IBO President John Lee. PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT
By Peter McDermott
John Lee stood up at the microphone at the Bar Thalia and pushed some buttons on his phone.
It might not go down as a landmark moment in Irish literature, but it is a memorable one in the annals of the Salon.
Usually at the Irish American Writers and Artists’ Salon, contributors take out from a pocket a sheaf of papers or crack open a dog-eared book. Back in 2012, reading from your cell phone was definitely cutting edge. Lee was replacing someone who’d dropped out and so he accessed a piece he’d just had published in the Huffington Post.
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As it happened, the episode involved two requirements for the PR professional, according to the recently-elected president of the Irish Business Organization of New York. “You have to have writing skills: don’t waste words and be a good editor,” Lee said. “And also be very open to what’s going on in electronic media, digital media. I was pretty early into Twitter and LinkedIn and those things. I just felt I had to know what they were.”
It’s more than fortuitous, then, that the IBO should have Goodman Media International’s executive director Lee at the helm at this time of crisis. It has pivoted quickly to events via Zoom, holding, for instance, its monthly breakfast with an attendance of 20 signed up overnight and its main evening meeting with 50 people, including four guest speakers, and breakout group sessions. And this week as the Echo was going to press, the IBO hosted its second breakfast meeting in the era of the “new normal,” with former Irish diplomat to New York and now ambassador to New Zealand Peter Ryan as the special guest.
All the way from the other side of the world to the IBO online breakfast, Ambassador of Ireland to #NewZealand a.k.a. #Aoteatoa @PeterRyanEire in his virtual return to NYC where he was Deputy Consul General at @IrelandinNY. pic.twitter.com/p8N9Mb7A11
— The IBO New York (@IrishBusinessNY) April 28, 2020
For an organization that is defined by an active meeting schedule geared towards networking, it was important, its president said, to “keep the energy going” and “to get members through as best they can.” It helps, too, that he’s someone whose day job involves getting the word out. In that regard, the IBO’s 6 p.m. St. Patrick’s Day toast from home, with members posting images on social media, was picked up by New York 1.
The IBO participating in a New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This year it had to settle for an online toast. COURTESY OF IBO
“The relationship with journalists is very important. It has to be trustworthy. It has to helpful. We like to be a resource,” Lee said about the work of the PR person. “Every client wants to be in the New York Times, in the Wall Street Journal or on the ‘Today’ show. That’s getting more and more challenging.”
For its part, Goodman has itself always had media clients, such as the Times, PBS and Telemundo.
“It’s interesting working for the media in PR,” he said.
Lee, however, is involved specifically in the area of professional services. “It’s kind of serious, a little dry at first,” he said. His clients include an international law firm, an international accounting firm and the Columbia University School of Professional Studies.
“Essentially we are trying to get them in the media in the right places,” he said, “Get them quoted.”
Reporters are looking for specialists on stories, including on the biggest story of the day. For example, Goodman Media has accomplished experts who can speak on the data security implications for the coronavirus crisis.
As journalism changes there are opportunities for people to contribute to publications that are industry-specific and to other specialist publications that didn’t exist before. “They might have 5,000 subscribers, but they’re exactly the 5,000 people you want to reach,” Lee said.
The PR company matches thought leaders with the right outlets. “We generate ideas [for the client], we take in their ideas and we communicate to the media those ideas,” he said.
“I’ve reinvented myself a few times,” Lee said of a career that has generally been concerned with communications in some form. After graduating with an art history degree from Connecticut College in New London, he secured a job with the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Later when he relocated to New York, he contributed freelance articles to magazines and newspapers and did some television work. That in turn led to a long stint with the New York Racing Association.
After NYRA, he went out on his own as John Lee Media. One client he recalled fondly from that time was Belfast’s Lyric Theatre when it brought to New York “Brendan at the Chelsea.”
Into the second decade of the century, he accepted an offer to join an agency and four and a half years ago he got a call from the president and CEO of another company, Tom Goodman.
Lee was raised in Meriden, Conn., a “typical New England town,” with a lot of industry that went away. Its speciality was silver manufacturing; they called it the Silver City. All of his grandparents were from Ireland — the Lee name originated in Cork; he has Daly and Kearney roots in Clare; while his Keneghan grandmother, whom he knew, was from Offaly.
Lee’s father was a salesman, and later his mother worked as a secretary in the parochial school. The family always identified as Irish, but the house wasn’t filled with Irish music when he was growing up and they didn’t belong to Irish organizations. “We were Irish enough,” he said.
“It was the kind of town where there was the Irish church, the Polish church, the German church, the French church, the Italian church, plus the synagogue and the Protestant churches and all that. So, it was very diverse in that way,” he remembered
“I married outside the clan,” he added. Loretta Bricchi Lee is from a small city south of Milan about the same size as Meriden. She writes for the Italian daily Avvenire and works, too, in real estate. They have a daughter Ginevra, a sophomore at Kenyon College in Ohio, and live on the Upper West Side.
Lee reconnected with his Irishness through the Campaign to Save St. Brigid’s Church and he did pro bono work for its events like Bards for St. Brigid’s. He credits friends Paul Dougherty, Mary Ann Pierce and Peter Quinn for getting him involved. “Paul was the first point of contact,” he said. “And Peter brought me into the Irish American Writers and Artists.”
From there, he started going to IBO meetings. “I was in a networking mode,” he remembered from the time when he was an independent in his profession.
Lee told the Echo in an initial interview in early March that he wanted to see the IBO continuing to do what it does well in terms of meetings. Beyond that, he outlined two aims: first, his “guiding principle,” is to explore what more can be done for the members; and, secondly, he wants the IBO to give back in some charitable way. He used in that context the Irish word “meitheal,” which he first heard from Ambassador Ryan during his posting to New York.
Since then, Meitheal has come to mean the New York Irish effort in aid of health-care workers during the pandemic (one of the guest speakers at the Zoom evening meeting, Sophie Colgan, spoke about the campaign), and so Lee has been concentrating on his first aim — doing more for the members, particularly during this really difficult time for everyone.
John Lee pictured with September’s guest speaker Maeve Higgins and then IBO president Nicholas Malito. PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT
Going virtual for now certainly doesn’t prevent the sharing of business knowledge, which in the IBO has sometimes come from unconventional sources. “I’ve found some of our best insights are from people in the arts or creative industry — people who’ve figured out that to do their creative work they needed a sound business basis,” its president said. He cited two guest speakers in that category who’ve been inspiring: comedian Maeve Higgins and musician Larry Kirwan.
“I’m always surprised the poet, the musician, the sculptor and the writer have these great business ideas,” Lee said.