Almost four years ago when I started by my business one of the first people that reached out to me was Shelli Lissick. Shelli and I had gone to school together at Winona State University and both worked in the PR field. She introduced me to her friends, and business partners, Brian and Jen Bellmont, who owned a firm named Bellmont Partners. We started working together on a client engagement soon after. And, we continue to work together on a couple different client to this day. They’ve been invaluable partners–not just on the client side, but in terms of understanding how to run a business. I’m most certain I would not be where I am today without the help and encouragement from Brian, Jen and Shelli. I owe a lot to these three–and I’m happy to help share their story with you today, as real PR Rock Stars.
Bellmont Partners is a small PR agency based in Prior Lake. I like to give you guys grief that you’re based in northern Iowa. But, in all honesty, some people may not have heard of your fantastic shop. Can you tell us a little bit more about BP PR?
BRIAN: Not everyone breaks out into hives when they cross the Minnesota River, Arik. But you’re right – we’re about 25 minutes from downtown Minneapolis, in lovely Prior Lake. We’re a six-person agency, with expertise in everything from PR strategy and planning to media relations and digital/social media to writing, special events and video production. We’ve got consumer and B-to-B clients of various sizes all over the country, in just about every industry you can imagine. And the lake is just a few minutes from our office.
Brian, you and Jen started the agency years ago. Then, you brought Shelli on board. And over the past year you brought on a few more staffers to round out the team (Bridget Nelson Monroe, Tara Cegla and Sheri O’Meara, plus several freelancers). Talk a little about how your agency grew from the ground up.
BRIAN: I hung out a shingle in 1996, after working as a TV reporter and producer, and then for a couple of PR agencies — including Weber Shandwick, where the three of us partners met. Jen joined in 2001 – we got married the same year. And Shelli started freelancing for us in 2001, and came aboard full-time in 2008. Since the beginning, we’ve focused on careful, thoughtful measured growth. We don’t hire for a specific position, but look for talented, passionate people who fit well with our culture and the way we work. Bridget, Tara and Sheri are excellent examples. In fact, we’re looking for experienced people with PR and digital backgrounds as we speak.
You had a big year last year. You hired your first full-time employees, moved into a new office building, and brought on a number of new clients. Talk a bit about how you made that decision and how it’s already impacted the firm.
JEN: We did take some major steps last year – not the least of which was planting our flag with office space. We’d been working from our respective homes for so long, it was quite a change, but it’s definitely been the right move and created a whole new energy for our team.
We have an open office that functions a little like a newsroom – we always know what everyone’s working on and can easily throw out questions for collaboration. What’s especially great is we continue to work well semi-virtually, too. It’s important to us to be flexible enough to let our team members work from home or another location whenever they want to – they’re from all corners of the Twin Cities — so sometimes it just makes more sense not to come into the office, especially on particularly nasty winter days.
SHELLI: Having an office does add credibility to what we do in the eyes of some clients, and I think more importantly it gives us a comfortable home base to work from. And there aren’t many Twin Cities agencies who can claim they have the penthouse suite of the only skyscraper in town (OK, it’s only three stories, but still). We enjoy inviting both current and prospective clients down to our little corner of the Twin Cities – they’re always surprised to find how close it really it is. While it was a huge, somewhat nerve-racking step at the time, we definitely made the right choice – investing in space and good people has led to more growth.
As a small agency without a devoted “new business” person, how do you go about attracting new clients? What do you do in terms of marketing for your own firm?
BRIAN: We’ve been really lucky to grow our business almost exclusively through word of mouth. We try to do work we can be proud of, and work hard to go over and above. And our clients have made it clear that they appreciate what we’re doing by referring other companies to us. We’ve worked with some companies like Midwest Dairy Association and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, to name a few, for almost a decade – it’s been great.
JEN: We’re a classic case of the shoemaker’s children having no shoes. We spend so much energy on our clients’ marketing, that we haven’t focused nearly as much on our own. We like to keep our heads down and focus on our clients’ goals and objectives, and we’ve been fortunate to achieve some really great results for them. That said, with our growth, we’ve been able to spend a little time sharing our work with others through traditional and social media, and plan to do more as we continue to grow.
You all met at Weber Shandwick years ago—what are your individual backgrounds and how do those skill sets and backgrounds mesh with the rest of the team. And, how does it all contribute to your clients’ successes?
SHELLI: All of us are writers – that’s a key element that everybody we work with brings to the table. Brian has written everything from celebrity interviews to restaurant reviews, and co-authored a book last year called Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? — the sequel is coming out next summer. Sheri has edited several magazines, most recently Minnesota Business, and authored a series of books. Bridget used to write for Reader’s Digest.
But from there, we all branch out in a million directions, and that’s what I think really benefits our clients. Brian is often called upon to produce videos. As Director of Digital and Social Media, Bridget spends a good portion of her time leading our clients’ online efforts. Jen is spectacular at leading client engagement and special events. I lead our media relations efforts. Tara is our utility player, concentrating on everything from media relations to special events to social media. And Sheri is our newest team member, and already putting her experience as an editor and project manager to work.
While creativity is key, we always work to align creative ideas with our client’s business goals, focusing on delivering results. Most of our clients are of a size that we get to see the direct impact our work has on their business. That’s one of the exciting benefits of working with a smaller agency.
As a small agency, you help clients with all facets of PR—media relations, community relations, digital, Web. You name it. My question: How do you stay on top of it all with a team of just six?
BRIAN: It can be a challenge – we try not to overextend ourselves. I think there are a lot of efficiencies in approaching each client’s marketing from a holistic point of view. The variety is what keeps us energized, and it helps that each of the partners has 15 or more years of experience, so we know how to juggle. When need be, we partner with other experts we know and trust, which helps us meet our clients’ goals while also helping us to stay nimble. We are also tactic-agnostic, and aren’t afraid to suggest a strategy or approach that we believe will generate great results. We try to break down silos whenever we can and take an integrated approach. So far, it’s really paying off.
Finally, what’s next for Bellmont Partners PR? Do you see yourself growing into a midsized agency down the road? Or, are you planning to stay small and a bit more nimble?
JEN: I think we’ll always be smaller – and definitely do everything possible to stay nimble. But there’s a lot of room for growth. We’re continuing to look for talented people to join our team, and whether that’s two or three more people or 10 more people remains to be seen based on our clients’ evolving needs. Either way, it’s an exciting time to be working in this industry and we look forward to achieving this year’s goals for our clients and then determining what comes next.
Reprising a post I ran last year that highlighted 7 millennial PR pros to watch here in the Twin Cities area. This year, I thought we’d go national and look at 15 PR pros to keep your eye on in the year ahead. With a twist.
Since I didn’t want this to be a baseless list post, I thought we’d put some meaningful context around it. So, I’m providing my input on local folks I have first-hand experience with–either through my work with ACH Communications, or volunteer efforts through HAPPO, MN Blogger Conference and other opportunities. The other rub: These folks are all under 30. To round out the list, I’ve also asked some friends and colleagues across the country for their recommendations–same rules apply. They must have first-hand knowledge of their work. So, basically, this list has some teeth–and credibility.
Take a peek at the 15 up-and-coming PR pros to watch in 2012:
Sarah Reckard, Select Comfort
Yes, Sarah’s a client. So you could say this one’s a bit biased, and you’d be right. But, it’s not because she’s a client. It’s because she’s a rock star. She’s ambitious (she’s currently pursuing her MBA). She’s smart. And, she’s a fantastic partner. What more could you ask for in an employee/client? (Recommended by Arik Hanson; Note: The other Sarah I work with–Sarah Panus–at Select Comfort is pretty darn smart, too. But alas, she’s not under 30.)
Lauren Melcher, Weber Shandwick
The first time I met Lauren, I could have swore she was 32. OK, now she’s going to kill me. But, that’s a testament to her maturity and the way she presents herself in a meeting. And, that’s huge when you’re consulting for a firm with the clout and reputation of Weber Shandwick. I worked with Lauren as she headed up last year’s MIMA Summit here in the Twin Cities, which went off tremendously well, under her guidance and leadership. Just a fantastically smart woman all-around. Shandwick’s lucky to have her (and I think they know it). (Recommended by Arik Hanson)
Ellen Hudson, Braun Intertec
Another client–and another smart young woman. After spending some time at Weber Shandwick, Ellen decided to try her hand at the corporate side. And, in working with her, I might say she’s found a great fit. Ellen’s a great leader–but she’s also a good collaborator. That’s a nice mix for a younger professional. And, one that will help her along the way in the years ahead. (Recommended by Arik Hanson)
Amanda Oleson, Magnet Street
Before Amanda landed her current job at Magnet Street, she did some subcontracting work for me. Her work was always on time. It was clean. And it was error-free. Truth be told, I liked Amanda from the moment I met her a few years ago. Maybe it’s our common passion for the Vikings. Maybe it’s because she’s down to earth. Or, maybe it’s just because she’s a pro who actually delivers on her promises. Time and time again. Whatever the case, I think she has a pretty bright future. (Recommended by Arik Hanson)
Jillian Froehlich, Target
I’ve known Jillian now for probably five years. In that time, I’ve watched her grown from an AE at Carmichael Lynch Spong to a leader for the social media team at one of the larger Fortune 100 companies in town. And, that hasn’t surprised me at all. I met Jillian while co-chairing a MN PRSA committee a number of years ago and we’ve become good friends since then. Jillian is smart. Ambitious. And, she’s a joiner (like me). But, I think what I most respect about Jillian is her honesty. She’s never been afraid to ask for advice. She’s humble (and not entitled in the least). And, in my opinion, she goes about her business the right way. That’s a solid combination that will serve her well at a company like Target. (Recommended by Arik Hanson)
Bridget Monroe, Bellmont Partners
There are lots of reasons I think Bridget has a bright future. Unique skill set. Joiner at heart. And, she’s a great writer. Like Lauren, I highlighted Bridget’s good work earlier this year as part of the PR Rock Stars series. I work closely with Bridget now on a few different clients, and she not only delivers on promises and hits deadlines routinely–she’s consistently raising the bar for quality work. (Recommended by Arik Hanson).
Stacey Acevero, Vocus/PRWeb
Stacey Acevero is social media manager at Vocus and PRWeb. She’s the heart and soul behind the popular #prwebchat. She personifies young PR pros who bridge from traditional PR to social media. She recognizes the need for listening backed up by a willingness to make things happen with any number of new social media tools. Her attitude is usually “Why not?” Definitely a PR 2.0 pro to watch. You’ll find her blogging at PRWeb making thing happen at #prwebchat or @sacevero on Twitter. (Recommended by Jeff Domansky)
Lauren Gray, student
Lauren Gray is a senior at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, majoring in Communication with a concentration in Public Relations and minoring in Marketing and Leadership. Lauren, who is also Vice President of Public Relations at PRSSA and the National Director of PR and Marketing for the WCU Student Government Association (recommended by Deirdre Breakenridge)
Harrison Kratz, MBA@UNC
Harrison Kratz is a social entrepreneur who is passionate about the responsibility of empowering others to do good in the new world of social communication. Harrison is the founder of Tweet Drive, a global social good campaign dedicated to using social media to collect toys for under-privileged children. He’s also the community manager for
@MBAatUNC and the founder of #SoGoodChat (recommended by Deirdre Breakenridge)
Tyler Orchard, Parliament of Canada
While Tyler is in Canada, they’re our sister country so I think he should be included. A political communication rockstar, he’s quickly making a name for himself in the social space because of his really smart blog, at Talking Points (recommended by Gini Dietrich).
Mikinzie Stuart, Peppercom
Mikinzie Stuart needs no introduction. She’s a young superstar who took the bull by the horns and got herself a job in New York City, so she could leave the Midwest and get some different experience. She isn’t afraid to try new things and, if she finds some results, recommend them to clients (recommended by Gini Dietrich).
Molli Megasko, Arment Dietrich
This one is a little bit selfish because Molli Megasko works for me, but she has been with Arment Dietrich since she graduated from college and has found herself rapidly climbing the ladder. In the most recent months, clients have told me working with her is like working with me. She is forward-thinking, she doesn’t wait for direction, and she’s willing to take some risk. I call her “Mini-Me” (recommended by Gini Dietrich)
Nicole Weaver, iostudio
The truest test of a talented PR pro is to take them out of their comfort zone. In just a few short weeks, Nicole Weaver left the New York fashion PR scene to join iostudio in Washington, DC. To launch their PR services, Nicole translated her high-fashion career to the fast casual restaurant and non-profit scene, while being a PR evangelist at her new agency, which had never had an in-house public relations pro before. She proved in 2011 that she is a versatile, skilled professional – and one to watch in 2012 (recommended by Mike Schaffer).
Veronica Brown, Gibraltar Associates
A vice president at top pubic affairs firm Gibraltar Associates, Veronica Brown is a leader in the Washington, DC, PR community. She has gained executive-level respect from high-level clients at such a young age by being excellent at her job, day-in and day-out. Veronica is the secretary of Washington Women in PR (WWPR), a regular attendee of the DC Flacks Meetup group, among other associations, making her one of the most visible, influential presences in the industry (recommended by Mike Schaffer).
Lizzie Younkin, i.d.e.a.
Senior Reputation Manager at i.d.e.a., Lizzie Younkin has risen through the ranks continually impressing management with her strategic thinking, calm demeanor and fantastic client counsel. She is a strong communicator with killer media relationships. Through the years Lizzie has secured placements in almost every major local, regional and national outlet for her clients. She is creative in her thinking and a strong mentor and coach to her team (recommended by Indra Gardiner).
Anyone you’d add? Share in the comments (make sure to include WHY!).
I met Bridget Monroe this summer for the first time at a coffee shop near my home. I had known “of” Bridget through my friends at Beehive PR (a firm I’ve worked for in the past), where she had worked for a spell in 2010-2011. Bridget was working for herself when I met her and in chatting, seemed to have a unique skill set of part PR professional, part publisher/writer and part digital consultant. It’s a pretty rare skill set–and let me tel you, as someone who’s constantly looking for talent locally here in Minneapolis/St. Paul, there’s not a lot of Bridgets walking around (not at that level of experience, at least). And that’s what impressed me most about Bridget–her blend of skills. In fact, I was so impressed, I hired her (kind of). Bridget’s now working with me as a contractor, and as a full-time employee with a key partner of mine, Bellmont Partners. But, I’ll let her tell you more of her story…
You recently accepted a new role working with Bellmont Partners (Disclosure: Bellmont Partners is a key partner of ACH Communications) and my firm, ACH Communications. You’re a couple weeks in—what have you enjoyed about working for and with two very small firms so far?
Being part of small agencies is fabulous. What I like most – besides the people, of course – is how truly integrated the work is at all levels. With a small team, it’s easy to switch seamlessly from media relations mode to social media mode to blogging mode and keep the client’s strategy and messaging consistent across platforms. There are no silos to break down or unnecessary processes to hurdle, which frees up everyone to work quickly and creatively.
You started your career on the publishing side of the house, and then moved over to the PR/marketing side. What inspired that transition? And what do you miss most about the publishing business?
Digital, digital, digital. I had been a research editor at Reader’s Digest for about a year when I became fascinated with what was happening in digital publishing and social media (this was just as brands were beginning to use Facebook and Twitter in a structured way). I did everything I could to learn more. Outside of work, I volunteered for a nonprofit, running its website and social media, teaching myself HTML, content management systems and social media best practices along the way. At work, I stepped way outside my job description and sought out the web editors and interactive marketing team to see how we could collaborate on things like the magazine’s Facebook and Twitter presence and its first iPhone app. At the time, many magazines still kept print and web operations very separate, but luckily my boss was always supportive of what I did.
After three years at Reader’s Digest, I was ready to jump into digital 100 percent and made the move to Digitas Health, which was looking for people with publishing backgrounds to manage content-rich lifestyle websites for pharmaceutical clients. From there, I shifted into PR, and now, the lines between publishing, marketing and PR are so wonderfully blurred that I get to do it all every day.
What I do miss about working in journalism is the unpredictability and carte blanche to call up virtually anyone and – depending who they were – grill them, sweet talk them, pick their brains, get hung up on or listen to them cry over a lost loved one…all of which could and did happen within the same day or hour when I worked at Reader’s Digest. I had so many random, mind-blowing conversations that ran the gamut from a NASA scientist to a Kennedy to best-selling authors to small-town sheriffs to survivors of war and natural disasters. Once, I was interviewing a woman who ran a safe house for victims of human trafficking (mainly former teen prostitutes) when there was suddenly a commotion and she said, “I’m going to have to call you back, there’s a pimp here who’s trying to kidnap one of my girls who used to work for him.” I can’t say anything like that has happened in the time I’ve been working in marketing and PR.
You’re pretty active in your professional development. You volunteer for MIMA. You’re a co-organizer of the Minneapolis Content Strategy Meet-Up. And you were on the planning committee for the 2011 MN Blogger Conference. Why do you choose to spend so much of your “free time” volunteering for these organizations and events?
In this industry, there’s always something to learn. That’s one reason I’m pretty involved in industry organizations. The other reason is that when I moved back to the Twin Cities last year, I needed a way to meet people in marketing and communications. What better way than to join committees and attend events? As I quickly discovered, the Minnesota communications community is quite fond of throwing conferences, happy hours, meetups, tweetups, panels, breakfasts and anything else that gets two or more people in a room talking. I knew a lot of people in no time, thanks to the hyper-active community here!
As a blogger, you use the Tumblr platform. Overall, I see so many more advertising folks using Tumblr vs. PR folks (interesting development, by the way). Why did you choose that platform over WordPress, Typepad, SquareSpace and other platforms? What do you see as Tumblr’s biggest advantages over those other tools?
Back when I was at Reader’s Digest and trying to learn as much as I could about digital publishing, I took a class on digital media at NYU. My instructor was Mark Coatney, who started the Newsweek Tumblr account and now works for Tumblr. He had everyone in the class start a Tumblr. At the time, I had never heard of it and didn’t know anyone else who was on it.
Now that I’ve used Tumblr for a few years, there are a couple of things about it that keep me hooked. The first is that it blends elements of blogging and Twitter – there’s a feed, so you can follow and reblog others’ posts – it’s a fantastic curation tool. (I use it to capture content that reflects the changing communications field.) The second is that I love to see what media entities are doing with Tumblr. It’s very experimental right now, which is exciting. And sometimes it seems like the staff of these outlets have gone rogue, or no higher-ups are watching what they’re posting. Traditionally old-school, serious publications post surprisingly tongue-in-cheek content – stuff you won’t see on their Twitter feeds or Facebook pages. It can get very “overheard in the newsroom.”
You’ve also founded a small business, Mediamazing, with your husband that focuses on video and digital marketing services. How has that experience prepared and helped you in our roles with Beehive PR and now, Bellmont Partners, locally?
Not surprisingly, owning a business has made me more business-minded in everything that I do. Having that business-owner perspective gives me another lens to view strategies and tactics through at the agencies that have employed me. It’s made me even more mindful of how time and money are spent and how efficiently outcomes can be reached for clients. It’s also helped me think at a big-picture level more and ensure that every tactic aligns to a larger client goal. In short, I ask (even) more “Why?” questions now.
Mediamazing’s services span a few mediums – video, websites and social media – so it’s also strengthened my integrated approach to client work. In particular, I think video is going to become increasingly important in the PR world, so I’m stoked that I have that in my toolkit. Brian Bellmont, the president of Bellmont Partners, is a former TV news reporter and producer and has always included video production in the agency’s services – pretty unique in the PR industry. I can’t wait to collaborate on video projects.
You’re a Drake graduate (December 2006 grad). For such a small school, we certainly have a lot of folks working in the digital realm here in Minneapolis (Greg Swan, Kasey Skala and Melissa Berggren come to mind). What is it about Drake that’s producing these high-caliber digital PR/marketing pros?
It could be something in the Hubbell Dining Hall food or the Relays Street Painting fumes. In all seriousness, I don’t know if it’s the type of people Drake attracts, or the Drake experience, or a combination of the two, but the Drake alums I’ve met in the Twin Cities are without exception sharp, kind people at the top of their games. When I moved back to the Twin Cities and cold-tweeted a few them, every single one of them went out of their way to meet with me and offer advice.
I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience at Drake, but my professors in the journalism school were amazing. They were sought-after professionals in their field, forward-thinking (always important during a time of major transformation in an industry) and really, really cared about their students. I still email with them and follow what they’re doing on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s clear they get the changing world of communications and are upending their curriculum every year to keep pace. I mean, the magazine students created an iPad app last year instead of a print magazine. How many other colleges are doing that?