“I won’t work with jerks.” Heather Whaling, PR pro and president of Geben Communications talks about recession proof biz strategies, responsible biz growth and yes, why she won’t work with jerks and how that’s helped her business.
In 2009 Heather Whaling had a decision to make: she and her husband wanted to move to Central Ohio to be closer to family which meant she could either leave her secure, great paying job with a top PR firm in Orlando and begin the tedious process of submitting resumes to local public relations firms or she could start her own firm. Guess which choice won out?
Whaling took her 10 years of PR experience and launched Geben Communications – one of the fastest growing boutique agencies in the area. Within a month of launching, she signed a New York Times Best-Selling author. Her clients have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune Small Business, Entrepreneur Magazine, ReadWriteWeb, TechCrunch, and Web Worker Daily. She a contributor to top tech website Mashable and co-hosts the wildly popular tweetchat PR 2.0 (#PR20) for PR pros and students on Tuesdays from 8 p.m. – 9 p.m. EST.
And she’s done all this without a business plan.
Her Moxie Mix: Favorite Inspirational Quote?
“The only way to silence the voice of self-doubt is to cross the start line.” (Read the backstory to that quote.)
Twitter vs. the Light Bill
Whaling said she was never wanted to own anything, but moving was a perfect opportunity to put her philosophy of fully integrated traditional and digital public relations to the test. She leveraged her skill set and created a PR plan instead of a business plan. Within the plan she included people who would be good referrals. In fact, she said she can trace 75 percent of her business back to online relationships.
“I always joke that Twitter keeps the lights on,” she said. “Referrals make the sales cycle much shorter. It is much easier to go from lead to sale with a referral versus a cold lead. Referrals to Geben often come from people who I initially got to know via Twitter. That’s actually how I connected with Cleveland-based Madison Electric Products. Madison’s marketing director was looking for PR and social media assistance, and asked someone he knew for a recommendation. That person, who I initially met on Twitter, suggested Geben Communication. I went to Cleveland to meet with Madison in person and, not long after, they became a client.”
Those referrals better not include clients with bad attitudes.
“I won’t work with jerks,” Whaling declared. “I am fiercely loyal to people who work for me. I much rather stand up for my employees than keep the client.”
[Read this week’s I Own It: Grow Your Business by Turning Down Business]
The Power of No
Whaling’s “No Jerks” policy comes from both professional experience and her company service philosophy.
She revealed in her company’s early days she had a client that treated both her staff and media relationships poorly. Instead of compromising employee moral and connections invaluable to a public relations firm, she cut the client loose.
“We provide partner-level service,” she said. “The best client relationship is when we have a partnership rather instead of being a just another vendor.”
Her Moxie Mix: Tech/App you can’t live without?
Booming Biz Challenge
Whaling keeps her commitment to partner-level-service at the forefront of her mind as she wrestles with one of her biggest business challenges – growth.
“I just hired my third person,” she said, “and to be honest I should have hired them sooner. Last year we grew 150 percent and we’re on pace to double again this year. I’m still learning when to grow and when it’s time to say we’re maxed out. Growing in a responsible way is a challenge. We’re definitely taking on new projects and I want to continue to provide the high level of service, partner level service, that the clients we have are used to receiving. I’m fortunate to have a variety of smart people that I can turn to for advice. My husband owns his own business. When I need to talk things out, he’s always a helpful sounding board. Beyond him, I’ve learned a lot from people like Keith Speers and Mike Figliuolo. Both have provided incredibly helpful insights and advice, which I greatly appreciate.”
Her Moxie Mix: What are you reading right now?
Mighty Be Our Powers, by Leymah Gbowee
Superior service and a diverse market is Whaling’s secret to starting and growing a PR business in the middle of a recession.
Whaling ensures no one bubble can bust her business by setting limits on how much of her business comes from any one industry and location.
“We do a lot of work with tech companies, which I love, but I make sure no more than 50 percent of our business comes from tech companies,” she said. “We are also geographically diverse. One third of our business is from Central Ohio, the rest is spread throughout the U.S. and London.”
It’s never easy leaving a traditional 9-5, but Whaling proves that having a smart industry plan and staying true to your core business philosophy provides a good foundation for success. In part two of our interview Whaling reveals the biggest PR mistakes businesses make, easy PR strategies business can do right now and how to know when you need to hire a PR pro.
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