How the PR department “pulled one over” on Tom O’Connor

toeditUNMC’s Tom O’Connor and his wife, Karen
I found out a month ago that Tom O’Connor, senior associate director in public relations here at UNMC, was chosen to receive the “Special Achievement in Public Relations” award at the PRSA Nebraska gala on Dec. 4

But there was one caveat. Organizers wanted it to be a surprise. Our department had to keep it a secret from Tom (gasp!). Keeping a secret from Tom is like playing Santa. You have to work behind the scenes and be sneaky, though no long, white beard is required.

When I asked a colleague for ideas on how to get Tom to the awards ceremony without him realizing why, she had two words for me: “He’ll know.”

But we were a determined bunch. After some conspiring with our PR director, Bill O’Neill, we decided to tell Tom the department won an award and we needed him to accept it.

Yes, that would do, or so we thought. Tom agreed to go, but wasn’t satisfied with our story. Being the investigative journalist type, he continued to ask for details. Details that didn’t exist. After all, this was a made-up award.

Enter an e-mail from Bill.

“The next e-mail that I send out will be a complete fabrication so that Tom O. will quit asking me about the award. Remember, it is Tom who is actually receiving the award for his service to the PR profession.”

And that next e-mail from Bill:

“Found out yesterday that the award we will receive tonight is for “Outstanding Public Relations on behalf of a non-profit” … Thanks to Tom, Lisa, Vicky and Nicole for representing our department at the PRSA gala tonight. Great job, all!”

As for the relentless questioning from Tom about who nominated us and why, we all played dumb and it seemed to work (not sure if this is necessarily a good thing).

The biggest coup was getting his wife, Karen, to attend without giving anything away. Her having attended 3,472 of these types of events over the years, we knew that she would normally prefer to pass. But this wasn’t just another dinner. This was one in which her husband would be receiving a Grammy for PR.

Bill called to clue her in at the last minute, giving her the scoop that it was actually Tom, not our department, who would be honored. While he was on the phone with Karen, Tom walked in the room. Bill quickly hung up. He covered by telling Tom there was now an extra seat at our table and asked if Karen could fill it. Figuring she wouldn’t want to go, he called her anyway.

And this is when Karen put on an Academy Award-winning performance. She moaned and groaned and even threw in some colorful language for good measure. Karen knew that if she said yes right away it would be obvious something was up, so reluctantly she agreed to go. It was exactly what sold Tom on the idea that this was a general awards dinner.

Fast forward to that night. During the cocktail hour, Tom still wasn’t satisfied with our vague description of what we were winning and questioned me again. My response: “I think it’s an award of merit…or maybe excellence…Bartender, more wine please!”

Later, Tom, Karen, Vicky, Lisa Spellman and I took our places at the table. They began to announce award winners and UNMC’s name was never called. I wondered when Tom would start to get suspicious, but he didn’t until the moment they read his bio from the podium.

“…36 years of media relations experience….. credible, friendly and reliable….helps place more than 2,000 UNMC media hits per year.”

Tom turned to his wife and said: “I think they’re talking about me.” With a huge grin on her face, Karen replied, “They ARE!”

Tom stood, and sheepishly walked to the podium. First one person stood, and then another, then a few more and finally the whole room rose to their feet and applauded everyone’s favorite media relations guy. T.O. received a standing ovation. On his way back to the table, it got quiet for a second. Someone then started a second round of applause. It was a special moment to be a part of.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, it was clear Tom never suspected a thing. I believe he uttered something like, “Ya got me.”

Ever the PR man, Tom sent a gracious email around the next morning.

“It was a great honor for me. But, I say this in total sincerity, I owe it all to UNMC and the great people I have been lucky to work with in PR. You make me look way better than I really am. Way better.”

And that, my friends, is the story of how the PR Department “pulled one over” on our very own Tom O’Connor.


  1. Kim Laursen says:

    What a wonderful tribute to Tom, and kudos to the PR department for making it a delightful surprise! Congrats to all.

  2. Carin Borg says:

    I can’t think of a more deserving person than Tom. Great job in keeping it a surprise!! Congratulations, T.O.!!

  3. Fran HIggins says:

    Congratulations, Tom! Couldn’t go to a better guy.

  4. Robin Taylor says:

    This is a well deserved honor. Congratulations, Tom!

  5. Bill O'Neill says:

    A well-deserved award, Tom. Congratulations!

  6. Joe Evans says:

    Congratulations Tom for a well-deserved honor, and congratulations to the PR department for carrying out this elaborate plan 🙂

  7. Bud Shaw says:

    Well deserved, Tom. Congratulations.

  8. Peter Iwen says:

    Tom and I go back a long time together and I always look forward to working with him. Congratulations Tom on a job well done!

  9. Judy Huey says:

    I love the whole story and the surprise for T.O. A well deserving award for all his hard work over the years. Congrats Tom!

  10. NWM says:


  11. Ann Ashford says:

    Congratulations, Tom, on an award very well deserved! And congratulations to the PR department for making it such a tremendous experience!

  12. Brenda Ram says:

    Wow – great job PR Team. Tom, what a well deserved tribute to your dedication and love for UNMC. Way to go!

  13. Charlie Murrin says:

    Congratulations, Tom! And a great story to go with the award.

  14. Kelly J. says:

    Congrats, Tom! What a great accomplishment. The PR staff are a well rounded group of individuals and a true example of a great team!

  15. Michael Huckabee says:

    We’re thrilled for Tom to be recognized for his tireless work and expertise. Congratulations!

  16. Keith Swarts says:

    What an honor to the a most deserving person. Not only is Tom a good friend and China traveling companion but one heck of a PR person. Congrats to you Tom.


  17. Paula Turpen says:

    Great story and well-deserved honor! Congratulations, TO.

  18. Jayme says:

    Tom writes stories like no other! Cheers Tom!

  19. Pierre Fayad says:

    Tom, congratulations!!! glad you are recognized for what most of us already knew. You’re the best!!!

  20. Mary Haven says:

    Wish I had known this story when I saw you and Karen Sunday night. What glorious fun to surprise Tom. To all involved Congratulations. But especially to you, Tom, our most favored PR person.

  21. Tom O'Connor says:

    Thanks to all for the wonderful comments. I’m lucky to call you my friends! TO

  22. Luann Andersen says:

    Just got back from a few days away and am catching up on my UNMC News. Congratulations Tom. Wish I could have been there to see your surprise! Best wishes to you from your old pal in Texas!

  23. Paul Baltes says:

    Congrats first and foremost to Tom! A very well-deserved recognition!
    Second congrats to the rest of the UNMC PR team. Pulling one over on him (even with all the cloak-and-dagger routine) could not have been easy.

  24. Tom is a very special friend of mine, I only wish I would have had the chance to be in attendance the night of the event to share the special moment with him.

  25. Don Summerside says:

    You’re the best, Tom!

  26. PJ Roberts says:

    Congratulations Tom, you earned it!

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