Candid Q & A Conversation with Chicago PR Master Chris Ruys

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka  The PRDude)

Entrepreneurs are driven by two things: Their passions and their drive.  (Well, money, power, fame and the like probably could be factored in; but let’s not follow that road.)  Passion and drive sums up the subject of today’s post, the latest of our semi-regular conversations with leaders in public relations. Today, please make the acquaintance of Chris Ruys, founder and president of a very successful boutique Chicago public relations firm that bears her name.

Chris Ruys, president and founder of Chris Ruys Communications, Inc.

Chris Ruys, president and founder of Chris Ruys Communications, Inc.

Now in its 30th year, Chris Ruys Communications, Inc. has represented a broad range of top-drawer clients in business, law, culture and hospitality, among others.  A personal friend of The PRDude, Chris represents the best in a public relations professional: Honesty and integrity; the ability to provide strategic direction; creativity and a solid grasp of industry best practices.  And, she’s a fascinating lunch date.

1.  We have a few things in common, one being: We started in journalism and transitioned into public relations. Why did you make the career switch?  And, do you miss the news business?

I never worked full-time for a media outlet, although I tried my hand as a sports writer for the Bloomington Pantagraph. At the time, I was stillin college at Illinois State University, working for no pay as a staff writer (and eventually managing editor) at the student newspaper, The Vidette. Sports reporting was not for me. There was too much I didn’t know about the field of sports to make a go of it. My first job out of college was as the editor of the daily house organ at General Electric in Bloomington. I ran around the plant in my mini-skirts and something called a pantsuit, snapping photos with my Polaroid and publishing a daily newspaper with information that I hoped was of interest to 2,000 employees. Political candidates used to campaign at the plant, and that’s how I met State Treasurer hopeful, Alan Dixon. Three years later, I found myself representing his office at the Chicago PR firm I had joined. Once in PR, I knew I had found my calling. How could you not love working with such diverse clients as the State Treasurer, the Illinois Committee to Re-elect the President, and Weight Watchers of Chicago?

2.  This year marks a milestone: Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of your business, Chris Ruys Communications.  Congratulations!  Please offer some reasons for your continued success over three decades.

I worked for two mid-sized PR firms on the Mag Mile for 12 years  before hanging out a shingle. At Chris Ruys Communications, it was slow but steady work at first, handling projects for a small retail chain, a private school and the Park Hyatt Hotel. My big break came when I landed the Jamaica Tourist Board (12-state Midwest region), handling their media relations, special events and special promotions. I hired my first full-time employee at that point and just kept growing at a slow but steady pace. This was at the time when computers made their entry. I bought a big old clunker that used WordPerfect software and proceeded to teach myself how to use it. That was a mistake; I would have been much better off taking lessons, just like I should have taken management courses and gotten my APR credential. Well, live and let learn. I would say that my success was due to very hard work and getting results — in other words exceeding client expectations. Going back to my piano lesson days, I always practiced so hard because I wanted that gold star on my sheet music. I coveted the gold star of happy clients and new business.

Chris Ruys climbing the ladder of success. A photo taken from her days with General Electric in Bloomington, IL.

Chris Ruys climbing the ladder of success. A photo taken from her days with General Electric in Bloomington, IL.

3.  Chris Ruys Communications has represented many clients, but you’ve targeted women-owned businesses. Why did you choose this segment and offer some insight on strategies needed to be successful providing PR counsel to this market segment.

People assume that I concentrate in women-owned businesses and women’s organizations, and it’s true to some extent. I’ve represented national NAWBO, The Committee of 200, Women’s Business Development Center and the most incredibly successful women entrepreneurs. I consider it an honor to have played a small part in their business success. But I’ve spent an equal amount of time and passion working with lawyers and law-related organizations like the Illinois State Bar Association and the Illinois Bar Foundation. I have so much appreciation today for our system of justice and what lawyers and judges do to help ensure access to justice for all. Lawyers and judges too often get a bad rap. It’s unfair.

4.  You’ve clearly been in the industry a long time — but rest assured I won’t ask your age!  How have you kept up to date on social media and digital communications?

It’s a good thing you didn’t ask my age because you won’t get it! Ah, social media and digital communications. Like so many small-business owners, I began to see about four years ago that social media was going to play a critical part in communications. I plunged in for all it’s worth, taking courses, webinars and reading everything I could get my hands on. There was a big learning curve. It was a good investment in time and money. I’ve been able to help clients in that regard, but I made an error in thinking I could do it all — traditional and social media. I should have either put together a team of digital/social media experts or made a decision to concentrate in one area of communications. Tammy Martin and I simply can’t do it all. Lesson learned. I used to think that I would keep going forever and laughed that I hope to die in my swivel chair. I don’t feel that way any more. I made too many sacrifices, the most significant one being that work was more important than family.

5.  In 50 words or so, please offer a few thoughts on the direction public relations is taking.

I will address your question from a small PR firm perspective. There’s still a need for traditional PR but most companies need and want a PR strategy that encompasses digital and social media. I advise my clients to develop strategies that will have the greatest impact. It sounds simple but it’s not. It’s especially tough to implement a measurable PR strategy on a budget. Many years ago, a colleague advised developing PR campaigns that incorporated “reach, credibility and control.” The reach related to targeting the right audiences. Credibility could come about through carefully-crafted communications, and control is exercised by knowing and delivering key messages. At least there’s one thing after 35 years that still holds true!

Okay, I’ve posed some questions, now it’s your turn: What questions do you have for Chris?

Dale J. Spencer Shares “Fear Not” Philosophy, Part I

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Sometimes people are compelled to “reinvent” themselves in life.  You know, take the road not taken, march to a different drummer.  Okay, enough with the cliches.

(Rest assured: The PRDude has no plans to leave the profession, unless of course, Hollywood wants to make a feature film about my life and career.)

Dale J. Spencer

Dale J. Spencer

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Dale J. Spencer, a successful mortgage broker and public speaker who just launched a new company, Dale J. Spencer, Inc., to accelerate his public speaking services to deliver a message – “Fear Not” – to motivate and inspire people, from high school-aged students through seasoned businessmen and women.

Spencer’s life changed in 1988 when he sustained a spinal-chord injury while a student at Northern Illinois University.  While building his financial services career, Spencer began delivering presentations.  Today, he’s a highly sought-after speaker for audiences nationwide.

Here’s Part I of an edited conversation with Mr. Spencer.  (In the full disclosure department, I prepared and distributed a news release announcing the formation of Dale J. Spencer, Inc.)  Along with offering keen insight, Mr. Spencer demonstrates a wicked wit.

1. What factors prompted you to make the decision to transition from your successful career in the mortgage industry to public speaking and the “Fear Not” message?

The “Fear Not” message has been a guiding principal for me ever sense my injury.  It has been part of my message the past 20 years that I have been speaking.  I firmly believe that I can help people who are either making bad decisions based on fear or are paralyzed by fear and unable to make any decision.  The best way to do that is to reach more audiences.  The only way to do that is to increase my speaking engagements.  Fear is something that affects people of all ages, and I want to reach people of all ages, up til now, that majority of my speaking has been to school aged children, and that’s incredibly important.  But they are by no means the only ones negatively affected by fear.  My decision is really based on my desire to reach a broader audience.

2. What kind of research do you conduct and what visual aids do you employ to deliver a more effective presentation?

I interview a lot of people about fears impact on their lives both personally andDale-on-wheels-2 professionally. I have also done a fair amount of research into the nature of fear and its components.  I use images of various emotions, situations and outcomes to illustrate the variety of fears and the multitude of ways fear enters of daily lives.  I also provide a little workbook that audience members can fill in to help the message resonate with them after the presentation is over. Music is another method I use to help paint the emotional picture

3. How do you “read” an audience to determine if your message is coming across? What signs/body language to you look out for?

Well, if they are awake, that’s always a good sign.  Actually, if I don’t see the glow of a phone or iPad, that’s generally a good sign.  Also during the question and answer section the quality of questions really lets me know if I have reached the audience in a real and meaningful way. The audience talking amongst themselves, or crossed arms are also a red flag that I am not being as impactful as I might be, so I try to step up my game and do something unexpected to get the audience re-engaged

4. You’ve given hundreds of presentations over the past 18 years. Do any stand out as being special or significant?

First of all, I don’t appreciate your slight about my being vertically challenged. Now to your question about the most memorable presentation, that would have to be when I spoke to the Advocate Society of Trauma Nurses. That one meant a lot to me because I felt like I was paying it forward to their next paralyzed patient. I was able to help them understand what the guy laying in the bed, whose entire life had just been irrevocably changed was going through, and what little things they could do to help make things just a little less scary and terrible.

5. You also have produced some independent films. Can you please share some insight as to the nature and subject matter?

I know it sounds kind of random: “oh, and I also produced some independent films”. Actually, when you know the order of events, it makes perfect sense.  Here’s what happened: A fraternity brother and I wanted to bring unique stories to a broad audience. Along the way, The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation offered a grant for an educational film and for a training film for speakers across the country. So, we submitted the applications and we were awarded the grants. We made one award-winning film that is still used today in high schools across the nation by the ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation. We made a second film that trains speakers in the art of presenting in an educational yet compassionate way that reaches high school audiences.  That film is also still used by ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation.

Watch for Part II of this conversation soon.  Do you have any “life reinvention” stories to share?