By Erin Grafton
“If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.”
This quote – a favorite saying of her mother’s – summarizes Helen Shelton’s secret to success. She understands that hard work and determination will get you farther than luck alone. Or rather, that we are all responsible for making our own luck. “Every job I’ve gotten is because I’ve asked for it,” says Helen, in addition to being qualified and prepared to rise to new challenges. “People need to just go for what they want to do.”
Helen credits her parents as the most influential force in her approach to both life and business, and with such wise words it’s easy to see why they were so impactful. Ms. Shelton learned many formative lessons from her parents, including the idea that “when you have a seat at the table, you better bring more than your appetite” (Spector & Spector, 2018, p. 262). Throughout her career, Helen has used her seat at the table to level the PR playing field for others, working from the highest levels to make the industry a more inclusive one.
Ms. Shelton’s definition of diversity is simple yet profound: diversity is putting the reality of what our world is into practice, meaning that a company’s make-up should match that of the real world and represent a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. She believes that the onus is on all of us to embrace the reality of our increasingly diverse world by celebrating our common humanity.
Helen’s definition of inclusion means embracing and respecting our increasingly diverse world by welcoming others whom are different from us, and creating an environment where everyone’s perspective is valued. Diversity and inclusion are currently hot button issues in the PR industry, and Ms. Shelton believes that we’ve made great progress – particularly in the last five years. However, there are still gains to be made, and while the PR industry has been at the forefront of D&I, it’s time to go a step further; there is still important work to be done.
Helen Shelton began her career in PR at the legendary KISS FM radio station while receiving her master’s degree in communication at Boston University. From there Helen headed (mid)west, where she worked for the City of Chicago’s Cultural Affairs Department, helping to promote the city’s vast arts and culture programming. Helen’s legacy from her time working for Mayor Richard M. Daley touches many aspects of Chicago’s culture and the city still benefits from her work (Spector & Spector, 2018, p.266). Many of her projects are still among Chicago’s cultural touchstones, including the Taste of Chicago and Millennium Park.
Next, Helen was appointed to the Human Resources Development Institute (HRDI). Although Helen was dragged into healthcare PR somewhat unwillingly, she has risen to the challenge with aplomb. In this role she became the architect of communicating with people of color regarding several health issues, including diabetes, obesity, and hypertension (Spector & Spector, 2018, p. 269). And Helen still found a way to bring her passion for the arts into health communication, orchestrating a tour featuring gospel singer Yolanda Adams which was sponsored by Novartis. This fusion of healthcare PR and music is a prime example of how arts and culture infuse all of Ms. Shelton’s work.
The arts bring us together, making it a prime way to promote diversity and inclusion through greater cultural understanding. In Helen’s words, “everyone, every culture, has a connection to artistic expression – it’s a bridge” (Museum of PR, 2019).
Helen is currently a senior partner at Finn Partners in New York City, where she heads “Actions Speak Louder,” its diversity and inclusion program, and is its multicultural marketing lead. She handles both internal and external facing D&I initiatives – Finn Partners’ commitment to putting the reality of diversity into practice truly extends across the world, and it aims to be standard bearers for the industry. And in fact, it is one of the most diverse agencies in the world, with 22 to 23 percent of their employees identifying as a minority group (making them double the national average, which is around 11 percent).
Ms. Shelton’s advice for young professionals entering the PR world is to be flexible, willing to learn, and able to take direction. One of the strengths of working in PR is the ability to work where your interests lie, as Helen has been able to accomplish by incorporating her love of the arts into many areas of her career. She has also been able to keep her focus on diversity front and center, truly pushing the needle forward through her work at Finn Partners. As Helen’s mom says, if it’s meant to be (and diversity and inclusion truly are) it’s up to all of us to make it happen.
Erin Grafton is a Master’s candidate in health communication at DePaul University with a passion for healthcare PR. A recovering comedian, she lives in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago with her husband.