Rita Hoey Dragonette
I’ve always felt public relations is a career that many people fall into inadvertently. And, that our circuitous career paths are often indicative of the type of relentless personality it takes to make it, particularly in the agency business.
I wanted to write, but knew I needed to make a living. I started at Northern Illinois University on a nursing scholarship (another story), bolted from that sophomore year to try journalism, left the first month when a “J” teacher said he’d show us how to get away with slander, and ended up the English major I wanted to be all along.
Upon graduation, at the recommendation of the older sister of a friend of my boyfriend, I joined Commerce Clearing House in Chicago as a proofreader for law documents (truly the definition of boredom). I soon escaped to Iowa City, hoping to last a year working in a Burger Chef. The plan was to establish residency and enter the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at more affordable, in-state tuition rates. However, after a few months I couldn’t take the grease and my status as a “townie.”
While looking for a job back in Chicago, I took on a temp assignment for Kelly Girl. I was told I had “virtually nonexistent” secretarial skills and was sent to stuff envelopes at Serra International, a male-only organization with a mission to encourage men to join the priesthood. I whipped through the assignment at breakneck speed due to my experience doing something similar all through college, and had time to chat up the office manager. I told him I wanted to be a writer and it turned out he wrote pot-boiler novels on the side. Impressed, he revealed the organization was looking for an editor for their magazine. After a trial article I was hired, though they considered having me change my name on the masthead to the gender neutral “Pat,” a request that was fortunately overruled.
At the magazine I did everything, and therefore had to figure everything out myself, from reporting/writing to page layout, photography, sizing photos, etc. In a few months they ran out of money, but I had six issues of a magazine with my name on them — my first published writing! Now I could go after I real job.
I was referred to the Publicity Club of Chicago’s Job Mart Service. I ended up as the junior member of a two-person PR department of what I thought was a real estate company, but soon discovered was an advertising agency specializing in home builders. Again, I did everything, with only slightly more supervision, including my first media pitching. I hated that instantly, probably because I had to learn only through my mistakes, and I hated to do things less than top notch.
When I felt I’d gained everything I could from that position, I went back to the Job Mart and landed as the sole publicity coordinator for US Gypsum with, again, no supervisor. I was on my own, including having to figure out how to handle a major crisis involving endangered condors in California. When they moved PR under the Art Director and my writing was edited into brochure copy, I knew it was time to move again.
By this stage I knew enough to realize I needed to go somewhere where I could learn FROM someone, preferably the best, and arrived at Edelman. It was a job I almost didn’t get because I told the recruiter I was making $2,500 more than I actually was. Fortunately, the agency was impressed enough with how I’d handled the condor crisis to overlook my inflated salary request of $17,500.
This was my breakthrough. I was to use my real estate and building products experience on what was to become the agency’s first million-dollar client, Dow Chemical, in a group that would report directly to the President of Edelman. It was on this account I learned the zero-based strategic approach I’ve used throughout my career. I also learned I loved and was really good at public relations….all but the media pitching of course.
- Began as account executive at Edelman and progressed to a position as the agency’s youngest SVP (at the time), in charge of the agency’s largest account group. As the Dow Chemical account grew, the client pushed for expanded services beyond traditional PR and we complied. This was an amazing experience with Dow’s best and brightest. (8 years)
- Convinced of the viability of a multi-layered offering, left Edelman to serve as co-founder and EVP of Dragonette, Inc., one of the first independent agencies to offer integrated services. The agency was an immediate success, quickly gaining a reputation for real estate/economic development, issues and professional services. We helped to form the Chicago Development Council, represented most of the major developers and projects in the city, launched the “Tie One on For Safety Program” for MADD, and founded Project Access, the first organization to help business comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Named president of Dragonette, Inc. after five years with the charge to expand the agency beyond our initial base. I was able to combine a personal interest in health care with a strategy to target areas that were all about growth. We soon developed a health care capability that succeeded in beating out major agencies to win the coveted Imitrex account for Glaxo, a move that catapulted the agency into the national major leagues. We developed one of the industry’s most respected health care practices, known for highly strategic, creative, results-oriented work. Because of our work and client list, we were an attractive acquisition target throughout our history. (15 years)
- Became president, GCI Dragonette when the agency was acquired by Grey Global Group in l999, a move prompted by a need for global capabilities. The office served as the Midwest linchpin for GCI, Grey’s PR arm, and gained an immediate reputation for effectiveness in cross-network cooperation. This facility resulted in the office more than doubling in size the first year after acquisition, and the award for best office strategic plan in year two. Left agency when buy-out ended in 2003, satisfied I’d climbed sufficient mountains in PR. (2 years)
- Formed Dragonette Consulting in 2004 to offer services in response to demand from former clients (who knew I wasn’t done with the business world), and expanded list of referrals for high-level executive career consulting, coaching and the type of career-long support that is becoming a must-have in today’s world. Services are based upon that same zero-based strategic approach learned on that first major account at Edelman.
- And, I’m finishing my first novel.