

Everybody likes people who like them, so when someone singles you out and tells you you would be good at something, you believe them. I have been lucky. I have had a great combination of great training, great mentors. … Mentors are super important. Everybody’s not good at everything, and they told me where my blind spot was. They told me where I was naturally talented and where I needed to dig in. I remember those conversations every day, and I am still friends with all of these people. I check in with all of them. Sometimes it’s as simple as bouncing off an idea: Am I crazy? Am I getting the full story? Most importantly, it is just to check up with them because they are such wonderful people.

Where do you stand on the decision to tell the press “No comment”?

I don’t like “no comment.” I don’t advocate for it. I always encourage my clients to participate in an appropriate way. Sometimes we’re overruled by lawyers, which is OK because you want to protect a legal position, but I always believe that you deserve a voice in the story. I am always an advocate of ensuring that your point of view is represented.

How do you envision Louisville in 10 years?

You can always sort of project the future by looking at the immediate past. In all the years I have been here, there has been such tremendous growth in all aspects – from construction to the arts and culture to culinary. We are a really vibrant and growing place even though it has been a place that has been historically slow to change, which has come to its benefit adopting smart change. Evolution versus revolution. I am fortunate to work with organizations that are putting amazing energy and amazing work into business sectors that put us in a position where entrepreneurs and others want to take advantage of what this city has to offer.

What do you loathe the most?

I’m trying to narrow it down. [Laughs] Bad shoes.

What are the best shoes?

It depends, but generally they’re the ones that are on sale that you otherwise couldn’t afford.

PC or Mac?

Yes! I’m a PC guy at work and a Mac guy at home. It’s like a mullet. Business in the front, party in the back.

 Did you ever have a mullet?

Of course! But I had a Flock of Seagulls mullet, not a Billy Ray Cyrus mullet.

What’s the last book you read?

David Sedaris’ “Calypso.” I’m reading “Boy Erased” now. It’s a biography about a kid whose parents have him kidnapped into gay conversion camp. A bunch of us are reading it right now before we go see the movie in the theaters.

Who’s your favorite actor?

Have you ever seen a Bette Davis movie where she wasn’t amazing?

Who plays you in a movie about your life?

I don’t know, but I hope they make a shit ton of money.

What is in your last meal?

Tater tots. That’s my birthday meal every year. Sloppy joes and tater tots.

Who are you listening to?

Right now, I am listening to Adrian Matthew, that kid who sings “She Used to be Mine” from “Waitress.” I want to say he’s 10 or 11. It’s all over the internet. He kills it.

When’s the last time you cried?

Probably yesterday when I watched that video.

When you eventually retire some day, what do you see yourself doing?

I’ve always said I want to chill with my partner and my dog, have time for friends and family, but cover the city council for my local paper. I started my career in Washington so I love the machinations of policy. Just the wonky, slow moving political and interpersonal dance that happens to get things done. It would be a great way to continue to exercise that storytelling muscle and to stay updated in my community. It’s a super hard beat but one that I just find so fascinating.

What is one thing you do everyday that has directly affected your professional life?

One of the things I try to instill in everybody here is exercise your intellectual curiosity. If you’re hired for a client for a particular opportunity, go deeper. Every day, rather than collecting Facebook likes or scrolling through Instagram, use that time to expand your understanding in the climate in which your client lives. You will find opportunities that they probably can’t see because they are right in the middle of it. It’s not about churning out press releases, and it’s not about coming up with gimmicks in the press. It’s about creating relationships and telling their stories.

The word “tandem” is significant to you.

The best relationships are when both parties are working in sync. The clients that have been with us for as long as I’ve been here [at Tandem Public Relations] are the clients that understand and respond to that challenge that it’s not about us having a basic understanding. It’s about them engaging in the process with us because that’s when the best work happens. V