Michelle Mekky has more than 20 years of experience as a broadcast journalist and PR executive, leading award-winning marketing and PR campaigns for some of the nation’s biggest brands and diverse businesses—from start-ups to global powerhouses. Mekky is a graduate of Northwestern University, achieving both her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from the renowned Medill School of Journalism. She spent over a decade as a senior producer and news writer for Fox-TV in Chicago. She also worked as a news writer at NBC and reported for WISC-TV in Madison, Wi., while finalizing her Master’s program in Washington, D.C. After her years as a veteran journalist, Michelle transitioned into a career in public relations and marketing, spending more than 10 years at agencies in Chicago, where she was able to use her insider media knowledge and widespread connections to achieve success and top-tier media coverage for the clients she managed. She launched her own company, Mekky Media Relations Inc., in 2016, to bring her brand of PR to the market, to cut through the clutter and generate powerful publicity. Mekky has led PR strategy in multiple industries including non-profits, hospitality, technology, retail, B-to-B, culinary, entertainment, healthcare, fitness, legal and more. In 2018, Mekky and Mekky Media were selected to be part of the Forbes Agency Council, a prestigious organization for owners and executives of PR, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies.
How did you get into the industry?
My experience with the industry really it started in high school when my English teacher recommended I try for a position at the school newspaper. I had never tried journalism before and once I got into it I absolutely loved it. I eventually became editor-in-chief and set my sights on studying journalism in college. I ended up going to Northwestern University, because I lived close by, and it had the best journalism school in the country. The school had a television studio, and I had the opportunity to anchor news shows. That experience inspired me to purse a career in broadcast journalism. It was only after working at Fox for 12 years that I started to really think about PR. I had been pitched by so many publicists as a senior producer, and I felt that I had developed a knowledge of what it would take to be good at PR. So I decided to cross to the other side.
Any emerging industry trends?
I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, and during that time I’ve seen things shift from very traditional PR where you only pursue traditional newspaper, TV and radio coverage, to today’s focus on getting the word out through many multimedia avenues, including online influencers (although traditional PR and media still play a vital role). When I started out on a typewriter, the main goals were to land print and broadcast coverage. But now every newspaper and magazine has an online outlet as well, and there’s an increase in influencers, bloggers and social media, making it a completely different world. You have to fully understand and pursue the many forms of media and take advantage of every opportunity to get coverage. Otherwise you’re not maximizing your chances of success.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
We still use a lot of the traditional methods of pitching, including software systems like Cision, which has all of the information we need to track down media contacts. This is reliable and great, but still there are new influencers and contacts popping up all the time, making it hard to find them all. On the plus side, this presents a great opportunity because there are more and more ways to get coverage for our clients as the number of outlets for us to pitch keeps expanding. The key is to read everything and stay more connected than ever before.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
I had been in PR for over a decade. I worked for three different agencies, each with very strong owners with different personalities. After working hard for other people for so long, I started to see that I had my own style of doing things, my own way of pitching, my own way of managing and my own way of leading. I sometimes felt I knew more than others in the meetings I attended and started to see I didn’t always get credit for the ideas I shared. I began to feel a calling to shape my life the way I wanted to shape it. I’ve always been an extremely hard worker with a work ethic like almost no one I’ve known. I’ve always been the last person to leave at the end of the day. I close my laptop in the wee hours of the night. So my vision was to continue to do great work, work hard and create a workplace where I have clients who are amazing and team members who are excited to make a difference for them.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
We are still in the process of hiring more staff. I just took on our second full-time employee and she’s fantastic. We’re bringing in new business all the time, not just in Chicago but across the country, including LA. Hiring experienced, skilled staff to handle the business opportunities coming our way is a key priority right now.
Also, I have a passion for media training. I used to be a journalist and for years, I coached people moments before they went live on camera. I know there’s a need for people to learn how to give great interviews and be compelling in front of the camera – or in front of any group, really. So the next big initiative for Mekky Media as a company is going to be to create and push a media training division of the business. This will also include public speaking workshops. I want to help anybody who wants to perform better when giving a presentation or doing public speaking. I’d like to travel and give workshops for our own clients but also offer this as an outside service. This is something I’m looking to grow in 2019.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
Part of my vision is that we have flexibility for everyone, not just people who have worked for 20 years and are looking for a new direction, but for staff who are relatively new to the workforce. It’s a completely different kind of agency that is part virtual, where people have the opportunity to work from home or where ever they choose. I’m not checking when people come in, when they leave, how long their lunch break is. I’m just trusting that they’re getting the work done. I think that’s extremely refreshing in the work world today. This is new to me and something I’ve never experienced. We’ll see how it goes, but so far I believe we’ve created a positive and productive atmosphere. People love working here, the work we are doing is great, were growing. So far, so good.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
I think being an entrepreneur is probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. The first year and a half, I sat up in my dining room and worked until about 2 a.m. every night. I would say goodnight to my husband and kids and stayed up as long as I could. I had this superhuman energy. I think there was this fire in me and the knowledge that I just didn’t want to fail. It was just me, my brain and my laptop, and I knew I had to succeed. There were nights when I had my doubts. But it’s those moments where you have to look inward and find some sort of strength to push forward. Now I’m able to look at the work we’ve done and some of the amazing things we’ve accomplished for a long list of clients. I have to do a reality check sometimes and remind myself that it’s all real. I feel so proud as I sit here in our new offices in the Wrigley Building and reflect on this journey. But of course we have a long way to go and so much more to accomplish.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
A great experience for a client would be to sign on with us and go through our discovery process. This includes an extensive interview with us so we can learn about who they are, what makes them different, and what their hopes and dreams are when it comes to their business and PR. This is how we get an understanding of the results they want from the PR campaign, and then we align on the best possible strategy. Some clients want to grow their sales from PR, but not everyone is solely focused on sales. I would say 95 percent are hoping for growth in the company.
After the discovery process, we pull out the best of the best from that company’s story and figure out how to differentiate them as we create a PR plan and strategy. We then start executing the plan, which means crafting the story and creating the materials and pitching our contacts. This leads to press for the client, which leads to the growth and results they’re looking for. To me, that’s the dream scenario, and what we’ve experienced with our clients time and time again. It’s extremely rewarding for all involved.
How do you motivate others?
Core values are an important motivator because they help employees understand and feel invested in the mission. That’s much better than simply clocking in and doing your job without caring whether the company succeeds. One of Mekky Media’s core values is to be authentic, and this is so important to me. I’m motivated when other people are honest about how they’re feeling, and I try to be that kind of a leader. I’m always straightforward with my staff, whether it’s telling them I’m having a bad day, or feeling pressured to succeed for a client, or facing the challenges of being an entrepreneur. I’m not going to pretend everything is okay if it’s not. And I believe it motivates people to have that kind of leader, because we’re all human. I think I’ve been able to create a culture where people actually care and want to do a good job. I believe our people are also motivated when they are rewarded with trust and flexibility. They are treated like human beings. They can work from home. We do fun things as a company. I am trying to do more team outings. I want people to feel lucky to work at this company for a boss who is honest with them, believes in them and wants them to succeed.
Career advice to those in your industry?
I think the most important advice is don’t be afraid to work hard. For a while I was working two eight-hour shifts, barely sleeping. I was 23 years old and thinking, “I graduated from Northwestern and thought I was going to be set for life. I went to the best school, I did everything right. What happened?” That was so challenging, but I learned so much about perseverance, and I learned how to grow in my career and what it takes to succeed. Young people need to find their place and what they’re passionate about and then really prove themselves in that job. And that might mean volunteering to take on an extra project or asking for more responsibility. Not everybody knows early on what they want to do for the rest of their life, so I think it’s important to watch for the signs that point to what you’re passionate about. Then seek out as many opportunities as you can, like internships, shadowing, any opportunity to get in there and see and experience what a particular career might be like. You’re going to have to work for the rest of your life and you need to love what you do.
What do I do best?
I think that after all these years in the industry, what I’ve learned about myself is that I know how to tell a good story. I can take a company or a person and right away identify what’s newsworthy about them and what will be of interest to the media. That’s a valuable service that I can offer in my business, and it’s an important skill to have for anyone who wants to to excel in the PR world.
What makes me the best version of myself?
I think it’s my personality and my aura that has gotten me where I am today. I connect with people very easily and make them feel comfortable. This has helped me succeed in my career. It helped me produce great TV when I was in broadcast industry. I brought people on camera and helped them relax and feel confident so they could perform well in an intimidating situation. Today, this helps me because when I meet potential clients, they connect with me and know they can trust me.
What are my aspirations?
I would love to do more public speaking and offer workshops on public speaking and media training. It would be great to travel to deliver these services to people who need them, because I have the skills and I’m passionate about this. I love media training, I love teaching it, and I know it well. I’m very good on the PR side of the business, and I enjoy managing and leading, but it would make me happy to achieve my next business goal of developing a public speaking and media training division.
On the personal side, I need to learn how to relax and get better at stress relief. I am an extremely high anxiety person. I am a perfectionist, and as an entrepreneur there’s never an end to the day. I sometimes work all night long and my to do list still goes on forever. I need a better outlet for stress relief. I’ve tried different things like meditating. I’m getting better, but I know I need to find more peace in my life.
My Biggest Success?
I think starting a business is a pretty huge success. My family was not well off, I did not come from a lot of money. My parents are immigrants, I had to work hard for everything I’ve had in life. When I wanted to go to Northwestern, my dad thought I was crazy because it was so expensive. But I worked to get scholarships. Starting a business was just as crazy because I really didn’t have savings. I just had a dream and started talking about it with my mentor, who’s like a second mom to me. She literally looked at me and said: “I’m going to write you a check, it’s a loan for $10,000. Use it to get Cision, PR Newswire, whatever you need to make this business happen. I know you’ll pay me back.” I started crying and couldn’t believe it. Now I look at where we are today and am so proud of how far we’ve come in two years. But I know it’s just the beginning.
I’ve always struggled with insecurity and self-doubt, and I think that’s what was holding me back from taking the step to start my own business, even though a lot of people were encouraging me to do it. But really when my mentor wrote that check and made that level of a commitment, I knew she believed in me and that I couldn’t let her down. Then I went from two clients to five to 10, and I realized I actually needed to start hiring people. It’s become something I never could have dreamed it could become, and now I see so many more possibilities for the future. And I have already paid her back!
And, of course, my biggest success has to be my two kids, because I look at them and can’t even believe they’re mine. They blow me away every day. They’re both extremely bright, athletic and personable. And, knock on wood, very well behaved. I’m so proud of my children.
My Most Challenging Moment?
Before I started Mekky Media, I had a major health challenge that really set me on a path to look at other options in my life and ended up leading me to start my own company. I was suddenly diagnosed with cancer, even though I had no symptoms. I had invasive surgery but came out okay. It was only stage one, so I was very lucky. Everybody kept telling me at that time that I was so blessed and must be here for a reason. That’s when I started to look at my life and eventually headed down the path of starting Mekky Media.
Another challenge is the fact that when you start your own business, you don’t have time for much else. There are no more boundaries, no shutting off, no more 9-5. I didn’t have much left to give my family when I was launching the business. But thankfully my husband was so understanding. Now I have a team and am able to step away at times and take some breaks. I’ve learned that I have to be careful. You can really lose yourself in your work if you’re a workaholic and a perfectionist. It’s important to set boundaries.
My motto is, “Every day is a new day.” I like that I have the opportunity to start over again each morning. Of course there are times that I beat myself up, whether it’s business related or about my self-care, like eating unhealthy food or not sleeping enough. But I try to remember that tomorrow I can put forth my best effort once again. I usually meditate and get myself in the right frame of mind to start over. I’m grateful for every new day.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
I have two favorite people. In business I absolutely love Arianna Huffington. I follow her blog and love what she writes. I really relate to the topics she covers. I think we have similar philosophies on business, and I’ve learned a lot from her.
Personally, it's J Lo all the way. Jennifer Lopez is my idol. Not only is she beautiful, she is so successful and strong. I don't know how she looks so good at her age. She's an all-around superstar. She’s an inspiration for any woman who is approaching 50.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
I love Southern California mostly because I am a big fan of the ocean. Laguna Beach is a magical destination. I also love Mexico, and I love the scenery of Sedona. I dream of going back to Greece, where I spent my honeymoon. Santorini, Capri and Venice are aspirational places for me.
As far as the business, I would like to one day have an office in LA. I feel like it's a great place for me to spread my wings, to have more of a bi-coastal business. New York and LA have a lot of action media-wise, and it would be cool to have even just small remote locations where we can service clients. I love traveling, I love being near water. And my daughter is interested in playing soccer in college in California. So you never know, she might be playing for UCLA one day. We’re dreaming, but we’ll see what happens.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
I am very much into jewelry. Wearing a big necklace is my personal statement. I think it’s fun and changes up my day. I’m really interested in style and fashion.
My Current Passions?
I love the ocean and the beach. And I love to exercise, especially yoga. These are all things that calm my active mind. I wish I had more time for them. I also enjoy sitting outside and looking at the stars and spending any time I can outdoors.