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Women in PoweR

Posted At: May 26, 2011 1:18 PM
By  Marissa Stabler

Juliette Harris’ unique fashion statement drew some strange looks as she walked Nick Carter, Denise Rich and La Toya Jackson down the red carpet. It was Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy party — a celebration that, for some, is more anticipated than the Grammys themselves. The BabyB?jorn carrier, which belted the attire of the ITGirl Public Relations CEO, kept the sleeping newborn close to his mother as her celebrity clients posed for the flashing bulbs of the paparazzi.

The self-described “go-to-girl” refused to abandon her client duties, even five days post-childbirth. “Grammys is always an important time for clients, and they really only wanted me, not my staff,” Harris said. “So what do you do? You go!”

Whether wielding success in their profession, family or a world dominated by male executives, one thing is certain for the female heavy hitters of PR: They know how to handle a challenge.

A balancing act

Family and career: It’s not exactly an easy balance for the working mom. The success of the PR industry’s leading ladies, however, is attributed to an adept ability to juggle multiple tasks at a time. These are women who plan — and plan well — a craft practiced in both realms, professional and personal.

Harris, whose past and present ITGirl clients include the likes of Nelly, The Backstreet Boys and Maria Menounos, said she “designed a life” that would allow her to be “creative and fun.” It is a design that combines family, success, travel and hard work — a lot of it.

“I won’t lie; it is very, very difficult, but I planned my life this way on purpose,” said Harris. “I knew that one day I would want a family, so I chose a field where I knew that I would have flexibility. And what I mean by that flexibility is you work your rear end off — don’t anybody mistake that — the difference is … nobody cares where you are if you’re getting results. People [only] care where you are if you are not getting results.”

Wherever Harris is, it is likely her 3-year-old son Stephen is with her. The ITGirl founder and CEO has a personal policy that she will never be away from her son for more than one night. If she has to be away for a longer period of time, she brings Stephen along.

Recently, Harris was on a book tour, promoting the new Days of Our Lives book series based on the iconic soap opera. Accompanying her — as she went city-to-city, orchestrating press, interviews, book signings and events — was her staff, son and a nanny. This summer will be a busy one for the ITGirl CEO and family as Harris opens an ITGirl office in New York City in addition to a new firm, GBKPR.

Claudia Brooks D’Avanzo founded her successful Atlanta PR and marketing agency Creative Communications Consultants in 1998 after 14 years of working for big PR firms. A mother of two, she wanted to find a working style more suitable for her lifestyle, where she could have “more control over [her] personal life.”

“I didn’t necessarily want to run a big company. I just needed the freedom to work and live in the way I wanted to do so,” said D’Avanzo. “It just so happened that my little practice grew and ended up becoming a very small, but elite type of agency in terms of the clients we have.”

The Creative Communications president credits a good support system for her ability to balance career and family. While putting family first was “never really a hard decision” for D’Avanzo and her husband, their course wasn’t a perpetual cakewalk.

“We have both made [career] sacrifices,” said D’Avanzo, who turned down job opportunities that would require the family to relocate. “It was a tough decision, but it was the right one.”

Not all working women face the endeavor of balancing career with motherhood. In 1982 Claudia Patton started the Headline Group, which was later acquired by Edelman, the world’s leading independent PR firm. Patton, one of Atlanta’s top public relations professionals, now serves as president of Edelman’s Southeast region. While some believe the women who make it to the top must be keenly ambitious, and forgo a balance of career and family, Patton said her decision to not have children wasn’t necessarily related to her professional pursuits.

“I’m sure there are women who feel that way — who feel they have an advantage or disadvantage [by not having or having children] … it just wasn’t a choice I wanted to make,” said Patton.

Although the Edelman executive — who heads the firm’s Atlanta and Orlando offices and oversees its eight-state Southeast domain — veered from the parental path, she believes women in her industry are quite capable of shared success in both the career and familial sectors.

Patton adds that the working moms employed by her PR powerhouse exemplify this assertion: “There are a lot of women [with children] that work with [Edelman] that are pretty successful, and they [are still able to] travel the world on behalf of the company.”

A man’s world — or is it?

In a society where male CEOs reign, Harris, D’Avanzo and Patton are among a select few in power positions. And while the public relations workforce has long been predominately female, men hold the majority of its executive roles.

Was gender an obstacle for these women executives?

Harris doesn’t think so. “I don’t really buy into any of that,” the ITGirl said. “I think you get out of this world what you put in and what you ask for.”

Still, a salary gap exists in the industry. D’Avanzo said she experienced some gender discrimination in the dispensation of pay raises and promotions at agencies early in her career. Despite the initial road bumps, D’Avanzo agrees that femininity has its advantages in public relations.

Some have suggested women have skills that mesh better with PR than their male counterparts — the power of persuasion, approachability and a nurturing side that makes people trust their judgments more.

Harris said she would “rather be in a woman’s shoes than a man’s [shoes],” because female charm provides a leg-up on the industry’s male players, who tend to have a more serious demeanor.

“When you’re really young and you happen to be cute … I think women have it way better than men, because you can be flirty and fun — and not by all means, inappropriate or trampy, but really in a fun way,” said Harris. “I think being a fun-loving, warm-hearted woman has worked to my advantage my whole life.”

Perhaps a woman’s leverage is an inborn gift. Creative Communications’ president believes that females possess an instinctive quality that proves handy when dealing with clients.

“I think proverbial female intuition plays really well for you,” said D’Avanzo. “I think you just have a sixth sense of what’s coming before a client might know it, or what a need might be before a client identifies it, or if there is a chink in a relationship with a client, you might sense that early on and make strides to rectify it.”

Patton has an alternative outlook on the gender question, believing it is not an issue that she’s encountered. “It’s really not something that is a focus for me,” said Patton. “I’ve never really seen it as an advantage or disadvantage.”

Presumably, it is an unnoticed trend for the Edelman executive, because her firm is “very evenly distributed” as it relates to gender and those who run the offices. Patton said the agency’s executive committees and leadership teams are “certainly made up of women and men.”

Traits of success

Aside from their undeniable talents for communication, these PR execs share two prevalent traits: the desire for independence and a drive for success that helped them attain it.

Harris likes to have a goal. She likes to make things happen. After all, that’s where her company derived its name. “People were just looking to me to make results happen,” said Harris, who transitioned from sales to events before founding ITGirl. “I realized I was their ‘go-to-girl, their it-girl,’ the person who connects the dots.”

Harris said she is “very independent, very solution-oriented in everything” — invaluable traits in the world of entertainment PR, where most of the work is quick and off the cusp. While ITGirl’s CEO said she is “very good at being aggressive and managing [her] own time,” an issue that drove Harris to start up her own firm was her distaste for work where someone places orders over her head.

“Depending on whom you talk to, somebody would describe me as being ‘extremely driven’ or somebody would call me a ‘bitch,’” said Harris.

A recipe for career success requires spoonfuls of both determination and persistence. After graduating from Auburn University, D’Avanzo wanted to work for the top agency in Atlanta (Manning, Selvage & Lee), but the firm wouldn’t even see the recent grad for an interview because she lacked agency experience. So D’Avanzo, who describes herself as “extremely impatient … very straightforward and free-spirited,” took a job at a small agency and continued to send her résumé back to the top Atlanta firm.

That persistence paid off, and six months later she was hired by Manning, Selvage & Lee, working her way up the agency ladder for the next seven years before going into national communications at Fleishman-Hillard.

“From an early age, I don’t think I really desired to be a business owner as much as I desired to be independent,” said D’Avanzo. “But I also knew that I didn’t know enough; I wasn’t confident, fierce enough to do that on my own.”

D’Avanzo put in her time, and invested 14 years working for large agencies on big accounts with talented people all over the country. Then the time came in 1998 when she was ready to fly the nest.

“I just set out to work in my own way, and [the growth and success of Creative Communications Consultants] came with it, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” said D’Avanzo.

In a field driven by results, successful public relations requires both talent and a strong sense of initiative. Patton was originally unaware that she had a talent for PR. She had worked as an English teacher for several years until one life-altering summer. Between school years, a friend of Patton’s sought the would-be Edelman executive’s writing and networking skills to help him start a business.

It was during that time — as she wrote press releases and planned events for her friend’s young company — Patton not only discovered her own PR gifts, but the challenges and independence that the industry had to offer. She wasted little time. Patton quit her job as a teacher, and (rather than seeking work with an agency) undertook the responsibility of creating her own firm, which quickly grew to large success.

It has been said that you’re only as good as the people around you — an outlook that holds true in the world of public relations. While these female execs search for “good” people to fuel the success of their agencies, such people must also share their own savvy traits.

“[My success comes from] hiring the best people, hiring smart people, surrounding myself with people who are really the best in the business,” said Patton.

Harris looks for her same independence and self-drive in each of her ITGirl employees. And for that, she has a philosophy for each of them: “I feel that I give people enough rope that they can either hang themselves or climb to the top.”

D’Avanzo said her personal and business philosophy is reflected in Creative Communications Consultants’ mission mantra: Do Great Work. Never Stop Learning. Make it Fun!

“I may have written the words,” said D’Avanzo. “But the values are common traits that we look for in the people that we hire … I have high energy. I am very demanding of myself and my team, and I always keep the bar really high for the work we do.”

Power women of the future

Although females are still underrepresented in PR upper management, an estimated 85 percent of the industry is made up of women. Women are the future — the face — of public relations. So what advice do the industry’s current female heavy hitters have for its aspiring leaders?

Harris stresses the power of networking and affability. According to ITGirl’s CEO, every person you meet — whether it’s a receptionist or dry cleaner — is a contact, and each person should know what you do. Harris said that it is important to be “friendly and warm,” because all of these people become your “Rolodex … your livelihood in PR.”

Harris also advises young women to be unconcerned with the gender divide, and to not buy into anything that will hold them back. “You make your own way, and you can have a choice in this world,” said Harris. “You can do what you want to do; you just have to find a way to do it … you just have to want it bad enough.”

Creative Communications’ president communicated that industry success requires more than just intellect and skill. D’Avanzo said young professionals have to “pay their dues” — success doesn’t occur overnight — the essential skills needed to run a firm are gained along the way. D’Avanzo offers the same advice that she gave her daughter, Arielle, a PR undergraduate at the University of Georgia:

“Work really hard, work for the best, invest in yourself — and never stop doing that — and build your skills and experience so that you truly have something to offer,” D’Avanzo said. “Learn how to work well with people on the way, manage and inspire people. … You gotta’ get the best out of others, and make people love to come to work every day and be as dedicated as you.”

Patton, the teacher-turned-firm-founder-turned-Edelman-executive, believes it is critical that an aspiring industry leader be an “influencer.” In order to be a PR heavy hitter, one must have a voice — an opinion — that can make an impact.

“[She should be] working in social media, having a point of view, [putting] out content on a regular basis — I think that’s the future our business,” said Patton.

“And also, someone who wants to be a teacher and a leader, I think, is an important aspect. I think teaching is a great foundation for success.”

Career success. Family success. Gender success. Can we have it all?

Powerful women like Harris, D’Avanzo and Patton are proof that we can.

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