Yesterday, Chicago launched Loop Link, a bus rapid transit (BRT) service designed to move people more efficiently from the commuter train stations in the West Loop to Michigan Avenue a mile to the east. In the many months leading up to the launch, strategic communications were initiated to build awareness for the project and acceptance by stakeholders that included downtown property owners and, of course, Chicago Transit Authority bus riders.
That challenge was given to local communications firm Grisko, founded by former journalist and mayoral press secretary Carolyn Grisko. In this latest Q&A post, Carolyn share thoughts on managing communications for big government-driven transportation projects, recalls a memory from her time at City Hall and provides a perspective on a recent issue that has put the national spotlight on Chicago.
(Sidebar to Carolyn: Does one have to don resort wear to attend the 4:00 p.m. “Tiki time” gathering on Fridays?)
1. Like many now working in public relations (myself included), you began your career in the news business. Was there any single factor that inspired you to transition to public relations?
At WBEZ, I had variously served as political reporter, news director and program host. Some reporters develop a lot of curiosity about how public policy decisions are really made, and I fell into that category. When I had the chance to work as deputy press secretary to Mayor Daley, I was able to scratch that itch.
2. Grisko has built an impressive client base in the public sector — transportation, education, public affairs, along with healthcare. What particular challenges do you and your team have to address in that segment of the profession?
Actually, our portfolio has always been pretty balanced with government, non-profit and corporate work. In government there is more process, there are more layers of approval. That’s neither wrong, nor surprising—it’s just a different pace. The work is often very rewarding, because you are able to tackle big civic issues and advocate for or explain policy changes that often have a huge impact on people—from expansion of the airfield at O’Hare, to branding the Loop Link—you get to have an impact in big public spaces. And the people you work with are often very committed and passionate about what they do. While we all want government to be watching our tax dollars and making sure they’re getting value, our administrative and account staff are amazed at the hoops we have to jump through. Government work involves a lot of forms. And slow payment—don’t take on government work if you cash flow isn’t strong.
3. Before launching Grisko, you were on the communications team for Mayor Richard M. Daley. What story could you share about your time in the administration that might make a good chapter for your autobiography?
Really, Ed? I still have to work in this town. I guess I can tell you that my kids were pretty young when I joined the Mayor’s Press Office, and I was caught between working long hours at a job I loved and feeling that I was short-changing them—still a familiar story for many women and families today. I ended up accepting a press position from another elected official, where I would have had more flexibility, fewer week-end hours, etc. When I met with the mayor to let him know why I was leaving, he kind of exploded. “What are you going to do over there? Nothing happens over there!” When I told him that was pretty much the point, he said, “Well, go find another position! Do you think everyone works that long and hard around here?” And by the end of the day, I had a promotion and an embarrassing conversation with Elected Official #2. Which I didn’t feel too badly about, because he had previously tried to lure away one of my employees. But that’s another story.
One thing I’ll add is that I really enjoyed the time I spent traveling around with the mayor to every neighborhood in the city, and I was always impressed with his understanding of Chicago’s communities— the challenges, the aldermen’s priorities, the community organizers and the state of the infrastructure.
4. Okay, let’s lighten things up a little. Your online biography states that you like wine (and bourbon). Will Grisko make a pitch for to represent one of the fledgling local distilleries as PR counsel? Or how about a craft brewer? (Think about the beverages that would be offered at strategy sessions!)
We do a lot of things at Grisko besides public affairs and public relations, including marketing, branding and kick-ass creative work. But one thing we’re not is a consumer product agency—however, exceptions can be made for the right opportunity. And you’re invited for our 4:00 Tiki time on Fridays.
5. One thing I learned as a reporter: Always ask the interview subject if he or she has any concluding thoughts. Would welcome any from you on the future of public relations, the political climate in Chicago, or another topics that’s top-of-mind.
The focus on criminal justice and policing in Chicago is important and long overdue. Technology – camera phones, the internet – has brought these videos, and these issues into stark relief in a way that wasn’t possible before. But it took independent journalist Brandon Smith to pursue release of the Laquan McDonald video in the courts, while more established news outlets gave up after denied FOIA’s. The internet has also weakened journalism, and that’s a real concern.
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Other leading Chicago PR stalwarts have been featured on this blog. Here are three.