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Bill Liss: The PR Pro

Posted: February 19, 5:20 p.m.
by Mackensie Henderson.

I sat in a small study room in my apartment, waiting for the clock to turn 7:30 p.m. to speak with a leading reporter for 11Alive, Bill Liss. After an hour of listening to his captivating stories, which included his trek to Mt. Everest and fondly reminiscing on moments spent with The Beatles and Pope Paul VI, I packed everything up, only to realize the recording device malfunctioned. Not one second of our conversation was recorded.

I frantically emailed him explaining the situation. His reply: “Not to worry. Call me over the weekend and we will rewind and restart the tape!!! Best, Bill.” Somehow, the next day the recording recovered; however, Liss’ willingness to redo the interview is a testament to his understanding, compassionate and delightful character. These positive attributes are why he has achieved much success in his lifetime, and his advice to students embarking in the world of public relations is noteworthy.

Liss’ professional start

Liss graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in journalism. He landed a reporting job with United Press International fresh out of college; his transition into public relations was completely accidental.

“I was covering a story one night for UPI; it was an airplane hit by lightning over the Atlantic,” Liss said. “I called Trans World Airlines’ head of public relations, and he refused to talk to me. I called a couple other people to force him to do it; he finally did.”

A week later, Liss received a call from the PR director he interviewed asking him to do public relations for TWA. With his passion for traveling and adventurous spirit, he accepted the offer. During his time with TWA, Liss coordinated The Beatles’ trip from England to America for their first United States tour and handled the media.

“I didn’t even know who they were,” Liss said. “I knew they were a singing group, but I didn’t know how big they were.”

Upon their arrival to JFK airport from England, Liss noted that there were thousands of people waiting to catch a glimpse of the popular British boy band.

Additionally, he escorted Pope Paul VI on his first trip from the United States back to Rome, then on a later trip to the Holy Land. The biggest public relations crisis he dealt with was a TWA aircraft hijacked to the Jordanian desert, along with two other planes.

“It was a rough deal. We had to get these people back,” Liss said.

He worked with the media to update the public on the situation, but spoke warily because one wrong word could cost the lives of many.

Career achievements

Liss won Emmy Awards for his Olympic reporting and for his special reporting on a journey across Tibet to Mt. Everest. He also won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award as part of a team of WXIA journalists investigating the government bailouts. When asked about what his most memorable award was, he couldn’t say.

“Every one holds a different experience,” Liss said. “If you go into PR, you’re going to do a lot of things that are going to be very rewarding.”

Liss was asked to set up the first judicial public relations program for the state of New York. The judiciary system is notorious for operating behind closed doors and remaining silent.

“My role was to open up the judiciary to be responsive and to talk to the media,” Liss said. “I wanted to set up a program where judges became more hospitable to the media, not to look at it as the mortal enemy.”

It took him a year to build this system; subsequently he became vice president of public relations for the non-broadcast interests of the American Broadcasting Company. His responsibilities included ABC Records, Los Angeles Magazine and other ABC publications. He handled the company’s PR programs, coordinating with PR personnel assigned to the subsidiaries. He also handled PR and marketing for ABC’s 1984 summer and winter Olympics for the non-broadcast entities of the company.

Later in his career, Liss served as the senior vice president of public affairs for RJR Nabisco one year prior to its legendary leverage buyout.

“It was a decision made by F. Ross Johnson based upon the fact that the stock price was very low; he couldn’t jack it up no matter what,” Liss said. “Stockholders were getting impatient and wanted to know why the stock price was what it was.”

What is interesting about Liss’ statement is that it negates the common perception of Johnson.

“Buying out the company would make the company more valuable to the shareholders,” Liss said. “It wasn’t a matter of trying to become wealthy like many people thought. He wanted to enrich the shareholders. That was the reason he did it.”

With RJR Nabisco, Liss was in charge of all PR operations worldwide. The litany of companies that fell under his authority includes Nabisco, Life Savers, Planters, RJR Tobacco, Dewar’s Scotch Whisky and Del Monte, to name a few. He handled corporate activity, had a direct relationship with investor relations to deal with stockholders and stakeholders, and made sure any corporate coverage was controlled by RJR.

Advice from a PR pro

Here are Liss’ “top three tips” on what it takes to succeed in public relations:

1. Have a passion for what you do.

“I see so many people day after day doing things they hate to do,” Liss said. “To me, if you don’t have a passion doing what you’re doing, why do it?”

2. Be trustworthy.

“Never lie to the media,” Liss said. “This is a general rule of thumb in PR: never lie; never exaggerate because the moment you lose your credibility you go down the tube. As a PR person, you have to be trusted.”

Liss stated that if a PR professional calls him and says “we have the greatest story for you!,” he hangs up because he knows they’re being disingenuous. Be candid; success will follow.

3. Titles don’t matter.

Liss held multiple prestigious titles, such as vice president and senior vice president, but to him that doesn’t matter. The perks were nice, however, to Liss they are not important.

“You work as a team and if you hold yourself out as being a senior person who makes all the decisions, you’ve got a serious ego problem and should see the nearest guy with a sofa that you can talk to,” Liss boldly stated. “Having a title is so you can take the blame. Let it be me; I don’t mind.”

Liss, today  

What is interesting about Liss is his cyclical return to the field of journalism after holding executive positions in public relations.

“I still think public relations is a very honorable field because the world needs promotion; it needs to know that things are credible and going on,” Liss said.

Though he still has a respect for the field of public relations, his true passion lies in journalism.

“I think my experiences of what I’m doing now is highly rewarding. I am able to use the medium to do a very important thing: I am helping people; I am solving problems,” Liss said.

Liss reports from the 11Alive Help Desk, where he investigates and resolves consumer, community and city/county/state services issues. When viewers watch him on television, they see he puts enthusiasm and care in every story he covers.

Liss is a member of the Explorer’s Club. Going to parts of the world that are hard to get to and trekking are his main passions aside from the news. Iceland and Mongolia are up next on his list of adventures.

“I’ve been to the places in the world that people often think, who’d be crazy enough to go to those places,” Liss said while gazing at a picture of penguins hanging on his wall that he took while in Antarctic, along with others he snapped at the North Pole and Mt. Everest.

He has served on several boards and obtained a Juris Doctor degree from Seton Hall University. He also serves as a volunteer attorney with the Georgia Justice Project, working to expunge criminal records to restore people’s lives and careers.

Liss happily reports with the NBC affiliate in Atlanta, 11Alive, on a day-to-day basis. The passionate, risk-taking journalist understands what an impact his job has on people.

“What is the real value of television? It’s being able to use it as a positive medium — to teach people, to help people and to make things better,” Liss said.

Partake in just one phone call with Bill Liss, and you will realize that his zeal for life is infectious. He has the ability to make you feel special even through the phone. Most importantly, he still has a passion for his job, something many people can’t say. It was a pleasure learning from such a brilliant mind in public relations and journalism. It takes a while to achieve success, but with diligence and honesty anything is possible.


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