The next feature in the "Leading Ladies" series is Deirdre Breakenridge. Deirdre is a woman of MANY talents. While running her own successful PR company, Pure Performance Communications, she is an adjunct professor, author, and co-founder of #PRStudChat. Be sure to follow her on Twitter!
How did you get your start?
When I was in college, my fourth grade teacher’s husband offered me a fantastic internship opportunity with an agency based out of Minneapolis. They had a small office in New York City. This was not only an introduction to the world of public relations, but also an experience to learn from a close-knit group of professionals who mentored me closely. They taught me what it means to have a career in PR, managing client relationships, even working directly with clients by accompanying them on media tours and building relationships with the media. I had heard stories about internships, and this experience was above and beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
Having a great first experience gave me a taste for PR. I was hungry for much more knowledge about PR and later integrated marketing communications. It was the smaller agency setting with great mentors who gave me the confidence to be involved in meetings, events and strategic planning that I may not have experienced as an intern in another type of working environment. I attribute my start to hands on training and amazing professionals who showed me the ropes.
What risks did you take?
When I was about 10 years into my career, I was running someone else’s business. I remember my employer would leave for his shore house every summer and I would manage clients, accounting and work on different projects. At the time, I was also more than half way through my MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. With my education, I thought about going into corporate communications, and my studies would help me to land a job with a large company. My oldest brother was working for one of the big accounting firms and I was going to follow in his footsteps.
However, out of the blue came an opportunity to do a little side project for a small company that needed help with their messaging and external communication. It was this project that opened my eyes to something new. Having the experience to see the inner operations of a business through my current employer and the ability to get new business, I thought it was time that I actually did this for myself. So, it was quite a shock when I told my parents that I was making a different turn and decided to become an entrepreneur. The biggest risk was leaving my set path, salary, and current place of employment to start a new business; my own communication agency that I built and grew for 15 years.
What is something that scares you?
I’ve only shared this piece of information about myself with close friends, but in the spirit of sharing here goes: Flying on an airplane, to this day, makes me nervous.
I was on a flight to Chicago on the morning of 9/11. My flight left Newark Airport at about 6:00 a.m. When I arrived in Chicago, my mobile phone was buzzing like crazy with so many missed calls. As we walked off the plane and entered into the gate area, people were crowding by the TV screens, which were showing the footage off the 1st plane hitting the World Trade Center. It’s a day that you always remember where you were, and being on a plane on that day makes me look differently at flying. However, The most important thing for me is to face my fears. I travel all of the time for client meetings and for my speaking engagements. I just don’t sleep very well the night before!
Looking back on your career, what was a major turning point for you?
The biggest turning point was writing my first book. Having a large publisher, which was Prentice Hall, at the time, meant credibility. I started writing my first book in 1999. When I received the first hard copy, bound book from my publisher, it immediately accompanied me into my new business meetings.
When executives used to walk into the boardroom, pre-author days, they would look at my business partners and myself and joke around by saying, “Where are the executives?” At the time, we all looked really young. I guess you could say it was a blessing and a curse at the same time. However, as soon as I put a 450-page business book on the table, suddenly people paid attention and were ready to listen.
What are three pieces of advice you’ve received that you’ve carried with you throughout your career?
1. I realized early on that you need incredible focus to reach your dreams or stretch goals, often working relentlessly to get what you want in your career or in life. The road isn’t always an easy one with plenty of bumps along the way, but if you stick with it and persevere, you will find your path to success.
2. Don’t let anyone stand in your way. I had a close family member say to me once, “You can’t write a book, you don’t know how.” I never let that stop me. I set my mind to book writing and increased my knowledge and my writing skills along the way. With the help of a great editor and production team, the learning process was easier with each book effort.
I have to admit my first book, Cyberbranding: Brand Building in the Digital Economy was a little painful to write, but after writing book #5, Social Media and Public Relations: Eight New Practices for the PR Professional, it’s now an experience and process I truly enjoy!
3. Always pay it forward. It’s an expression that I live by today. So many professionals have guided and helped me to get where I am today. I believe there’s a point in everyone’s career where you have to give back. You need to help someone else in the spirit of educating or mentoring. Regardless of your industry or position, take the time to help someone else and you’ll be advancing the future leaders in your area, while you experience the gratification of helping people who need the guidance you once required to get where you are today.
My biggest mistake was taking my eye off of the ball during a rough patch in my life. When you go through a traumatic experience (it could be divorce, or loss of a loved one), it’s normal to become consumed with emotions, and not always be 100% focused on the matters at hand. You also tend to trust people who probably don’t deserve your trust. A powerful lesson for me … when you own a business, you always have to pay careful attention, no matter what is happening personally in your life. And, if you can’t, then you need enlist someone who can, whether that’s a business partner or a good lawyer to pay attention for you. Remember, trust takes time and it’s earned!