Jeanne Votca-Carpenter

The Reputation Builders

Photo By Jeff Silker

The lady next to the Trix rabbit ears who has been wringing stories about a kid burping the alphabet on Jay Leno will do almost anything to let the whole world know about her employer and her industry. She’s Jeanne Votca Carpenter, 49, Senior VP of Marketing & Business Development at the 230-employee Bloomington office of Shandwick International, the world’s No. 3 public relations firm.Though usually she doesn’t spend time inside this particular Shandwick brainstorming room (see above), she still must sell and market the creative juices flowing inside it. In a way, she is the top public relations person for a top public relations firm.

Jeanne often has Mankato on her mind. Her memories of home run the gamut from the “beautiful” tulips Carlson Craft President Staff Harder gave her when both were in kindergarten, to the practical advice she gleaned from C.F., her dad, who could be called “Mr. Minnesota State” for all the good he has done his alma mater. Added to the above and others recently was one more fond hometown memory: Shandwick International was the public relations firm that recently put a heart and soul to MSU’s Taylor Center by helping shape its Hall of Champions.

In Bloomington the room next to hers has glass from floor-to-ceiling, yielding a splashy view of downtown Minneapolis. She’s doing quite nicely here. It’s her very own brainstorming room, adorned with a pink stuffed rabbit, an oversized navy blue pillow – and as the interview begins, her own sotto voce (soothing voice). Hers is a story about public relations.

She is being interviewed because, for whatever reason – either tradition, lack of knowledge, or unavailability of resources in some cities – most business executives in southern Minnesota still ignore all the good that a good public relations firm can accomplish. Over the last 20 years, public relations has evolved far beyond just press releases, toothy grins and crisis management.

CONNECT: What is the difference between an ad agency and a public relations firm?

CARPENTER: An ad agency works with a client to create brand messages and then buys space in the media to share that message with targeted audiences. An ad agency creates it and places it for a client.

A public relations firm works with a third party to tell a client’s story – and it involves far more than just press releases. It can involve event creation, trade shows, and the creation of promotions to generate greater awareness for clients. Public relations involves creating and telling through the media the stories that need to be told – on behalf of a client – to the key audiences who need to hear them.

CONNECT: How large are most companies when they make their first contact with you?

CARPENTER: Sometimes a start-up will realize from the onset that it may need a public relations firm to help launch the company or to create greater awareness in support of its marketing efforts. Clients come in all sizes.

CONNECT: I would assume reliance on a public relations firm varies according to geographical region. For instance, in southern Minnesota public relations as a business tool isn’t that well known or understood.

CARPENTER: Perhaps some southern Minnesotans aren’t aware of how the industry has evolved. Public relations has moved beyond the publication of press releases and into all phases of strengthening a client’s reputation. In doing so we now bring to the table a technician’s toolbox of communications. Start-up companies are tapping us with greater frequency to create visibility for their CEOs, for instance, and to train key company spokespeople in various aspects of media. We are doing work right now for start-up dot.coms like

CONNECT: Because most start-up dot.coms have a very small window of opportunity to launch their service?

CARPENTER: It has to be done fast, and by someone who knows how to reach the media and key audiences. Dot.coms with visions of going public need to generate awareness very quickly and with strong results. Many are working with public relations firms to help attract the attention of stock analysts so that when they are ready to go public, investors already know who they are and what they do.

CONNECT: Who are some of your clients? and in what industries are they?

CARPENTER: Public relations services can be delivered to a consumer audience or business-to-business. We represent large- and medium-sized firms, manufacturing firms, healthcare institutions – we cross all industry segments. From this office alone we represent the likes of Medtronic, Hormel, Coca-Cola, General Mills, EcoLab, Dorsey Whitney law firm, Wells Fargo, Novartis, MicroSoft, Best Buy, who we’ve helped launch a brand campaign, and Northwest Airlines, a client for ten years. Mall of America has been a client since the first shovel of dirt came out of the ground. One of our newest clients is the Minnesota Dept. of Health, with its youth antitobacco prevention program.

CONNECT: How do you handle potential clients?

CARPENTER: By building a relationship, a bridge, which is what I do on a daily basis. I ask potential clients to explain what they do. I learn of their communications needs. Meanwhile, here at Shandwick, we’ll tap online search engines to learn more about a potential client and industry. Sometimes the engagement process of getting to know one another takes a while. Our job is to learn as much as we can about a company and its needs – where it has been, where it is going. In public relations, there isn’t a nifty new model or gadget of ours to physically show a potential client. We sell a service. To sell ourselves to a potential client, we must show them work we have done for others that bares a resemblance to what they need. Author Harry Beckwith calls it “selling the invisible.” We obviously have to sell ourselves as people who can be trusted. Clients care very deeply about their reputations. Rightly so.

CONNECT: Businesspeople are bottomline people – they love to quantify results. How do you quantify what you do for a client?

CARPENTER: We can measure name recognition, and consumer or business attitudes toward a business. With potential clients we talk about establishing “measures for success” as defined by them. We agree on what a successful campaign will look like in its finality. How will the employees feel? the key stakeholders group? What will the new opinion or perception of the company be?

Once success measurements are decided upon we track against them. For instance, we can count the number of website hits we’ve helped generate, and the number of times we found the right microphones for the CEO to stand behind. We also can go out in the field and test a board’s perception of their company’s reputation versus what their customers perceive. We can take a company’s business plan, marketing plan, or company mission and bench test it. We can go internally and see if the employees are feeling a part of what’s happening – rather than apart from it. In order to reach the finish line, it’s important to establish the measures for success right up front. We can test perception versus reality and build a communications strategy to close the gap.

Public relations goes far beyond generating awareness; it can be a total reputation management program with clearly defined communications programs and channels that reach the audiences the client needs reaching.

CONNECT: Give an example of a business that wasn’t sure whether its perception of reality differed from its customer’s perception?

CARPENTER: Service always has been at the top of Northwest Airline’s list. We work with them to communicate improvements to the customer experience. That work was validated about six months ago when the Wall Street Journal carried a story on “top reputation” companies. In the airlines category Northwest Airlines’ ranked in the top ten. We share the story of Northwest’s “Customer First” program: by listening to customers, training employees and implementing it with the best technology.

CONNECT: Does it frustrate you when you go to the mat, say the right things to the right media, build a reputation, and then have a company not follow through on an image you helped create? For example, a public relations firm could do everything right for a hotel chain, but if it has shoddy service your work has less meaning.

CARPENTER: Sure it does. But we help them even with follow through. A couple years ago we had the opportunity to capture the business of Radisson Hotel’s website development. At that time their new branding campaign had just launched: “Genuine Hospitality.” So we tested their “genuine hospitality” and reported back to them on our experience in registering online for rooms, the greeting we received upon arrival, etc. Some team members ordered extra towels to test employee reaction. It pleased Radisson greatly that we took this initiative to rate their hotels on the follow through of their campaign.

CONNECT: Shandwick was hired by General Mills to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Betty Crocker in 1995?

CARPENTER: It was time to freshen Betty’s image, to present her as a woman of today who was very plugged in and balancing home and work. To get “into” Betty’s image we had to learn more about her attributes, which we learned were caring, compassion, and commitment to community and family. The only way to bring this new Betty to life was to search the country and find her.

So through the media we asked people from across the country to tell us about a woman who personified today’s Betty. Thousands of granddaughters, husbands, friends and sisters of women wrote in. Many of those nominated were very surprised. We ended up with 75 finalists of diverse cultural backgrounds from 55 different U.S. markets. There were black Americans, Hispanics, Asians – diversity was an important element of the campaign because today’s “Betty” had to look like today’s population. To create the new Betty we morphed the faces of those 75 into one using computer graphics. She was unveiled on the Times Square Jumbotron in New York City. It was an award-winning campaign that generated positive results for the client. Andy Rooney even wrote about Betty’s new image.

CONNECT: And Trix cereal?

CARPENTER: We helped Trix, a General Mills cereal brand, develop a “Silliest Kid in America” contest. It was designed to capture the attention of Trix’s target market, kids, and was a personification of the brand. So we launched a contest from coast to coast to find the country’s silliest kid. Kids came forward with their juggling routines, their impersonations, etc. After the winner was selected we immediately called Jay Leno’s office and asked, “Do you want to interview the silliest kid in America?” They cleared the decks and said, Yes. The silliest kid in America was able to stand in front of all America on national TV – and burp the alphabet.

With another product, Breathe Rite Nasal Strips, our Minneapolis office was the public relations firm that sent the product to Herschel Walker and NFL trainers. Players began wearing them on national TV and popularizing the brand.

CONNECT: Do most people first come to you with a particular problem or are they looking for full-service?

CARPENTER: Many times the engagement will be a single project, which is a good way for them to test our creativity. More and more we’re seeing clients who want us to take their pulse. Sales might be falling, they might be having a difficult time recruiting, maybe their retention rate is way too low.

CONNECT: The big problem most businesses in southern Minnesota are facing is a shortage of labor. Can a public relations firm help with that, too?

CARPENTER: Your frontline people are your best recruiters. We are working right now with Aon, a Chicago reinsurer, to strengthen its internal communications. It has experienced multiple mergers and acquisitions within the company so we are working to unify the internal corporate voice by communicating its external messages to potential employees.

Here at Shandwick International we’re continually searching for the best and brightest and to hold onto them. With our recruitment program we are visible at college recruitment fairs. I personally help fuel recruitment by telling the story of who we are by executing our “executive visibility program.” We take an active role in public speaking at places like the Carlson School, and by conducting seminars. Nearly everything we do is a recruiting opportunity to bring quality employees to Shandwick. I came here myself because of what I saw the agency do to open the Mall of America, when it helped take one of the most misunderstood projects in this marketplace and turn it around through communications. I saw their results and wanted to learn more.

CONNECT: What did you learn from your father?

CARPENTER: I can still hear his words to this day: “Believe in yourself.” Both of my parents are amazing people. They took an active involvement in our growing up years by supporting what we did. My mother, Phyllis, is a talented writer, and my father, Cornelius, was actively involved in the community. He always said, “If you want to make a difference, show up, and contribute.”

CONNECT: What was he involved in?

CARPENTER: He was an MSU alumni president, senior class president, a distinguished alumni, and has been a loyal MSU supporter – especially of the international student program and festival. During the War my parents lived in Detroit, then came back to Mankato. Dad worked for Fisher’s, a longtime downtown Mankato clothier, and he later went for his Master’s degree. He transitioned into vocational education, directing the adult education program for the St. Cloud school district. He has strong roots in education. My uncle was the director of the vocational school in Mankato.

CONNECT: What about growing up?

CARPENTER: We lived in West Mankato off Carney Avenue. I had such a tremendous group of friends who all truly believed they “owned” West Mankato – and I think for a while we just might have. It was a wonderful place, an enriching environment. I took an active role in community theatre, graduated from Good Counsel Academy, and then went off to what is now Minnesota State University, where I gained an excellent education.

CONNECT: You knew Staff Harder, president of Carlson Craft, when he was a little boy?

CARPENTER: Yeah, Staff. (Laughter.) He lived down on State Street near my grandmother. We went to kindergarten together. Whenever I visited my grandmother there was Staff a half-block away. One bright, lovely spring afternoon when we were both 5, Staff presented me with a beautiful bouquet of tulips. I found out later that my grandmother’s neighbor wasn’t very happy about having his tulips picked. It was wonderful, and I remember those tulips each time I see him. Later on while at college I worked at Carlson Wedding Service where Staff was a department supervisor. I worked directly for him, and he would have to proof my orders. I tried to soften him up a bit by saying, Remember, I’m the same Jeanne you gave tulips to? Going back to Mankato is rejuvenating. It’s good to go home and see friends, including Gary Kratzke, who owns Matt J. Graif Clothing.

CONNECT: What did you do after MSU?

CARPENTER: In the early ’70s I was a speech and English teacher in the Wayzata school district, and supervised the school paper, and the drama and pep clubs. Later I moved to Sioux Falls and taught secondary level again – and while there in the summers I free-lanced with an ad agency. I thought it was interesting. I came back to the Cities and soon found a position with the Hennepin County Cancer Society in community and public relations, and training an endless number of volunteers. One of my fondest memories is of the cancer society’s first “Daffodil Day” and waiting in my car with six volunteers at four in the morning for those daffodils to arrive from California. Every year, even today, I fill my office with daffodils and remember wonderful volunteers.

In 1981 the Star Tribune was looking for former teachers, and they hired me to run its Newspaper and Education program. It’s a national program. (Kathy Dorn runs it now at the Free Press.) I moved within the Star Tribune to the national ad staff, a position which later led to advertising sales management. By 1996 I was still with the Star Tribune and president of the Minnesota Advertising Federation. While emceeing an Ad Fed program I met Dave Mona, who I learned had founded David L. Mona & Associates in 1981, a public relations firm. After the Ad Fed meeting he invited me over for a cup of coffee, and I later came to work at Shandwick. (He’s the same Dave Mona who co-hosts a WCCO Radio sports show with Sid Hartman every Sunday.) He sold his share of the business in 1988 to Shandwick, and ten years after that, in 1998, Interpublic Group, a communications holding company, bought Shandwick. Currently we’re the third largest public relations firm in the world – and growing.

CONNECT: What is it that makes you successful?

CARPENTER: My parents, their guidance, life’s experiences, and what my father said, again: Believe in yourself – and contribute. I build relationships and that is what this business, at its heart, is all about. I was trained well at Minnesota State University. My job is a blend of all that I enjoy: marketing, making things happen strategically, advancing a brand in a market. It taps my creative side.

CONNECT: And being intuitive?

CARPENTER: In this business you have to be a step ahead of what is going to happen. And you have to be curious; eager to learn; keeping a finger on a competitor’s pulse. Through it all I’m still a teacher at heart.

CONNECT: How many employees are at your Minneapolis office?

CARPENTER: Worldwide we have 2,000 employees in 90 countries. For an agency that has been in America for twelve years that is a true achievement. We have grown because of our clients. The Shandwick regional office in Minneapolis is its largest in the world, with 230 employees.

CONNECT: And Shandwick’s relationship with MSU?

CARPENTER: We helped MSU immediately after Glen Taylor bestowed his generous gift for the construction of what would become Taylor Center. Our graphic design firm, Prospera, worked with Dr. Rush, Starr Kirklin, Kris Conners and Judy Mans in constructing a Hall of Champions within Taylor Center which displays the school’s history and vision. When you walk through Taylor Center now and view the magnificent display cases – it all happened through Starr’s committee and the support of faculty, and the generous contributions of memorabilia from alumni and staff. The Hall of Champions history starts with the school’s 1800s founding by Daniel Buck, and includes memorabilia from the lower and upper campuses, visual examples of student life, organizations, and sports. You will sample a history of the school and its partnerships over the years. It will be marvelous for recruiting students. It is very important in any organization to have a sense of how it came to be, where the future leads, and to know who brought the organization to its current place.

Each year, on the day of our agency’s founding, even though we’ve grown from a handful of employees with Dave Mona in 1981 to over 230 employees now, we always ask Dave to tell us the story of how we were born. It gives us a sense of place and of knowing who we are. It’s our concrete in a fluid world.

© 2001 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Daniel Vance

Daniel Vance

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine

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