To know Steve Turnbo is to admire him.
At least, that’s the conclusion Tulsa Business Journal has come to after interviewing the man, speaking with his employees and partners and encountering him after office hours, after the bow tie comes off.
Turnbo, a 40-year veteran of the public relations industry, recently relinquished his remaining holdings of Schnake Turnbo Frank | PR, 20 E. Fifth St., Suite 1500, to Becky Frank, now chairman and chief executive, and Russ Florence, president and chief operating officer.
The three announced the acquisition, which was years in the making, they said, last week. Turnbo, as an invaluable member to the long-standing Oklahoma firm, will continue to work full-time as chairman emeritus, focusing on client service, business development, community outreach and consultation with staff members.
Turnbo is a mild-mannered, humble man who ducks his head when Frank and Florence praise him and attributes his success in PR and that of his firm mostly to “luck” and his employees.
“I just sort of fell into it,” Turnbo said of his career in public relations. “I was going to be an English teacher, I thought. I majored in English and minored in journalism. I went to the University of Tulsa on a baseball scholarship. I met Bill Connors, who was sports editor at the Tulsa World, and he gave me a job at the World two nights a week working on the sports desk.”
When the sports eligibility for his scholarship ran out and he was forced to work two hours a day through his ninth semester to stay in school, Turnbo got a job with the school’s sports information office as an assistant.
While doing publicity for TU’s athletic department, Turnbo got word that the sports information director, Kent Pearson, was leaving to work for Skelly Oil Co.
“Coach (Glenn) Dobbs calls me in and says, ‘Kent Pearson’s leaving next week. Would you like to be our sports information director?’ So you’re talking about pure luck, being in the right place at the right time,” said Turnbo. “I went right to work making $400 a month as a sports information director. And I got to eat in the athletic dorm. For free.”
“We pay him a little bit more than that now,” said Frank, laughing.
“I never taught English. I did, at one time, want to play in the major leagues, like every college baseball player, but I couldn’t hit a slider,” said Turnbo.
For someone who “lucked” into PR, Turnbo probably loves the profession more than anyone else, said Florence.
“I don’t know that I know of anyone who really, completely loves this profession more than Steve,” said Florence. “He lives and breathes and sleeps public relations. Outside of family and TU, I don’t know if there’s anything Steve loves more than this firm and public relations.”
Frank and Florence let slip that Turnbo has a tattoo on each shoulder – one his right is “TU” and on his left is “Norma,” his wife of 30 years.
“We were in Maui a few years ago, and my wife and I went into a tattoo shop. It was 11 o’clock in the morning and there was no alcohol involved, and I got these tattoos,” Turnbo confessed.
“I think you should have Schnake Turnbo Frank tattooed somewhere,” Frank said.
“Those are absolutely the three loves of his life: family, TU and PR. That’s what Steve lives for,” said Florence.
“Another thing (I admire about him) is Steve’s work ethic,” Florence continued. “Steve is here early, he’s here late, he’s on his PDA and he doesn’t stop on the weekends. Just this last weekend, actually, there was a little flurry of activity because of a news conference that was happening this week, and on Sunday morning Steve was on the phone with a client and e-mailing us updates. And don’t think for a minute that Steve was bothered by the fact that he had to work on a Sunday.”
“Oh, he gets excited,” said Frank.
“He loves it. Steve really likes the pressure cooker. And that’s why he’s so good at issues management. If there’s a crisis, if there’s an issue where there are some high stakes involved, Steve is your guy,” said Florence.
Public relations have come a long way from what they were when Turnbo began his firm in 1981. Then, PR was about publicity. Now, it’s about “issues management.”
“We don’t spend a whole bunch of time writing releases and pitching stories. A lot of what we do is consulting,” said Turnbo. “I would say, 25 years ago, the term ‘issues management’ didn’t even exist. You got hired to do publicity, an annual report, a brochure, perhaps to write a speech …”
“Companies began to understand the true value of two-way communication. They would get involved in litigation issues, and the legal side began to understand that the court of public opinion is just as important as the court of law,” said Turnbo. “And now we find ourselves working in concert with legal teams on behalf of our clients. Twenty years ago, a lawyer wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room with a PR person. Now, we’re on the team with them; because you might win in the court of law, but if you lose in the court of public opinion, you’ve still lost.”
Turnbo merged his PR firm with that of another Tulsa public relations giant, Chuck Schnake, in 1982 in a move he calls one of the two defining moments of his career. The other was “convincing” Frank to join his team in 2000 as partner. A year later, Florence came on board as well.
Turnbo attributes his company’s success to the hiring of these two individuals, whom he said implemented strategies in the company that have enabled it to grow to three times the size it was nine years ago and double in revenue.
“They’ve come in and done things that I probably would not have done,” Turnbo said.
“But, to Steve’s credit, he could have just said, ‘I have no interest in that whatsoever.’ I can’t think of any suggestion or idea that I’ve brought to him that he said no to,” said Frank. “It’s important, with everyone here, that you identify what people’s real strengths are and you build on those and let them go. I’ll always be grateful to Steve that he had an interest in doing that.”
Doing His Part
Another word almost synonymous with Turnbo’s name is “service.” Turnbo, as an individual, and the firm, companywide, are dedicated to community service, giving back to his alma mater and to the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, among other organizations.
“Giving back to the community is part of every company’s responsibility, and I learned that through a lot of our clients,” said Turnbo. “I give to the University of Tulsa because I got to go there. My parents didn’t have any money. I couldn’t have afforded to go there. I got to go to TU because I could hit a ball with a stick. And I never forgot that. And I sort of started giving a little money back through the alumni association right after graduation, and I’ve always continued it.”
“OCCJ is about fighting bias, bigotry and racism. And I just believe very strongly in that because I think that’s a huge problem in our society,” he said.
And it’s not just about gifts of “time, talent and treasure” for this man. It’s evident that Turnbo is grateful for what he’s accomplished and, because of that, chooses to give back to the community.
Editor’s Note: It was almost 5:30 p.m. on the same day as my early afternoon interview with Turnbo, Frank and Florence when this TBJ editor bumped into Turnbo again outside of our offices at Fifth Street and Boston Avenue. Dressed in sweat shorts and a T-shirt, he was on his way back up to the 15th floor to participate in a company-sponsored yoga session.
I joined him, picking up some extra information to use in this story, and related to him an incident that had happened that day regarding an area transient who had burst through our office doors multiple times, scaring our receptionist half to death and forcing us to lock our doors and call the police.
In reply, Turbo expressed nothing but empathy for the man, whom he asserted probably suffered from some sort of mental illness and, unfortunately, could not afford the prescription medication he needed to maintain his sanity.
As a member of Trinity Episcopal Church downtown, he said, he often volunteers at the Iron Gate food kitchen and had come to know many of Tulsa’s transients, and I have no doubt that he treats every one with the exact measure of kindness and respect he bestows on me at every meeting.
To know Steve Turnbo is to admire him.