InterviewMay 17th, 2023

Meet John Sternal


Partner, Director of PR & Social Media, Merit Mile

The Start

"I embraced the aspect of performing, and performing in front of people."

Growing up in Connecticut, I experienced an atypical childhood due to losing my biological mother at a young age. My father eventually decided to relocate our family to Florida, which was quite a change for me. As a child, I was a drummer and percussionist, and I had some early success with it. This performance background made me comfortable with public speaking and helped shape who I am today in my profession.

During college at the University of South Florida in Tampa, I fell in love with communications and public speaking classes, and I was a huge sports fan. I had an internship with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and later with the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, where I traveled all over North America, working with major sports media. 

While I loved the art of practicing public relations, I realized I was falling out of love with working in professional sports. I craved the ability to help an organization shape their message and make an impact for their brand, which led me to join one of the world's largest PR agencies, Hill and Knowlton.

The Foundation

"Our ideal client is somebody who understands the value of building a brand."

My time with Hill and Knowlton introduced me to the world of automotive PR, which I found fascinating. I loved learning about the economics of the industry, the different types of players, and how all the components worked in automotive. I wasn't promoting manufacturers and cars; instead, I was working on the behind-the-scenes business aspect of the industry.

Since 2005, I have been working with automotive journalists and clients, building a close network of contacts in the automotive world. Over time, these connections have grown into long-lasting friendships and professional relationships.

Everybody has a unique perspective on what PR is, and early on, PR was mainly about crisis management and event planning. Nowadays, PR has evolved to encompass a wide range of functions, including thought leadership, storytelling, and brand journalism. This evolution allows PR professionals like me to mold and shape the type of PR our agency focuses on, aligning it with our passions and strengths.

Our agency, Merit Mile, works with a diverse clientele, from some of the largest companies in the world to startup companies and everything in between. The ideal client for us is not defined by the size of their company or their budget, but by their understanding of the value of building a brand and getting additional awareness for it. They should also recognize the difference between PR and marketing, with PR being less about sales and more about thought leadership, storytelling, and brand journalism.

Clients who embrace and understand how we can make an impact for their brand and are willing to work as partners to achieve their goals are the best fit for our agency. This partnership is crucial in navigating the ever-changing PR landscape, where flexibility and adaptability are key to success.

The Wins

"I still today, 30 years later, sometimes get so excited about press placements for my clients that it literally brings a tear to my eye."

My early days working in sports PR were eye-opening and exhilarating, setting the foundation for my passion for the industry. Although it wasn't exactly the type of PR I wanted to be doing, it was a great starting point, and it constantly challenged me. Over 30 years later, I still love what I do, and I'm far from being burnt out.

I take great joy in securing press placements for my clients and making a difference for them. When you can still feel excited and moved by your work after 30 years, you know you're doing what you're meant to be doing. The automotive industry has also been a fulfilling part of my career, with its close-knit community and constant opportunities for growth and learning.

The Future

"The fact that something like ChatGPT can now intelligently create content is really going to change how we do our craft."

Up until recently, I didn't think that PR and advertising would change drastically. The Internet, mobile phones, and social media have all come and changed the way we do business, but they didn't fundamentally change how our crafts are performed. However, the rise of artificial intelligence and advancements in tools like ChatGPT have made me reconsider.

ChatGPT's ability to intelligently create content could significantly change the way we perform. I've already experienced editors asking if the content I submit was produced by chatGPT, which signals a shift in the industry. While there are both positive and negative aspects to ChatGPT's impact, it is clear that it will play a significant role in the future of PR and advertising. The exact nature of this change remains uncertain, but it is definitely something to keep an eye on as the industry evolves.

I reflect on my career and I feel privileged to have experienced what I have. The exposure to PR so early on, as a twenty-something, in the sports industry; and to have had the opportunity to grow alongside my craft.

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