Diversity PR Training Thought Leadership

30 Years Of Challenging Convention

Editor’s note: In recognition of the industry ideals reflected in the PRSA 2014 International Conference theme “Leading the Way: Fearless Future for PR,” we’ve invited industry-leading female CEOs to share their inspiration, tips and advice on how to grow, succeed and advance to the highest levels in the profession. Follow the “Leading the Way: Lessons from Female CEOs” series using the hashtag #PRLessonsInLeadership.


As I celebrate the 30th anniversary of starting APCO, I am often asked to reflect on my career and to share what I have learned for those of you starting your career in the profession that now constitutes the modern day communications professional. It has been an interesting journey but one I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

I came to this profession in an odd way. I was an educator.  I was recruited by a law firm (as a non-lawyer) to establish a consulting affiliate to deal with all the non-legal activities required to bring an idea into a reality.  You see, there were a group of lawyers at Arnold & Porter who really did more project development than practicing law.  They needed to pull together some talented non legal professionals to work on all the other skills required to make a vision a reality-aligning employees, dealing with government regulations and interactions, building stakeholder support and getting the right kind of media attention for the effort.  It was around the development of this eclectic skill set that APCO was born.

Looking back, this was both a challenging and exciting (and perhaps daring) way to enter the business but it taught me a lot and certainly established a legacy within my firm that made us different and perhaps even impacted the profession.  While other PR firms were conducting more traditional PR functions, APCO didn’t even know it was a PR firm.  Sounds funny, right?  I never really thought about PR as a profession.  I thought about solving problems, which often required rallying a lot of divergent interests around a common idea. It was a novel idea at the time but seems like an essential idea today.

In the world in which we live today, successful professionals in our industry have become a communications bridge between and among very divergent interests in society to move them to a common idea or in a common direction.  Almost every major PR firm now talks about stakeholder engagement at the heart of what they do.  I guess in many ways we created a new genre but just thought it was common sense.

This dare to be different approach has been an important life lesson for me and for my company.   It was the precursor today’s internal rallying call at APCO of “challenging convention.”  It is also a good way to think about the changing role of women in the industry because by the very definition of the time in which I started the firm-1984-being a woman CEO in this industry was all about challenging convention.

The journey from a one person consulting firm to a global firm with more than 30 offices and 600 people has been a journey of continuing to challenge convention along the way.  We spun out of the law firm in 1991 and became part of a global communications holding company -Grey Global Group–for more than the next decade. Then in 2004, ten years ago, while most independent firms were being bought or consolidated,  I was able to lead an employee buyout of our firm and we became independent-one of only a few global firms that is independent of any holding company.   Since I had never done anything like that before, it was not only a great learning experience, it put us on a path of growth and innovation in our field that continues today.  And, I think it surprised a lot of people who really had never paid attention to us before that time.

That formed the basis for APCO today as we celebrate 30 years of challenging convention.

But what is really different is the global environment for the firm.  Today there are a lot of women who are sharing the stage of success in our profession and they are most welcome.  Diversity is essential to delivering good service and it is great to see companies paying so much attention.  We still have a way to go but I think we are finally on a path where gender diversity is seen as an asset not a requirement.

So what can I share from my story, the APCO story, as others–especially women–contemplate their career in this field we call communications?

First and always, follow your passion.  You cannot succeed in something without real joy and passion.  You have to work really hard in this profession.  There are a lot of sacrifices.  Without passion it is unlikely you will achieve your ambition.  Passion is my lifeblood.

Second, and most especially for women, you have to be a little fearless.  My mother always told me where there was a will there was a way.  I guess at the most trying moments of this journey, I heard these words echo in my ears, especially when people said it couldn’t be done or it was impossible.  The will to succeed (or fear of failure) is a powerful tool.

Third is something I learned from Eleanor Roosevelt (not in person for sure) but from her quote that “no one can make you feel inferior without your own consent”.   Women are quite hard on themselves.  We tend to discount what we can do and sell ourselves short.  When I first went to the law firm, I saw all these brilliant people around me.  For a while I thought I wasn’t as good and it put limitations on what I thought I could achieve and affected my self-confidence.  Then I realized that it was my own doing and the rest is history.

Finally, don’t ever think the road to success is smooth.  It is not.  There are some significant speed bumps that come at the most unexpected times.  Learn to navigate and don’t panic.  Get help when you need it.  It is a sign of strength not a sign of weakness.

Yes, and along the way, remember to enjoy life.   Don’t take yourself seriously.   Give back to your community and your world and never take the gift of family for granted.  Have good friends.  And, if you are fortunate, have a great mate.  I have a partner on my journey, Steve, my husband of 48 years.  I could not have achieved anything without his encouragement and support.  And the gift we have given each other is the gift of family starting with three great kids but now a wonderful plethora of grandchildren who give us that extra bounce in our step every day.  Work and successful achievements are only great when you can share them.

Margery Kraus, founder and chief executive officer of APCO Worldwide, a global consulting firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., specializes in public affairs, communication and business consulting for major multinationals. Ms. Kraus founded APCO in 1984 and transformed it from a company with one small Washington office to a multinational consulting firm in major cities throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. In September 2004, Ms. Kraus led a management buy-out of her firm, making APCO one of the largest privately owned communication and public affairs firms in the world. Follow her on Twitter @MargeryKraus.

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Margery Kraus

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