26 Oct Navigating shifts in communications, public relations, and media: A conversation with the Founder of Miller Ink
In 2013, Nathan Miller – our founder and CEO – stepped down from his position at the United Nations to start a strategic communications firm in Los Angeles. With a hunch that the media landscape was profoundly shifting, and that strategically integrating old and new approaches to media could transform the industry, Nathan founded Miller Ink to help organizations tell their stories and navigate complex issues.
While media and communications have continued to change dramatically over the past decade, Miller Ink Founder and CEO Nate Miller has been a steady and reliable force within the space. We recently sat down with Nate to discuss the industry’s evolution, what he looks for when recruiting communications professionals, and why he decided to leave a successful career in diplomacy to launch a firm that takes a more comprehensive and mindful approach to public relations.
What was your professional background before you founded Miller Ink?
I’ve operated at the intersection of public policy and communications for my entire career. My early experience includes working for a think tank and for other strategic communications agencies. I then spent three years as the Chief Speechwriter for the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations, where I oversaw communications strategy and speechwriting. Drawing on all of these experiences, I founded Miller Ink in 2013.
Why did you leave a successful career in diplomacy and foreign affairs? What was your inspiration for starting your own company?
I identified a need within the broader communications market for dynamic and thoughtfully integrated strategies that bring together earned, owned, and paid media. At the time, the field of communications was evolving, and social media as a professional endeavor was relatively new.
I also wanted to build the kind of company that I’d be excited to work at. Agency culture is often brutal and unkind. My goal was to build a place that felt like a family and treated clients like members of our family, in the sense that we’re always striving to do better.
Over the last 18 months, social impact has become increasingly important for companies. How does Miller Ink incorporate that into its business model and client strategy?
We are privileged to work across both the non-profit and for-profit sectors, bringing insights from our work with each into the other. Another key advantage for us is our sister agency Ethos Giving, one of the leading boutique social impact agencies in the country. We draw on their expertise when designing social impact strategies that deliver. We’re proud to work with many of Ethos Giving’s clients to help them tell their stories better.
How has PR changed since you started Miller Ink?
In many ways, it’s unrecognizable. We like to say that PR is dead. When it comes to getting a message directly to an audience, the decline of curators and mediators is stark. More than ever before, anybody can be a publisher. Brands, organizations, and individuals have the ability to build a direct channel with their audience. This puts tremendous power into the hands of storytellers and communicators, creates a different kind of relationship than what we saw in the past, and changes the way PR professionals must approach their work.
What are the greatest challenges and rewards of founding your own company?
I’m most proud of the team that we’ve built here—the way we’ve been able to recruit, cultivate talent, and grow individuals as professionals and leaders who deliver for clients. The work and the impact we get to make every day for clients gives me a great deal of satisfaction and pride. Additionally, the relationships that we’ve built over eight years with our clients, partners, vendors, reporters, and others have been a big source of joy and positivity in my life.
Meanwhile, the challenges are multifaceted. A day doesn’t go by without a crisis or a complicated problem to solve, whether internal or external to the business. But, that’s what keeps things interesting and fun.
What sets Miller Ink apart from other public relations and communications firms?
I often say we’re in the business of selling ideas, not products. To do this, we recruit individuals who are often not typical PR professionals. This strategy helps us go deep when trying to understand our clients’ needs and message. We think creatively and differently about how to deliver a message, and we take a fully integrated approach to all earned and paid media.
We also don’t have a lot of turnover with our clients because we invest in long-term relationships. That’s how clients get the most value out of strategic communications programs in the long run.
As a communications strategist, how does the way you approach problems set you apart from other industry professionals?
In this profession, you’re always playing chess—thinking about the second, third, or fourth order implications of any decision you might make. It’s a combination of raw creativity, in terms of developing a message or campaign that’s going to speak to people, psychology, in terms of understanding how you’re going to reach someone, and strategy.
What makes a great employee, and what do you look for when you recruit talent?
I look for smart people who have strong writing skills, think strategically, and are organized in a way that they’re able to move a project forward. Character is really important as well. We want people who have a high standard of excellence for themselves and their work, and who strive every day to deliver that standard of excellence for clients.
What is one of your greatest professional accomplishments?
Building the culture and infrastructure of a firm that delivers big for clients every day.
What are some current trends you see within the PR industry?
The communications landscape has changed seismically in the last ten years. I think companies are slowly coming around to that reality. Legacy firms doing legacy work are now having a harder time convincing people that what they’re doing is valuable. COVID really accelerated this process. Increasingly, you have to be nimble and understand current trends in order to survive and be successful.
What’s the number one piece of advice you would give any company looking to work with a PR firm?
It’s very important to have clear and specific goals at the outset. Ask yourself what you hope the PR will achieve. When you’ve answered this key question, set up a campaign that gives you an easy way to measure these objectives month to month. That way, you can make sure you’re on track.
Journalism is constantly changing. Readers experience information overload and pay-to-play models are growing more prevalent. How do we keep outlets and journalists accountable?
Most journalists want to write the truth, and if you present them with facts, you can change the way things are written. However, there are some who are not interested in that. In this case, part of your job as an organization is to respond to negative coverage by contextualizing it for your audience in a variety of different ways.
Misinformation is rampant, particularly online and on social media. How can Americans think more critically about the information they consume? What are the ramifications of unchecked misinformation?
We need to have a national media literacy initiative for every American citizen. This is important for the foundation of our democracy. The public must understand how to critically read the information that they’re presented and understand how and why it may be biased. This is a fundamental skill of life. Ultimately, in this era of misinformation, getting all your news from the internet and social media is a potentially dangerous proposition.
What’s more important? Creating shareable content with sensational soundbites, or telling a compelling story?
The answer to this really depends on your goal. At the end of the day, the public forms a deeper connection to stories that are true and authentic. Attempts to use a snappy headline to make a story go viral on social media are vulnerable to being exposed and shut down when not backed up with substance.
Working in PR, you always have your finger on the pulse. Do you ever get the opportunity to unplug, and if so, what do you like to do?
I like to exercise and I often box at 7 o’clock in the morning before work. I enjoy spending time with my kids, who are two and a half and four and a half years old. I also enjoy listening to and playing music.
If you were a punctuation mark, which one would you be?
I would be a period because I like to be decisive. I often tell my team that short decisive sentences in the model of Ernest Hemingway are the most effective for our line of work.