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?