Founder’s Day 2013: A Conversation With Barbara Hunter
Today at Hunter Public Relations we celebrate our 24th anniversary. Affectionately called ‘Founders Day’ by the staff, it’s a day to reflect on our history and honor our fearless founder and PRSA Gold Anvil winner, Barbara W. Hunter.
She retired from the public relations industry 13 years ago, but she occasionally visits the office to chat and find out what we’ve been working on.
Barbara visited us on Valentine’s Day this year and graciously answered a barrage of questions submitted by both Hunters and friends of Hunter on Facebook and Twitter. She discussed her pioneering career as one of the first-ever female owners of a PR agency, why she chose public relations (the pay!) and shared tips for young professionals starting out in the industry. She delighted us with her stories, her laughter and her sharp wit.
As part of this Founder’s Day, we now share with you some of the questions and answers from our special visit with Barbara.
What led you to seek a career in public relations?
Money! When I left Cornell, I got a job at Food Field Reporter for $45 a week. I was there for two years, and then I interviewed for a publicity job with National Dairy Products. It paid quite a bit more than Food Field Reporter! I learned a lot during that time, and it turned out to provide a very good grounding for me in the food industry, which gave me a solid base for what I went on to do. I remember that the editor was tough, but he was good and he taught me to write concise copy, which stayed with me throughout my life.
What do you feel were the biggest obstacles you overcame in starting Hunter Public Relations?
When we started, we were three people working in my bedroom. I thought we would be a little boutique firm! The obstacle was just a matter of getting started. Fortunately, McIlhenny Company (Tabasco brand) was there from the first day, and that made a huge difference for us. As we pitched new clients, we were already working with a well-known brand that we could use as a reference.
When I go back to my time at Dudley-Anderson-Yutzy, which we later sold to Ogilvy and Mather, our biggest obstacle was having a firm led by women. It was a really tough sell in those days, and we were often invited to pitch an account even when we knew we had no chance of getting the business. Clients wanted to say that they had included a pitch by a firm headed by women, but they had no intention of hiring us.
I used to go to public relations luncheons and there would be 200 people but there would only be 10 women. What a change now!
What was one of the most memorable campaigns you worked on during your time at the agency?
The Jell-O 100th Anniversary campaign. You never forget a front-page placement in the Sunday edition of The New York Times! We were invited to pitch for the business against all of the major agencies. As we brainstormed and prepared, we decided that Jell-O had such a great story. We wanted tell that story with a solid media relations plan and a few new ideas, such as the creation of a Champagne-flavored Sparkling Jell-O. We were the last to pitch and after we were done, we were asked to wait outside for a while. While we were discussing how it went, the clients came out and told us that we had the business, but they asked us to keep it quiet for a while so they could tell the other agencies! But they wanted to let us know so that we could celebrate the win on our 10th Anniversary as an agency.
What are some of the risks or rewards of going into business with a family member?
I had a great reward. I followed my sister, Jean, to Dudley-Anderson-Yutzy, an old PR firm that was founded in 1908 by Pendleton Dudley. In the late 1950s, she went to George Anderson, one of the partners, and asked if he would interview me for an available account executive position. Luckily, he decided that he would take me on. We worked on different accounts and most people didn’t know that we were sisters. Eventually, we took over the firm and ran if for about 13 years before selling it to Ogilvy & Mather. My sister handled the administrative matters of the firm and I handled client relations. We were just different enough that we worked really well together and got along really well.
When someone asks you what PR is, what’s your answer/elevator pitch?
First of all, it’s a two-way street between the PR team and reporters. It requires you to decide what messages you want to project. You must figure out ways to get the messages out using the media available to you. It’s much more complex than people realize and can be difficult to describe in a few words. I used to hear the term ‘flack’ all of the time. One time a reporter referred to me as a ‘flack’ and I called him a ‘hack.’
What do you think makes a good account team?
First, you have to have a good leader. Then, I think it’s important to tailor the talents of the people that you bring in to the jobs at hand, whether it’s staging special events, creating ideas or interfacing with the client. I also think that creativity is very important and it’s one of the reasons for Hunter PR’s success.
What advice would you give to a passionate student who is searching for an entry-level position in the industry?
Having an internship is very important. I always considered applicants who had done at least some work in the field or at least made an attempt get to know the industry. I think that anyone applying for a job has to have good basic skills and have initiative. You have to do the legwork before the interview and gather information about the firm so that you can go in and talk about it intelligently in the interview.