Downtime: Public relations executive lures new business through fishing

Brian Chandler with a catch beneath the Mayo Bridge. (Photo courtesy of Brian Chandler)

When Brian Chandler sought to hook a few more clients for his business, the public relations practitioner naturally went to a pair of his favorite pastimes: boating and fishing.

“I said I really would like to start to get some business in the marine, boating and fishing industry, just thinking, ‘OK, I love to do those things; how awesome would it be to work in the industry as well?’” recalled Chandler.

“We’ve had a solid Virginia/Mid-Atlantic book of business. My mind went to we could grow the firm even more if I’m able to do work in a passion that I know and I can speak intelligently about,” he said.

A decade later, Chandler’s firm, Commonwealth PR, has established a client base that regularly includes marine companies, boat manufacturers, charter fishing companies and similar businesses. Clients over the years have included American Sportfishing Association (ASA), Barker Boatworks, BoatUS, Sea Tow, Shakespeare Marine and Sportsman Boats.

Brian Chandler at the Gather coworking space in Short Pump, where his Commonwealth PR firm is currently based. (Jonathan Spiers photo)

He’s also had a hand in the industry itself, working with the ASA on the Senate passage of the federal Modern Fish Act. And earlier this year, he was appointed to the board of directors for the national association Marine Marketers of America.

Such involvements have rubbed off on his own fishing and boating pursuits, which Chandler said in turn has introduced him to both a professional network and a fishing community in Richmond.

“I definitely am more knowledgeable now about different things with the industry — the engines, the boat handling or piloting, conditions. For me, that has made me a safer boater,” he said. “Over the last six years, we’ve probably worked with half a dozen clients in the industry and some of them are still full-time clients that we work with today.”

It all started when Chandler decided to blend work and pleasure after sitting in on a seminar on helping clients with social media. He said he walked away from it wanting to up his own online presence with a targeted effort to appeal to the marine industry.

Brian Chandler has merged his boating and fishing interests into his public relations work. (Photos courtesy of Brian Chandler)

“I changed my profile to say: ‘My tweets are 50-50 public relations/marketing and saltwater fishing and boating,” he said. “Literally overnight, I more than doubled my following.”

He also started following some of those businesses on Twitter, including industry giant National Marine Manufacturers Association, which happened to be looking to hire a PR firm to help promote a personal watercraft safety campaign for a sister association.

“We responded to their RFP, and instead of our normal suit-and-tie and formal

photos for headshots, I had a picture of me holding a big red drum (fish) and had the team send in pictures of them out on the water,” he said. “They responded and said, ‘We love your proposal, it was definitely done with our industry in mind,’ and landed that account. From there, word started to spread.”

The Virginia native got his start flyfishing on streams and has since ventured into saltwater fishing.

These days, his five-person firm’s client roster includes two full-time marine clients, as well as others that call on the firm regularly for contract work. Despite the firm’s inland location, Chandler said businesses in fishing hot spots such as Florida and California are frequent among them.

“We hear from them that they were a little skeptical at first of this PR firm in Richmond knowing about their industry. But after five minutes of having a conversation with me, they say, ‘He’s got it. He understands what we’re trying to do and knows our industry very well.’ That’s been really neat to get that feedback.”

Raised in Dublin in southwestern Virginia, Chandler, 47, started fishing and flyfishing on nearby streams and at nearby Claytor Lake State Park. In college, the Emory & Henry alum said he started venturing into saltwater fishing with a friend who had a boat in South Carolina.

Today, the married father of two mostly fishes on shore though he said he does some off shore fishing as well. He owns a 20-foot Key West fishing boat that he takes out into the Chesapeake Bay, and in Richmond, he often hits up popular fishing spots along the James River beside the floodwall and the Mayo Bridge, where he said he’s become part of a fishing communities.

Brian Chandler’s favorite fishing spots in Richmond include the riverbank across from downtown.

Noting other locals who gather to catch striper and shad that head upriver to Richmond from the bay in the spring, Chandler said, “They’re a group of guys that go down right at the floodwall, right at the 14th Street bridge, and it’s like a community. They share tips; we message each other, like, ‘The bite’s on today!’

“They’ll do campfires and cook fresh fish right there on the bank of the James. There’s really a neat tightknit community here in Richmond when it comes to the stripers and the shad, and now the smallmouth bass you can catch at Pony Pasture.”

While he’s found ways to integrate fishing into his work, Chandler said it also provides him a much-needed break from his daily grind.

“It’s just an opportunity for me to get away from the day-to-day activities of work and life and be out in nature,” he said. “Whether you’re on a boat or you’re on the bank fishing, it just helps you settle yourself and brings peace and stability.”

This is the latest installment in our Downtime series, which focuses on business people’s pursuits outside of the office. If you, a coworker or someone you know around town has a unique way of passing time off the clock, submit suggestions to [email protected] For previous installments of Downtime, click here.