Debrief: Topper, on a world of reinvention and hope

Pivotal: Long Island public relations veteran HIlary Topper has seen it all in her firm's three evolutionary decades -- or so she thought.

Thirty years later, Hilary Topper – part marketing ace, part social influencer, all 21st century It Girl – is still going strong. Game-changing technological jolts, 9/11, the Great Recession and now, of course, the great 2020 coronavirus pandemic … none have stopped the clever self-promoter and fierce businesswoman from building Long Beach-based HJMT Public Relations into one of Long Island’s best-known and most-respected marketing brands. With a new book (“Branding in a Digital World: How to Take an Integrated Marketing Approach to Building a Business”) on the virtual shelves, the CEO, blogger, podcaster and adjunct Hofstra University professor takes a break from her relentless schedule to discuss marketing’s evolution through the decades, the serious responsibility that is social media influencing and a future ultimately brightened by COVID-19.  

The more things change: It’s hard to believe how much has changed (in 30 years). It actually started with (U.S.) mail … I would mail 400 press releases at a clip, then fax 400 releases, then email them. Now we don’t even send press releases that often – we basically send pitch letters via Twitter and email. Twitter has become a big news-media outlet, and people still open their emails.

Under the influence: The inherent responsibility of social media influencing is to always be truthful to your audience and your community. You’ve got to be authentic. You can’t just promote somebody that you don’t feel good about – you have to sleep at night.

Sorry, not sorry: I have turned away more people than not. If somebody sponsors me, for example, I’m not going to represent them on social if it’s a product or service I don’t believe in. I just won’t do it.

Class act: I created [“Branding in a Digital World”] from a Digital Communications class I teach at Hofstra, where I ask the students to think about a passion they have and create an integrated marketing plan around it. They come up with their objectives and strategies and we talk a lot about tactics, social media sites, photography, dealing with negative posts … I talk a lot also about wearable technology and how it relates to public relations, and there’s a section about fake news.

Credits not included: But Topper’s new book covers her Hofstra University Digital Communications class.

Read all about it: The book is more of a do-it-yourself workbook. I actually take you through the whole class, showing you how to create that integrated marketing plan and understand the buyer – who are you talking to? What does this person like? Why would they want your product as opposed to other products? [The book] is a great opportunity to help small-business owners rebrand themselves and rethink how to cut through the competition.

On air: A lot of people say, “Why do you have these blogs? Why do you do podcasts? How do they relate to your brand?” This is how I connect with people. People want to do business with people they like, and if they have a connection with you – whatever that connection may be – they feel like they know you.

Days of disasters past: After 9/11 we saw a huge drop-off in clients, but we picked up. And then in 2008 we just had to let so many people go. It was a complete downturn. But we picked up again – maybe not to the same point we were in 2008, but we evolved.

Something completely different: This has been absolutely crazy. When we first went on lockdown, a couple of clients either cut us in half or cut us out. But then something really interesting happened. People started to reevaluate their needs. And suddenly we were strategizing with a bunch of clients. I’ve been helping people reinvent themselves.

Finding their way: We are dealing mostly with clients who would benefit in an environment like this – we’re representing a middleman in the PPP loan industry, for instance. But then we have clients who have come to me and said, “I’m going to go out of business, what should I do?”

Pivot on ice: We have a Long Island caterer who was mainly catering to major hospitals and corporations. I said to him, “You have to rethink this – what is the need right now? How can you be of benefit?” So, he found a new direction to go. We came up with the idea of stocking freezers for households, as opposed to corporate clients, especially elderly people who don’t want to go to the supermarket.

New thinking: I don’t think the messages are changing as much as how [clients] deliver them. Some are starting to realize they can’t operate the same way, or they’re going to go out of business. They have to think of new ways.

The more they stay the same: What hasn’t changed is the caring about people. I really do care about the people I work with. I kind of go overboard, sometimes – I’ve been really trying to make a concerted effort to call my staff and clients, to keep in touch, to see how it’s going.

New normal: I think that’s the long-term takeaway from all this. You can’t really sell anymore. You can’t be pitchy. You can offer opportunities, but you can’t get on the phone and say, “I have an insurance policy, do you want to buy it?” It might not be paying off this way right now, but in the long term – less selling, more caring. That’s the payoff.

Interview by Gregory Zeller