Susan Stern is founder and president of Stern Strategy Group, a strategic communications and business advisory firm. Everything inevitably changes; all we really have are our actions. This principle, loosely based on the Buddhist five remembrances, guides Susan’s work and life. Over the last 30-plus years, she has experienced her fair share of change and believes her ability to adapt without sacrificing integrity – while helping clients and colleagues do the same – has enabled her, and the agency, to thrive. As president, Susan regularly consults on the strategic direction of client programming and ensures the agency’s core values are embedded in all aspects of the business. Recognized among the “Top Women in PR” (PR News, 2014), Susan is a strong and empathic leader; she most enjoys spotting the potential in people, and then giving them the “space to stretch” and experiment to fulfill their promise. Prior to establishing Stern Strategy Group (then Stern + Associates) in 1985, Susan was vice president at Carl Byoir & Associates, the world’s third largest public relations firm at the time. She is a member of Counselor’s Academy of the Public Relations Society of America and holds a Bachelor of Arts in French Literature and European History from Tufts University.
How did you get into the industry?
My first job after college was as an editorial assistant at Cosmopolitan magazine. I reviewed query letters, press releases and handled phone calls from PR representatives pitching products and ideas for coverage. I was surprised at the high volume of calls and materials not well targeted to the readership, a specific column or subject area of the magazine. I saw an opportunity in PR to think strategically, learn about a broad range of businesses and topics, and help clients meet their goals.
Any emerging industry trends?
The lines between public relations and marketing are blurring – and in some cases, disappearing altogether. Historically, the two disciplines have been siloed; more than ever, they’re now working together toward the same goals: customer engagement and business growth. This integration is elevating the need for strong strategy.
Additionally, we’re continuing to see a call for more authentic marketing. More face-to-face engagement (e.g., speaking, networking, events), more engaging content, more immersive experiences are all opportunities for companies to connect with their stakeholders at more personal, genuine levels.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
Just about every business in every industry is undergoing some form of transformation. The way we connect with each other and with our customers, how we consume information, how we communicate – it’s all changing, again. It’s challenging for all, and for some, it’s disruptive. But the opportunities are vast if you know how to capitalize on them. We’re helping our clients create (and implement) the right strategies to cut through the complexities and noise, and get them in front of the right people, at the right time, in the right ways to impact their business – in reputation and revenue. Our success centers on strong partnerships with our clients, and helping ensure they make the most of their budgets and resources while staying focused on how to create demand for not just products and services, but also for their thought leadership.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
I was inspired to create an agency where clients always came first, where building long-term relationships was the goal and partnership meant getting deeply immersed in the clients’ business and industry, exceeding expectations, riding the ups and downs of budget fluctuations and shifts in direction. My dream was to provide smart counsel and strategy, consistent account involvement from a senior team of professionals, and proactive service and attention to detail from talented and creative staff. I believed a client should never need to say, “What ever happened to the….?” Of equal importance was creating a culture where every member of the agency would be treated respectfully and given the chance to constantly stretch and try new things; where everyone clearly embraced our core values, high standards and truly believed in the company’s mission.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
Our organization’s culture of experimentation and innovation – “forward thinking” is one of our core values – has propelled successful diversification beyond traditional public relations services over the years. As we continually explore ways to further drive demand for our clients’ strategic thought leadership, products and services amongst their target audiences, the combination of public relations and marketing strategies will be key. We’re invested in growing our digital public relations and visual marketing competencies – both of which are proving to be powerful in helping clients shape and share their stories, and put into action their ideas to change the world.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
Change is constant. And it’s good for business. With evolution comes opportunity – to be heard, grow, build, progress and influence. These are among the many pivotal reasons why my organization recently rebranded, uniting the deep yet previously separate competencies of public relations, speakers and advisory services under the powerful umbrella of one firm: Stern Strategy Group.
Everything we do – from our ideas to our approach to our partnership – is grounded in and driven by strategy. It’s how, for more than 30 years, we continue to propel great ideas into the marketplace, impacting thousands of organizations and millions of lives, and growing business for our clients.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
Since the company is now 31 years old, clearly there were more than a few challenging moments.
Whether it was facing a significant downturn in business due to the vicissitudes of the economy, the need to lay off staff because of a downturn, or the realization that a client or member of the organization was no longer the right fit for the business, I learned that everything and everyone changes, and that a strong leader should consider the potential risks and benefits to making a tough decision, listen to what the heart and mind are saying, but ultimately do what is best for the health of the company. A leader must accept that change is constant. People and relationships change. Nothing stands still forever, but with change comes new opportunities for all involved.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
Clients who join our company roster after having an unhappy experience with another PR firm praise our responsiveness, idea generation, the strategic thinking we apply to every aspect of our work, and always our people. Their professionalism, energy, and drive to exceed expectations and bring tangible value are consistently demonstrated. Additionally, every account – no matter its size – benefits from ongoing senior management attention. Our senior vice presidents develop trusted and involved relationships with our clients; they offer high-level business and communications counsel, guide strategy, recommend the most effective combination of services from our expansive offering, and generate demand for our clients’ products, services and thought leadership.
How do you motivate others?
Only highly motivated individuals who demonstrate a passion for continual learning and immersion in our clients’ worlds and content – including complex business theories, emerging trends and market challenges – are a fit for our business. I help keep our team motivated by setting a culture of inclusiveness, exposing even our most recent college graduates to aspects of the business generally reserved for professionals with three or more years of experience. I interact with the group as much as possible, participate in our staff meetings, and recognize their achievements with awards for stellar results and commitment to our core values. I believe the human element of management, treating people as you’d hope to be treated – with respect, appreciation and opportunities from which to grow and learn – are at the core of motivating others.
Career advice to those in your industry?
My favorite piece of advice: learn to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. To advance in business you need to build the confidence to handle uncomfortable situations with poise and clarity. There’s no way around it. Emerging professionals may hesitate to speak up in client meetings or at internal brainstorm sessions because they are self-conscious or afraid of making a mistake. It’s far more impressive to share an idea that misses the mark than to sit quietly and not participate. Emerging leaders may shy away from difficult conversations with staff and /or clients, or prolong making tough decisions by hoping the situation will improve despite signs pointing the other way. Clear and direct communication is critical to healthy relationships and success. Challenging discussions and reaching hard decisions can feel unsettling, but they must happen and be carried through effectively. Business can’t always be comfortable, and to be successful in the field of communications, you have to communicate!