As part of our ongoing conversations with the masters of spin, we’re finding out how the best public relations agents carved out niche markets and built their own small empires. This week we’re chatting with some of the top PR people who work for themselves.
Among a certain crowd in San Francisco, PR guru Claudia Ross, founder of Cross Marketing, has become something like family. The who’s who tend to turn to Claudia when they need to throw a fashion show or launch a new product, a trust she’s earned over the years. And what’s even more impressive is that reporters will come to her for stories. She’s reached the point in her career where both her clients and the journalists she connects them to, are checking in with her to get a pulse on the city’s evolving scene.
Claudia recently expanded her company when she partnered up with Tiffany Cummins, a PR whiz with over 20 years of experience under her belt. They chatted with us about their challenges, their wins, and how entrepreneurship has helped them live a more balanced life.
Bluevine: How did you get into PR?
Claudia: As an avid donor and volunteer for the arts, I was involved in the San Francisco Ballet Auxiliary. Since the organization knew I worked at two fashion magazines (as a Sales Director) they assumed I knew PR and could get press. How hard could it be? I assumed I just needed to sell our story to the editors. At the time I was friends with a few celebrities, invited them to our opening gala and there it began. The San Francisco Ballet Gala was covered around the world. It became obvious that the power of celebrity, sales and philanthropy were all a good match for me.
Tiffany: When attending St. Mary’s College of California I started interning for 20th Century Fox at DDB Needham in San Francisco. I was extremely lucky to have an amazing mentor at the agency. Quickly I realized that PR was a passion of mine. I was hired while I was a senior in college carrying a light load as an assistant publicist for 20th Century Fox at DDB Needham. From growing within the company from an assistant publicist to a publicist I learned all aspects of publicity from the ground up. I then moved to McCann-Erickson to start the publicity arm for Sony Pictures Entertainment in San Francisco and Los Angeles also covering Salt Lake City and Denver.
Bluevine: When did you open your company?
Claudia: I started Cross Marketing 10 years ago. Having worked in the publishing business for 15 years, I knew that moving to New York City was not an option for my family so I decided to open my own boutique agency that used my marketing skills from being at Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire. In any entrepreneurial role, you have to use your sales skills. Any business, at its core, is sales.
Tiffany: I recently moved from Chicago where I had my own PR Company TRC & Associates for five years. After taking a break to raise my children I decided to get back into PR, but during this time I always had my toe in the business. I joined Cross Marketing PR in SF recently upon returning back to San Francisco after nine years in Chicago.
Bluevine: Who were your first clients and how did you find them?
Claudia: Many of my first clients were my existing clients from working at the magazines. One event led to another and it became a referral business. Do good work, build a reputation and watch your career take off. Some of my first clients were the San Francisco Ballet, Louis Vuitton and Goyard.
Bluevine: Why did you start your own company instead of working for someone else?
Claudia: As a working mother and the daughter of a working mother, I knew how challenging it could be to be present when you need to be; parent/teacher conferences, sports, homework. I wanted to have the flexibility that my mother never had. She was an international sales executive and was away a lot. I now work 40 plus, but on my own schedule. I don’t work less, just more efficiently.
I recently brought on a partner who is my mirror image of work ethic, motherhood, play and drive. Adding a partner has allowed us to follow our dreams, build an even stronger business and pursue the entrepreneurial side that we both have.
Tiffany: I always had a passion for PR. My trusted mentor, Mike Vollman, now head of Global Marketing for Lucas Films steered me in the right direction to start my own PR company. My first client was a national finance client out of Chicago and they gave me my start. Completely different from the PR I knew, film. I enjoyed it very much and this business client was a great challenge for me that I wanted to tackle.
As a mother of three, I feel like I’ve meant my match. I am very fortunate to have met Claudia and to go into business with her. We share the same work ethic, and values and most of all we get things accomplished while having fun and sharing the passion of PR together. The clients that we represent fit our personal beliefs and passions.
Bluevine: Any bumps along the road?
Claudia: On December of 2008, I had 10 employees. Some with families and I swore to them that they would not lose their jobs. We were losing business left and right as everyone was trying to see what the fallout would be of the recession. I went through all my reserves just to make payroll. It hurt me finically and emotionally.
Tiffany: After losing one big client after they decided to take it in house, it hurt the company financially.
Bluevine: How did you overcome them?
Claudia: After 10 months of keeping it together, I realized that I just needed to pair down and start over. I had to let go of most of my staff (thankfully they understood and we are all still great friends), and with an assistant I started over, building strategically and charging a lot more.
Bluevine: What’s different about how you handle PR versus other firms?
Claudia: It’s interesting. As a small firm, we go up against large-scale PR agencies for business. My partner, Tiffany Cummins and I are equally skilled with a diverse but strong background that positions us with great strength and knowledge. We have partners in all the major cities and there has not been a job that we have not been able to tackle and succeed.
Bluevine: Who are some of the clients for whom you’ve gotten huge press? How did you do it?
Claudia: We have worked with Banana Republic, The Viceroy Hotel Group, Restoration Hardware and Popchips to name a few and have been successful in landing PR in everything rom Vogue, CNN and the Wall Street Journal.
It takes work (lots of it), perseverance and relationships. Do not take no; this isn’t a right fit as an answer. We are in PR. It’s how you spin it.
Bluevine: Tips for anyone just starting out?
Claudia: Have a mentor. Do not be afraid to fail. Learn from your mistakes. Love what you do. Have a great partner.
Tiffany: Running a company is so much more than excelling in your core service. On a day-to-day basis your role can shift from Business development to managing staff, to, of course, publicity. You have to be a multi-tasker and understand all aspects of the business. Instead of having a slew of clients, taking on your clients and doing it well is very crucial. Find a trusted mentor and know how you will stand out from your competition.