PR News | How competing in a triathlon is like running a PR company

Hilary JM Topper

When I signed up for the NYC Triathlon in 2016, I felt like I was out of my element. I was nervous about jumping into the Hudson River and didn’t think I could cycle up the hills of Henry Hudson Parkway. The NYC Triathlon is an Olympic distance triathlon, which means you swim nearly a mile (0.9 miles), bike 26 miles and then run 6.2 miles.

Several weeks before the race, I went out to lunch with a client. “What are you worried about?” she says. “You have already jumped in the water and you climb hills every day in your business.” His statement put things into perspective. She was right. What was I afraid of?

start a business

I started my PR business in 1992. By then I knew what made a great story and how to pitch the media for placement. What I didn’t know was how to run the business. Like triathlons, I jumped into it. I had no idea what I was doing when it came to running a business; I went to school for public relations and communications. I just did it.

I started training for triathlons in 2014. At that time, I was just signing up for an event. I had no idea how to swim freestyle, I had no idea what shifters were on a bike, and the only thing I knew how to do was run (and I could barely do that without walking ). But I got it, just like I did when I ran my business.

This article is featured in O’Dwyer’s Aug. Financial PR/IR & Professional Services PR Magazine
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Find the right staff

I had no experience in hiring staff and had to learn by research and join various organizations. An entrepreneurial organization helped me by giving me the tools I needed to succeed. Hiring the right staff has made all the difference in growth. By having the right team in place, we were able to grow into a million dollar company. I put time and investment, and it happened.

When I started triathlons, my friend told me I needed to hire a trainer. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just use an online training program. But she was more athletic than me, and I trusted she was right. Hiring a coach was the best thing I could have done. I’ve had great coaches over the years who have helped me grow and develop as an athlete and I couldn’t have done it without them.

Survive things beyond your control

At least three times in the past 30 years we have seen a downturn. The first was during 9/11, then in 2008 when the stock market crashed. We also lost personnel and business during Super Hurricane Sandy. But we always thought of ways to reinvent ourselves and reclaim it. For example, when the economy took a turn for the worse, we published our first book on social media marketing. Then we had a complete turnaround. Or after Sandy, we created Glasslandia, the first Google Glass Reality Show on YouTube. This again attracted attention and provided us with new customers.

Comparing this to triathlons, the weather and conditions are beyond our control. This is why it is important to train for any condition. There were times when we had to train in torrential downpours and northeasterlies, like when I ran the Suffolk County Half Marathon. Things will happen beyond your control, and you just need to go with the flow.

When you lose a customer

Triathletes get injured. When this happens, we feel defeated. In a way, it’s like losing a customer. When you lose a client, you feel like you did something wrong. You tried so hard to keep them. You got them decent placements, and yet they let you go. Most of the time, they won’t even tell you why. When this happens, you feel like your business is in decline and you don’t know when you can get it back.

Learning new elements of the business

When social media became mainstream in the early 2000s, I was intrigued. I had to learn everything I could. I read books and articles and did research. This led me to write my first book, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Social Media”.

Since then, I find myself constantly reading all things social media, so I’m always up to date on the subject, especially since I also teach it at Hofstra University. I recently published my second book, “Branding in a Digital World”, which uses this research.

Triathlons are the same. I find myself rooted in the whole triathlon. I read, research and even write about everything from running clothes and cycling gear to wetsuits and swimming techniques. I started a blog,, on the subject when I started running in 2011. There’s always something new and exciting about triathlon training, and I’m always the one of the first to try new things.

When my SEO manager told me I needed to clean up my blog, I started deleting posts I had written about my experience. This led me to my third book, “From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete – A Portrait of a Non-Sporting Triathlete”. The book takes you through ten years of business, personal experience and triathlon training and puts it all in one comprehensive overview with the theme that you can make things happen if you really want to.

Land that big client

There’s nothing better than landing that big client; landing a big placement has the same feeling. Your adrenaline is pumping and you feel like you’re on top of the world. You worked so hard, late at night and on weekends. You’ve done your homework, researched the market, and come up with a stellar proposition. You competed against many other PR firms and you won.

Attracting a new customer is like finishing a race. It takes months to prepare. You train hard for all three disciplines. You learn to eat well and stay hydrated. You learn to set up transitions and make them quickly. Then you are at the start line of the swim. You swim as hard as you can with hundreds of other triathletes kicking and pushing you down. But you ignore them and do your best to get away from them. Once you’re done with the swim, you transition into transition, put on your bike gear, and run with your bike. At the assembly line, you strap on your pedals and take off. After miles on the bike you come back to transition. You are exhausted. You feel like you have nothing left, but you know you have to finish. So you put on your sneakers and run for miles and miles. During this race, you are tired. You feel like you can’t go on, but you know you have to get through that paver chute in the distance. You know it’s time to speed up and step on the accelerator.

Running a business is no small feat. It takes a lot of patience, perseverance and due diligence to get it started and successful. Being a triathlete is the same. But if you have patience in you, if you persist and keep educating yourself, you will cross that finish line.


Hilary JM Topper is CEO of HJMT Public Relations Inc., an award-winning public relations firm with over 30 years of experience located in New York City. She is the author of a new book, From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete—A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete. The book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For a book tour near you, visit