PR Rock Stars: Heather Whaling
I met Heather Whaling a few years ago. The first thing that I like about her: The Twitter handle (@prtini). But, what has tied Heather and I together is the fact that we both started our businesses at roughly the same time. We’ve shared resources. Advice. And most importantly, just been sounding boards for each other, when needed. We’ve met in person during the last two BlogWorlds (Heather’s been a moderator and speaker)–and not surprisingly, she turned out to be every bit as great as she was “virtually.” Without sounding all fatherly, I’m really proud of Mrs. Whaling. She quit a darn good job in hopes of pursuing her dream of starting her own agency–that’s a tough thing to do. But, she’s doing it. Quite successfully, I might add. I’ll let Heather tell the rest of her story…
You quit your “day job” almost two years ago now and broke off to start your own agency. From our regular chats, it sounds like things are going wonderfully well. But, back in 2009, how did you make that tough decision? And, what have you learned since then that you can share with others that might be considering a similar path?
It’s hard to believe that it’s already been two years. Looking back, I can say that leaving my safe, steady job to launch Geben Communication was the best professional decision I’ve ever made.
I was never one of those people who set out to be an entrepreneur. In 2009, my husband and I were living in Florida, but our families were in Ohio, so we wanted to move back north to be closer to family. It was the height of the recession and I’d been toying with the idea of going out on my own. I decided to give it a try. I’m not an overthinker, so I didn’t spend a lot of time overanalyzing the decision. Once I got the idea in my head, I jumped in with both feet and worked really hard to ensure Geben would be a success.
For people who are thinking about starting their own PR consultancy, I’d encourage them to consider the business elements. There are lots of talented PR pros, but you need more than that to run a successful business. You have to be able to move someone along the continuum from prospect to paying client. That doesn’t mean you need a business degree or background. At my core, I’m a PR person. I didn’t have a business degree. So, instead of writing a business plan for the company, I wrote a PR plan. And, I worked the plan – everything from speaking at events and identifying relationship-building opportunities with referral sources … to how I’d incorporate media relations and social media to educate potential clients about the services we offer. It seemed like a natural thing for me to do. Looking back, it was also the right way for me to approach establishing and growing a new company.
What’s one challenge about running a small agency/business that most people don’t often think/talk about? Conversely, what’s one benefit people often overlook?
At Geben, we incorporate some of the best elements of the start-up world, including quick-thinking, responsiveness, collaboration and a “get it done” mentality. As we grow, I’m 100% committed to making sure we never lose that level of service and quality of work. It’s why people come to work with us, so it’s core to who we are and how we work. But, that means scaling is a constant challenge. Not every PR person shares my approach to work and level of responsiveness. Consequently, I’m really picky about who I hire. We’ve tripled in size since January – and fingers crossed, we’ll continue to grow! – but we’ll only grow at a pace where I know we can continue to deliver on the service and quality promises I’ve made to our clients.
As for benefits, there’s too many to list. Most of all though, I appreciate the freedom and flexibility to choose the clients we work with. I mentioned I’m picky about the people I hire. I’m also picky about the clients we work with. Geben helps businesses and organizations integrate their traditional and digital PR efforts. That works best when we work with clients who who see us as an extension of their team … not just as another vendor.
I also refuse to work with jerks. (Seriously, I fired a client once because they were completely rude over a period of time to one of my employees. I’m loyal to the people who I work with. No piece of business is more important than how they are treated.) Nearly two years in to this, I am so appreciative of our clients and the ability to work with them on a daily basis. It’s amazing and humbling.
In addition to your own blog, you’re also a contributing writer for Mashable. Since that’s a title and job most people would love, can you share how you opened that door initially?
It really goes back to PR 101 and relationship building. I was working with a Mashable reporter on a story about one of my clients. We kept in touch and worked together on a few other stories. Then, I asked her if I could interview her for something I was working on. Out of that, we developed a strong relationship and when she was looking for contributing writers, she asked if I would be interested. Of course, I jumped at the chance! Now, I contribute to Mashable and starting this month, I’ll be a regular contributor to Open Forum, focusing on digital PR articles.
What’s the one common question you hear from clients today—and how is your firm addressing it?
We are seeing less of a “bump” from traditional media hits. While those placements are still incredibly valuable for a number of reasons, traditional media relations alone isn’t enough. As a result, clients are intrigued by the potential of working with bloggers. Incorporating blogger relations into the mix creates a new set of opportunities for brands to connect with stakeholders and target audiences. Whether we’re promoting an event, launching a new product or service, or helping our clients position themselves as subject-matter experts – developing relationships with bloggers is critical to what we do. Helping clients connect with existing online communities is a major opportunity for PR.
You’re also a HAPPO champ, and you’re big on giving back to the PR industry. What’s one tip that job seekers might not have heard already that you might share?
I’m a sucker for helping students and young pros get started in PR. Recently, I’ve noticed a number of them saying that they’re not looking on job boards; instead, they’re totally focused on networking to find their first (or next) job. Networking is invaluable, but don’t turn a blind eye to the companies that are posting openings. The job search needs to be a blend of applying for positions found on career boards and developing/cultivating your network. It’s not an either-or situation.
Finally, you’re also a big sports fan. For some reason, you’re a huge Yankees fanatic (who grew up in Ohio—how do Indian fans feel about that?). How did that connection come about? And, how, if at all, do you use that passion for sports in your daily work?
In my defense, I’m from New Jersey and my extended family all lives there. Being a Yankees fan is in my blood. It does make for some interesting conversations with the in-laws, who are Cleveland fans, but that’s a whole separate discussion!
I think my love of sports helped mold me into a pretty competitive person. I love winning (and not in the Charlie Sheen sense!). There’s nothing quite like a prospect choosing to work with us over another firm. The drive to keep “winning” exciting clients motivates me to work harder, smarter and better.