SHIFT Baltimore is the world’s only mission-driven, localized, invite-only entrepreneurial membership community. Our mission is to create a new standard for business, one where money and mission are not mutually exclusive. We use the most rigorous, holistic approach to personal and professional performance: honoring the whole-self of business, body, balance, and being. We are creating meaningful, sustainable change aligned with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Our members are relentlessly committed to inspiring, influencing, innovating, and impacting Baltimore. And we’re spreading the word!
We are thrilled to introduce SHIFT Talks: a series of unique stories from local entrepreneurs, each detailing how they’ve experienced shifts within their personal life, their company’s journey, their industry, and most importantly, our city. Their stories. Their SHIFT Talks.
Bill Atkinson is Partner at 212 Communications, a boutique public relations firm that serves businesses focused on growth and brand recognition. Bill helps build businesses by enhancing their image, status, and reputation in addition to connecting them with communities, the media, and potential common-interest partners.
Q. How did you get started with 212 Communications?
I joined 212 about 18 months ago after nearly 10 years working Weber Shandwick in public relations, communications—strategic communications, and crisis communications. Before that, I was a reporter for 20 years. Reporting set the stage for everything; writing on deadline, being curious, going after interesting stories, learning about business. Every day was an adrenaline rush. After 20 years in the business, and being called into the editor’s office, saying, “We need you to bang out a 40-inch profile on somebody—it’s Wednesday and you’ve got to have it done by Sunday,” I was just done. I was burned out. But everything I learned in that business—truth, honor, integrity, giving fair coverage, and hunting for great stories—I’ve carried to 212 Communications.
I didn’t necessarily want to go into public relations when I left journalism in 2005. I was thinking that, at that time, maybe I wanted to see if I could be a financial stock analyst. There were some opportunities there, but that may have required a move to New York, and a much bigger risk. But I liked numbers; I liked investigating companies. I brought that curiosity and energy to public relations, and what I found was fascinating because it was like seeing how the sausage is made. I was working with companies and CEOs, and they were dealing with problems, and I saw how they handle big issues like bankruptcy or polluting a park, or simply communicating with the community at large when they are building a building.
Weber Shandwick was a great place to work, but our business was getting squeezed andI took a risk and joined 212 Communications taking with me two clients. My partner, Erica Mechlinski and I had been talking about teaming up. She and I had worked together for probably seven or eight years and we had a strong bond. If there’s someone who keeps the trains moving on time, she does it. Everything is organized and extraordinarily efficient, and she’s got a great strategic mind as well. We worked together on some big accounts—Fortune 100, Fortune 60 companies: We knew each other well and she kept pestering me. I’ve got three kids, but two were in college; she kept saying “You’ve got to leave. You’ve got to come work with me. I’ve got more business than I can handle.” One day I decided to do that, and I made the jump. And it was terrifying. There was no more tether, there was no more life raft. I was just kind of out there building a business.
So, we teamed up and ran hard for 12 months, meeting with everybody we could meet with. The adrenaline was up for 12 months and it just didn’t stop. But that’s how we did it, and my family was looking at me like we didn’t skip a beat.
Q. How long have you been with your wife, and how has she helped shape your career choices?
A. The most significant moment in my life—this sounds corny—was meeting my wife. We met in the newsroom at Business First in Columbus, Ohio, and we dated a total of a month and a half, and then I moved to San Jose and worked at the San Jose Business Journal. I drove out there with my belongings—maybe a suitcase and a duffel bag, something like that. And by the time I got to Winnemucca, Nevada, I proposed over the phone. Six months later, we were married—this was in February and we got married in August—and then she moved to California and we lived there for a little bit.
Q. So, how did you end up in Baltimore?
A. My wife, Barbara, was just like me. We’re both hard workers, and we came from a background—her father was a World War II vet—so we were brought up with this hard work ethic. She was in politics and eventually worked for the Clinton White House. She was Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt’s personal assistant. We eventually moved back to Washington; she had a great job there. I told her, “Hey, I have an offer to move to Baltimore, to The Baltimore Sun.” I initially turned it down saying, and then I said, “no, I’ve got to go after this.” And that required her to quit her job.
At that time, Homicide: Life on the Street was on, and so that was her window into Baltimore. But she toughed it outand moved with me and our two kids at the time to Baltimore. She is a great foundation. If I’m going off in the left field, she reels me back in.
Q. You’ve lived in many places and have had lots of different jobs. You’re also a competitive cyclist. Clearly, you have a love of adventure. What’s next on your bucket list?
A. I don’t have a bucket list. I’ll just look at something, maybe two-year horizon, and then go for it. One thing is I would like to do is to go to Italy—that’s where my wife’s relatives are from. Her grandparents are from the northern part of Italy. She had been there as a kid, and I’d like to take her back. I think it would be amazing. So, that’s one thing.
Secondly, I’ve done a number of triathlons, the furthest being a half Ironman, so I would like to keep doing those. I like to do things that test me physically and mentally. One thing I want to do is a ride called the Dirty Kanza. It’s a 200-mile gravel ride that starts in Emporia, Kansas, goes out 100 miles on gravel, and then 100 miles back. Now, the farthest I’ve gone is probably 110 miles, and that’s on a road bike, so this would be a different challenge. It would be a mental and physical thing. When you push yourself to those kind of limits, you figure out where demons live, and it’s amazing. You get to this like, “Wow, I can really do this. My body can handle this kind of stress.” That’s one thing I am looking at.
Q. Can you tell us about the services 212 provides?
A.. We work in three main areas. Public relations is one. You want to be popular, you want to have a great reputation, work with us, and we will come up with a strategy to get you on television, in the newspapers, on the radio, and make you a thought leader.
Secondly, crisis communications. Both Erica and I have had a lot of experience; we’ve been through the wars with our clients. So, crisis is one of our big strengths.
And then, finally community relations. If you’re developer, and you start pounding steel rods into the earth, and you don’t tell the neighbors—well, the neighbors are not going to be too happy. So, we get out there and talk to neighbors and prepare them for what’s going to come. When you open the lines of communications, amazing things happen. If you don’t talk, it builds up this image of a large a corporation that doesn’t like people or is not going to be friendly.
Q. Let’s talk about your involvement in the SHIFT movement. What is 212 doing to shift its business and impact?
A. We are shifting our business. We look at it as we’re doing this business, but there’s more to it. We are part of the community and we want to have an impact on the community in a positive way.
I’m on the board of Junior Achievement. Junior Achievement is on the verge of exploding in Baltimore. It’s in Owings Mills, but it publicly stated that it’s looking for new space in Baltimore. It’s a tremendous organization. It has entrepreneurial programs that kids are involved in, and they’re manufacturing things. So, it’s teaching the entrepreneurial way. It teaches kids about finance and how to relate to the economy. And there are 46,000 students who go through some of their programs in a year.
And then we are working with a minister in Sandtown-Winchester, Rev. DerrickDeWitt, who is amazing. He has helped organize a group of 13 churches that are the foundation in that community. He works with drug dealers, he works on violence prevention—things like that; he’s feeding people. Over the holidays, he called and said, “I need 15 turkeys or hams.” So we brought them to his church and I was amazed: there was a room full of chairs with and a shopping bag on each chair filled with produce and food for people to celebrate Christmas. I was just struck by the fact that, in our country, Rev. DeWitt needed 10 turkeys. The need to feed people it is baffling to me when we have so much in this country. You see organizations that feed and clothe and heal people, and they’re growing! They keep growing. They’re going the wrong way: they should be shrinking. Once they shrink, then we know we’ve taken care of the problem.
That’s how one way we’re shifting. We’re looking not just at our business, but at society as a whole.
Q. What big-picture goals do you hope to accomplish through SHIFT?
A. The greatest hope for the world is that we have world peace. There are so many issues that this globe faces, but world peace… because, if you look at it there are10 wars going on right now and, by any other account, if you look at smaller conflicts, you are up to 134. I’m not exactly sure how many we’re involved in, but we’re involved. War seems ever-present—in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Ukraine.
But when you localize that, we’re in a war here in Baltimore, too, and that’s a drug war. To lose 300 people a year to gun violence—it’s absurd in a city this small.
I don’t know if SHIFT has an impact on that. I know the minister that we work with—and hopefully we’ll bring him into Shift and let him talk about the challenges he faces—but he is involved in that, and we hope to help him in any way.
Q. How does 212 differentiate itself from other PR firms?
A. We tell our team, “We don’t want you to be ‘PR people.’ We want them to be reporters. I want you to be interested in what your client’s up to, and I want you to know about your client and I want you to be curious.” When we have a client that is a bank, we sit down and we go through the balance sheet. We talk about assets and liabilities, or deposits, and return on equity, and return on investment; we go through this stuff. When we have a client that files for bankruptcy, we go to Pacer and pull the bankruptcy document, because it’s important for us to know more than the reporter. If I have an employee who can put together a press release and know that a spike in non-performing loans is bad and could mean a negative story, well, then we’re going to prepare our client better for that. I also want them to know how to talk to reporters. It’s not that you pepper them with a thousand emails; it’s that you know when a good time to email them is and you know what a good story is. So, having the nose for news—that’s important. When we sit down with clients and they start talking about what they’re doing, we are listening: “that’s a good storywe could pitch that one,” and it helps a reporter. So, the more they think like reporters, the better.
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