group of St. Louis women make their mark in the PR profession.
By Laurie Burstein
"If a circus comes to town and you paint a sign saying,
‘Circus coming to fairground Saturday,’ that’s advertising. If you
put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk him into town,
that’s promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor’s flowerbed
and the newspaper runs a photo, that’s publicity. And if you can
get the mayor to laugh about it, that’s public relations!”
So goes a whimsical definition of Public Relations. But what is
Public Relations by today’s standards? Interestingly enough, a group
of gutsy and talented women in St. Louis are counted as some of
the most qualified to answer the question. They not only have their
own definitions and ideas about Public Relations, they also have
their own very successful full-service communications firms to boot.
Women Take Off in PR Profession
While men excel in Public Relations, too, the profession seems to
attract an unusual number of women in general and women-owned firms
in particular. According to the Council of Public Relations Firms,
the industry has a strong cadre of women leaders nationwide. Of
the 100 largest PR firms in the US, 37 have women CEOs and about
10 more have women presidents. Here locally, of the top 15 firms,
women own five. And, women lead many of the fastest growing firms.
At the top of the list are PR veterans Donna Vandiver, Cathy Dunkin
and Marie Casey. According to The St. Louis Business Journal’s
most recent ranking of the largest Public Relations agencies on
April 6, 2001, The Vandiver Group is the largest independent firm
owned by a woman. Like many women in PR, she got her start by getting
a degree in journalism and writing for newspapers early in her career.
After a stint in public television, Donna Vandiver spent 13 years
as Monsanto’s PR director before striking out on her own.
“The entrepreneurial spirit took over, and I started working out
of my house in 1993, holding meetings at the dining room table,”
Vandiver laughs. Her first client was Boatmen’s Bank where she helped
them with several communications pieces. She still has a copy of
her first check from them hanging on the wall.
Vandiver now has 20 people who work for her in offices in Frontenac.
Clients include Solutia, Bi-State Development Agency, Monsanto,
and Astaris, with annual billings of more than $3 million in 2000,
significantly higher than in previous years. Her agency has been
among the fastest growing PR companies in recent years as ranked
by the US Council of PR Firms, and the company has made The Business
Journal’s list of “Best Places to Work.”
Vandiver’s services include strategic planning, corporate image,
branding and Public Relations. She defines PR broadly. “We offer
a wide range of services around creating a strategy and communicating
that strategy internally and externally,” she says.
PR practitioners agree that Public Relations is made up of a varied
mix of strategies and tactics. The nuts and bolts include media
relations, crisis communications, community relations, employee
communications, special events, new product launches, and production
of collateral materials such as brochures and newsletters. Some
local firms have branched into producing web sites, videos and even
advertising. But they all agree that providing a business strategy
is number one.
Cathy Dunkin, now in her 10th year as the owner of The Standing
Partnership, says she has seen her role evolve to become more of
a strategic partner with the companies she and her firm assists.
“Our job is so much more than just sending out a news release. We
are as much advisors as implementers,” she explains.
Dunkin adds that she likes the definition of Public Relations used
by the Public Relations Society of America, which states, “Public
Relations is the management function that establishes and maintains
mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the
public on whom its success or failure depends.”
“This definition talks about building relationships. I know from
experience that what we do for our clients is a management function
and much broader than just generating publicity,” she adds.
The Standing Partnership is a strong second in terms of women-owned
PR firms with just more than $2 million in revenue in 2000 and 20
employees. The Standing Partnership is also ranked as one of the
nation’s fastest growing healthcare PR firms by PRWEEK Magazine
and recently won an award for a crisis communications plan for Sisters
of Mercy Health System. Notable clients include Ranken Technical
College, McCarthy Building Cos., Monsanto, Solutia, the St. Louis
RCGA, and Boys & Girls Town of Missouri.
Throughout her 20-plus years in Public Relations, Dunkin has held
a variety of positions on both the agency and corporate sides of
the business and also has a strong writing background. She achieved
her goal to control her own destiny when she started her firm in
1991. “I had a strong desire to create a great place to work and
get good results for clients,” Dunkin says.
Another PR veteran, Marie Casey, owner of Casey Communications,
has built a solid reputation in the 18 years since she began her
company. She started out as a journalist writing for publications
including Suburban Journals and Construction News & Review.
This practical experience gave her great insights into the value
of PR professionals to reporters and editors.
“After five years as a journalist, I started Casey Communications
in 1983, because I had a gut-level belief that the knowledge I gained
as a reporter would be of value to an organization's communications
Casey’s hunch was right and her background as journalist for a construction
trade magazine led her to specialize in that area with architects,
construction firms, real estate developers and homebuilders as her
client base. Today, her clients include HOK Architects, Paric Corporation,
ARCO Construction, and homebuilders such as Richards Bruno and Mullenix
Properties. She has since branched out, and also counts Schnuck
Markets and several banks on her roster too.
“We work primarily for companies and organizations with an entrepreneurial
mindset. Many of these clients have been with Casey Communications
for more than a decade,” she adds. Casey has seven full-time employees
with billings just over $1 million.
Casey says one of her more memorable projects was handling all the
communications tied to Schnuck’s acquisition of National in 1995.
Work involved intense communications planning, writing of news releases,
speeches, employee communications, and a great deal of community
relations work, and working with the news media to deliver the story
on a timely basis. She says the PR program was an important contributor
to blending the two corporate cultures and earning the patronage
of new customers for Schnucks.
Another long-time professional on the St. Louis PR scene is Barbara
Pierce. Founder and owner of Millennium Communications, she started
her own firm in 1993. Before owning her company, she held PR positions
at KWMU radio, the St. Louis Symphony and UMSL. While working for
a company in St. Louis, she began getting requests for side projects.
The company gave her permission to work part time for them and still
do her own projects. But as her own client workload took over, she
knew it was time to go out on her own.
Pierce’s first big project was for the Missouri Historical Society,
which she still counts as a client today. She started with just
herself and a bookkeeper—now a vice president at Millennium. With
six full-time employees, the firm had annual billings of $540,000
in 2000. Clients come mainly from three focus areas: not-for-profit,
real estate and professional services. Her roster includes the Central
Institute for the Deaf, Clayco Construction, Coldwell Banker and
Pierce says the PR profession has come a long way. “It’s not about
having lunch and throwing parties. Our job is to use all the marketing
communications tools to strategically position our clients in the
marketplace,” she says.
“It’s not just ‘the public’ we communicate with today. We have multiple
audiences such as employees, investors and vendors. The challenge
is to understand who the audience is and how to communicate with
them,” Pierce adds.
On working with clients she says, “We not only have to be good PR
people, we have to understand our clients’ businesses.”
PR Firms Take On Many Clients and Projects
Two additional women-owned PR firms making waves are Lents & Associates
and ImageWorks. Peggy Lents started Lents & Associates 15 years
ago after being on the client side and not getting what she thought
should be delivered. She says she wanted to build a better mousetrap.
Her clients today are First Banks, Inc., Missouri Botanical Garden,
Fontbonne College, and Center for Emerging Technologies to name
Lents says she enjoys the PR profession, because it allows her to
take on creative challenges and work with a diverse group of clients.
She likes the strategic aspect, the writing and the team building.
When asked about what PR really is she says, “Clients want more
visibility for what they do. They want awareness for a product,
a service or a name. Good PR starts with a marketing strategy and
communications plan. We always ask clients what their goals are.
Good PR is the end result.”
Phyllis Weiss formed ImageWorks in 1995 after stints as a teacher
in public schools, in the non-profit sector, and at a Public Relations
firm. When she decided to go on her own, she started networking
and soon had her first client. Her clients today include Ranken
Jordan Pediatric Center, St. Louis Public Schools and Kodner Art
Gallery. Her firm’s special focus areas are media placement, event
marketing, image building and product launches.
One of her favorite projects was handling the promotion and media
relations for world-famous artist Peter Max who was in town last
summer for a showing of new works at Kodner Art Gallery. It was
up to Weiss and her staff to make a splash. They came up with the
concept of pairing Max with sports and arranged for him to throw
out the first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals game and facilitated
an appearance with Joe Buck in the KMOX broadcast booth. Around
the time of Max’ visit, The Sporting News named St. Louis
as the best sports city. Weiss capitalized on this fact and arranged
for Max to design the front cover of the publication to announce
the award. Media coverage was garnered in most major local publications,
and many radio and TV stations carried stories as well.
Weiss says it’s a good example of how her firm likes to think creatively.
“The essence of Public Relations is finding the most effective,
vivid and commanding way to tell your story. It’s the flair, style
and innovation that makes a story a standout.”
Since Weiss works with the local media a great deal, she has forged
good relationships by understanding reporters’ needs and deadlines.
“We always do our best to give reporters what they need for a story.
It’s a lot like providing good service to clients,” she says.
There are many other successful women-owned PR firms in St. Louis
including the Tretter Group owned by Ann Tretter; The Hauser Group
owned by Julie Hauser; and Keller & Associates owned by Janet Keller.
And these aren’t the only ones, which makes the case that there
is a need for PR services and room for all types of firms from small
one-or-two person shops and up.
Since PR firms are selling their expertise, contacts and time, most
have an hourly billing structure. Agencies earn their fees from
monthly retainers or by billing an hourly rate. Rates vary according
to individual experience and can range from upwards of $200 per
hour for the owner of the company, to $80-$100 for an account executive,
to $50 per hour for support staff.
Why Women Stand Out
Jack Bergen, president of the Council of PR Firms, ventures a few
reasons why women do so well in Public Relations. “Some of the reasons
for their success in PR are team-oriented leadership skills, ability
to multi-task and focus on quality of life issues for employees.
Obviously another reason is a lack of opportunity in other fields,
which draws ambitious women to PR where they have a better chance
to make it to the top,” Bergen says.
Several of the above mentioned entrepreneurs came back with their
own speculation on why women and PR seem to go hand-in-hand.
Pierce explains that in the mid-’80s, several national PR agencies
such as Hill & Knowlton left St. Louis, plus several large corporations
downsized. This left many capable women in PR who could provide
industry specific knowledge.
She also feels that women can earn more working for themselves.
“I am a single mother with a mortgage to pay. By owning my own firm
I have more security and control,” Pierce says.
Casey offers her own explanation as to why PR appeals to women.
“This profession requires tremendous attention to relationships,
sensitivities and details and many women are strong in these areas.
The desire to build cooperative relationships rather than competitive
ones also may play a part.” Casey adds that there are men who also
have these attributes. In fact, she hired her husband who now works
with her, although she is the majority owner of the company.
Dunkin adds, “PR attracts people who are good writers and communicators.
You must also have a strong instinct for client service.”
Room for All Kinds of Firms and Strong Future Ahead
With the number one Public Relations firm in the world, Fleishman-Hillard,
based here in St. Louis, how do these relatively small local agencies
Rick Desloge, who covers marketing and communications for the St.
Louis Business Journal says, “There is plenty of room for small-
and medium- sized marketing firms. Not every client is a fit for
a huge firm. There is a lot going on in St. Louis and enough business
for PR firms of all sizes.”
When asked what they like best about the PR profession, all the
PR principals cited the wide variety of the profession, the creative
challenges, the huge array of clients and industries they get to
learn about, and of course, having a part in helping clients to
succeed in their respective businesses.
They all agree that the biggest change in the last 10 years is in
the area of technology. With the advent of the Internet and all
the other technological developments, PR people have to help disseminate
news for their clients faster than ever.
The future looks strong for women in Public Relations, who even
with today’s challenging economy seem to have the knack for communicating
in new and exciting ways.
Laurie Burstein is a St. Louis-based free-lance writer.
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