When she made the switch from the corporate world to the agency side, Barbara Wellnitz, APR, Fellow PRSA, thought that it would be a short-lived experience. Thirty years later Wellnitz still enjoys agency life and helping clients meet their business objectives. Today, Wellnitz is co-founder and senior counsel at Ryan Wellnitz & Associates (RW&A), a marketing public relations, business-to-business communications, and investor relations firm.
Wellnitz shared the ins and outs to her career path with PRSA Boston as well as some helpful lessons for young PR pros that she wished she knew when embarking on her professional trek.
PRSA Boston: What was your first job in the industry? How did you end up in your current position?
Barbara Wellnitz: I’ve been in the public relations business – the business of public relations – for more than 30 years and counting. After a couple of years as a newspaper reporter, a half dozen as a technical editor, and then communications department manager at a Fortune 500 company, I sought a position at a large, national public relations agency (what was then Creamer Dickson Basford). I approached this with a “now or never” outlook, figuring I’d get a solid grounding in the profession and would return to the corporate world in a year or two. That was 1984. Here I am, still in agency life, and enjoying the counselor role that goes with addressing communications challenges. I’ve spent my career in B2B public relations, with some forays into public affairs.
After a decade, ending as president of the public relations division of a New England ad agency, I struck out on my own in 1994 (thanks to a call from a client I first started working with in 1984). From the start, I collaborated with a former Creamer Dickson Basford colleague, who also had opened an independent practice about the same time I did. Not long afterward, we merged our businesses into Ryan Wellnitz & Associates (RW&A). A couple of years ago, I assumed the role of (part-time) senior counselor at RW&A. I now spend the bulk of my time working with a number of non-profits – and serving on a couple of those boards – leading search committees, doing strategic planning, and moderating forums.
PRSA Boston: What do you love most about being in PR?
Barbara Wellnitz: This business has given me the opportunity to learn about new products, services, technologies, issues, manufacturing, and business processes in a number of sectors from medical devices to manufacturing processes, from application software to financial services, and issues in education from adult literacy to college ratings. It is extremely rewarding to help clients meet their business objectives. I’ve also met and worked with some very smart people, on both the agency and client side.
PRSA Boston: What has been a memorable experience?
Barbara Wellnitz: I managed the Rhode Island adult literacy campaign sponsored by a financial services client to help its business clients address the issue of illiteracy among the workforce through worksite literacy programs, as well as raise awareness among legislators of the high incidence of adult illiteracy and its impact on business productivity. Over the course of the first year, 25 worksite literacy programs were established among small businesses throughout the state, the number of volunteer tutors increased by 50%, and state funding for various literacy programs increased by 100%. Attending the GED-graduation ceremony for the first group of worksite literacy students made me appreciate the impact public relations can have on people’s lives, and resulted in my ongoing interest in public policy issues.
If I may cite a second, very different experience: Years ago, the agency I worked for had what appeared to be a terrific opportunity to help a new client launch a new business. I was going to work on the account. A couple of us expressed concerns about the business ethics of this prospect to the agency head and my then-manager (who later became my business partner). They agreed we could dig into the prospect’s background. The result: We didn’t pursue the account. The agency clearly demonstrated the value of ethics over income, and I learned to pay attention to my gut instincts.
PRSA Boston: What are some of the biggest changes within the industry that have occurred?
Barbara Wellnitz: “Googling” a person, issue, or company replaced long hours at newspaper “morgues,” the repository at newspaper offices where hardcopy clips and film were stored. (That’s how we researched the prospect noted above.) And, of course, email enabled us to transmit documents to clients quickly, replacing first-class mail and fax transmittals, and making deadlines tighter and turnaround times shorter. A lot of changes occurred in a short period – all of which made our tasks easier and our jobs more intense. They also enabled us to focus more on strategic planning and the objectives we are trying to achieve. And, perhaps not to push “send” too quickly!
PRSA Boston: What do you think the future holds for the PR industry and its professionals?
Barbara Wellnitz: I think there is increasing respect for those of us in the public relations profession, because we have demonstrated the business value of what we do. More and more of our colleagues are now in the so-called “C-suite,” or – on the agency side – sought for their expertise. Much of this business partnership, I think, is due to the initiatives by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) to include public relations training in university MBA programs, and to the number of our colleagues who earn master’s or MBA degrees. I also hope the future brings fewer times when I hear “PR” being used as a pejorative term. I think we ourselves might consider saying “public relations,” rather than “PR” more often!
PRSA Boston: What is the number one recommendation you would give to new public relations professionals?
Barbara Wellnitz: Read – a lot – on a multitude of topics, issues, people. It goes without saying that we read the journals important to our clients, but extracurricular reading enables us to connect the dots that often lead to new ideas that we can apply to our clients’ businesses. I think intellectual curiosity remains the mark of the most successful practitioners.
PRSA Boston: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Barbara Wellnitz: In what other business can we learn so much about so many things and meet – and work with – so many interesting people? I don’t ever plan to “retire.”