Colin Riley, the director of Media Relations at Boston University, gives his job a personal touch. The lessons he has learned and the beliefs he holds help him do the best he can.
Riley, considered “a Boston University spokesman,” gives the media access to BU faculty and students and is quoted in papers ranging from The New York Times to The Daily Free Press.
Riley has held his job at BU for 11 years now, helping to represent BU, a community of more than 40,000 people, in the media and working to bring attention to BU’s special projects.
One thing Riley believes in is the truth. An avid reader as a youngster, Riley read any newspaper he could get his hands on. Growing up in “an era when investigative journalism was in its heyday,” Riley said, he read the works of great journalists.
“Journalism does a very good service,” he said. “I really do believe that you can improve life with truth. There’s a tremendous value to people knowing the truth.”
Riley said he tries to relate the truth about the University to various media outlets.
“One of the biggest things I hope to do is demystify the administration and what it is we do and why,” Riley said. “I try to represent the outstanding scholarship that goes on here.
“Part of it is telling, part of it is facilitating, and helping the story get out,” he said. “We’re a serious University, we’re a serious department of public relations and we want to help people know what the story is and help them know the information they need to know.”
At the outset of his career, Riley didn’t expect to work in Boston University’s PR department. After graduating from Northeastern University in 1980 with a degree in journalism, Riley aspired to work as a reporter. However, Riley’s entire professional career has been in the public relations sector.
Though he has barely worked as a journalist since his college years, Riley spent time late in his college career as an intern for The Boston Globe, which he said was a great experience.
During his months at the Globe, Riley covered everything from Boston fires to crime and came to appreciate the work police officers and firemen do. Before becoming a reporting intern, Riley said, he always wrote and talked about his stories, including his coverage of a hotel fire near Copley Square.
“I’ve always been a person who enjoys writing and could express myself in writing,” he said. “It came naturally for me.”
Early in life, Riley said most of his time was occupied by sports. He played football, rugby and baseball. Though he never really won many awards, sports always played a huge role in his life and taught him valuable life lessons.
Riley said he distinctly remembers a lesson his mother taught him following a baseball game. After he had spent much of the game criticizing his unsuccessful teammates for their quality of play, Riley said, his mother helped him recognize how wrong he had acted.
“She said, ‘I wouldn’t claim you as my child,'” Riley said. “‘The other kids’ mothers and fathers were there, too, and those kids were trying their hardest.’ It just crushed me.”
Riley said his mother’s words helped shape how he now treats people.
“I have always been focused on how someone else feels and I have very little tolerance for poor sports,” he said. “It amazes me how a lot of people have tantrums and selfish attitudes about sports when the concept is to work as a team.”
Riley said he has always had a competitive spirit, which may be what motivated him to become the first nine children to graduate from college while simultaneously holding down a job.
“I probably had 40 jobs before I graduated from college, but I truly saw education as an investment in myself,” he said. “I love learning and I love knowledge. I value higher education — I think that’s what I like here.”
After working for the United States Postal Service for several years in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, Riley worked on a losing Quincy mayoral campaign. After an aborted political drive, Riley was asked to be a member of then-BU president John Silber’s press team during Silber’s 1990 gubernatorial campaign. Riley said working on Silber’s campaign was one of the most interesting jobs he has ever had.
First, Riley helped put together a two-week statewide campaign kickoff schedule to publicize Silber as a candidate. Silber barely won the Democratic nomination and Riley said it was one of the best political campaigns he has ever seen.
“It was an exceptional campaign,” he said. “It was a roller coaster. Political campaigns are very arduous — they’re a lot of pressure.”
The campaign team and Silber worked 12-hour days seven days a week for months. However, Silber eventually lost the election by approximately 35,000 votes. Despite the excitement of the campaign, Riley said something else that happened during those months overshadowed the campaign.
“My daughter was born on March 28,” Riley said.
Riley and his wife have two daughters and he said their births were the most memorable events in his life. He said because of his perspective as a father, student deaths are the hardest part of his job as BU spokesman.
“The worst part of the job is dealing with the loss of a student,” he said. “Every girl I look at, I think, ‘your daddy loves you and you have no idea.’ The fact that people send their son or daughter away and they can inexplicably not come home is really hard.”
After serving on Silber’s failed 1990 gubernatorial campaign, Riley was offered the BU public relations job and although he said BU wasn’t the place he originally thought he would end up, he took it.
“At the end of the campaign, this was not the first place I would’ve gone on to because it wasn’t where I came from,” Riley said.
Although working at BU’s Office of Public Relations was not his first job choice, Riley said he enjoys his job because at BU there is a passion for education. This passion, Riley said, reminds him of his own passion for learning, which pushed him to graduate college.
“People here see education as an investment in themselves,” he said.
Riley said he treats his public relations work the same way he treated his work in journalism — with great trust in people and a love for the job.
“I always gave people the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “When I talk to reporters, I want them to know that there’s nothing shrouded in secrecy, but I need to present things to the right audience in an appropriate way.”
Though he said his public relations work can be frustrating at times, he still believes people do not intentionally misrepresent BU in their work.
“It’s very hard when articles are off the mark and it’s a frustrating situation to be misquoted,” he said. “Some people think it’s deliberate or malicious, but I’m not a cynic — I think cynicism is extremely unhealthy. It’s troubling to find people who are cynical. You can’t persuade a cynic with fact or truth.”
Riley said working at BU with the faculty and students a generation younger than him is what makes him feel the most privileged.
“It’s like a time warp,” he said.