Chicago’s PR Gurus Share Tips for Making It in the Windy City

When I entered the public relations profession 40 years ago, I had the good fortune to work for a woman. My boss, Jean Mahon, was the only female VP at the public relations firm I joined, and her mentoring, support and friendship made a difference. I realize now what was not quite so obvious then: that women in PR leadership roles were the exception rather than the rule.

All that has changed. Some call it the “feminization of PR,” and nowhere is it more felt than in our town. Women run some of the largest PR shops here, and at a recent meeting of the Publicity Club of Chicago (PCC), they made their presence known at a panel discussion: Erica Swerdlow, executive vice president/Midwest market leader, Burson-Marsteller; Maxine Winer, senior partner/GM, Fleishman-Hillard Chicago; Patti Temple-Rocks, managing director, GolinHarris Chicago, and Claire Koeneman, executive vice president/GM, Hill + Knowlton Strategies Chicago. The lone man was Rick Murray, president, Edelman Chicago. The moderator was (surprise) a woman, Sue Markgraf, founder/president, GreenMark Public Relations and a past PCC president.

Once, this type of panel discussion would have centered on breaking through the glass ceiling, handling unwanted sexual advances, and whether you “could have it all.” This time, the conversation was strictly business.

For the better part of an hour, the panel shared how the PR profession is changing and evolving, how to maintain and strengthen relationships with clients, and what young talent can do to improve their skill sets and rise to the top. Much of their advice would apply to any profession. Here are some choice tidbits.

• There’s a constant battle between what is considered “urgent” and what is really important. Take the time to figure it out.
• Focus heavily on the short-term as well as long-term results. Your clients are being forced to do the same.
• We are past the age of business “silos” and lack of information reciprocity; everyone must work together.
• Don’t ever be afraid to hire people who are “way smarter” than you.
• Let go of things you can’t control.

And for job-seekers, there was this:

• Find a passion, and raise your hand.
• Find the one person you want to work for and go for it.
• Use your down time to explore what you really like to do which could be a transferrable skill in the workplace.

Finally, there were reminders not to take yourself, or your job, too seriously (unless of course, you’re a brain surgeon), recognize that multi-tasking is impossible (you can’t fully participate in a meeting if you’re checking your phone every ten seconds), and invest in yourself (take a spin around the block, hit the gym, get a manicure).

It’s thrilling to see so many women leading Chicago’s large PR firms, and I’m equally pleased that a growing number of women are following in the footsteps of PR firm pioneers Janet Diederichs, Margie Korshak and Marj Abrahms.

In her hit single “Feeling Good,” Nina Simone sang, “It’s a new dawn, a new day and a new life.” The same could be said for PR; we should all be “feeling pretty good.”


About Chris Ruys

Chris Ruys is founder and president of Chris Ruys Communications, Inc., a marketing/public relations firm that specializes in high visibility campaigns using both traditional and social media strategies. Her blog, originally called "Getting Social," was launched in October 2010 as a way to share her progress as a "student" of social media. While she's still learning, Ms. Ruys has broadened the scope to include other aspects of marketing communications and PR, including blogging, email, traditional media and advertising in the blog she now calls "Proactive PR."