Rick Sylvain: Journalist alum makes mark at Disney

Rick Sylvain says he has gone "to infinity and beyond" since graduating from the university in the 1960s and ascending to his current position as media director of Walt Disney World.Sylvain worked his way up in the communications field; starting as a lowly media intern to become the head "flack man" of one of the most widely known companies in the world.

A Catholic education helped, he said. He started at St. Scholastica and advanced to Benedictine High School, where one of his teachers pointed out that writing might be his true calling. From that point on, "I did more essay writing at Benedictine, voraciously perused the News and Free Press and became an unabashed news junkie," he said.

His education continued at the University of Detroit. While many students change majors, Sylvain did not waiver. He was focused on a career in communications and journalism, and he pursued it with the intensity of a hurricane.

"U of D gave out student numbers but I will tell you I never felt like one," he said. "Smaller class sizes were invaluable, and I got to know newspapering and magazine work from the ground up, with caring instructors and a terrific, eager group of J-school classmates."

While in college, Sylvain landed an internship at WXYZ-TV, where getting coffee for legendary Detroit anchor Bill Bonds was among his responsibilities. Despite such entry-level duties, he found the overall experience invaluable.

"My internship taught me about scriptwriting, film editing and meeting deadlines," said Sylvain. "Having U of D in my background, I am convinced, helped land me early jobs at the Associated Press, PR for Ford Motor Company and Detroit Edison."

One of the lessons he learned was to jump at opportunities, and he did that when a dream job as a travel writer for the Detroit Free Press became available.

One night at the now-defunct Detroit Press Club, a Free Press features editor mentioned the opening.

Though he had never done any travel writing, Sylvain said that he had.

"That shameless lie led to writing tests, which led to rounds of interviews," all of it leading Sylvain to a prize position.

As a travel writer, Sylvain used his column to help people escape the bleakness that can encompass living in the northern part of the country. "I tried to make the travel section fun since that is what vacations should be about," he said.

Now with Disney, his role is reversed. He works with travel writers, pitching stories to them and helping them get the information they need. His credentials as a journalist help him relate to writers. Since he has worked alongside so many of them, he has a relationship with them and a strong level of trust.

He remembers his days as a journalist, and consequently insists his team return calls promptly and respect deadlines.

"Everyone in Disney World PR has a newsroom background so that pedigree helps with media we call on – i.e., we've 'been there,' " he said.

Despite the national decline in print journalism, Sylvain still sees hope for aspiring journalists. He encourages them to "adapt to and master all the new channels of communication."

He added, "Journalism is ever-evolving and welcoming to fresh talent and fresh thinking."

Thought Sylvain enjoyed his years in journalism, he loves his current position with Disney.

"Since Walt Disney's time, this company has been about creativity and storytelling," he said. "Ideas are the bedrock of 'all things Disney' so creative thinking always wins the day. . I'd say working for a company (that is) about smiles and families enjoying our parks and each other makes it fun getting up every morning.