Public Relations professionals recently packed the Palmer House Hilton to honor its rising stars and P.R. mavens like D. Michelle Flowers Welch, Flowers Communications Group founder and CEO.
From McDonald’s to MillerCoors, the agency, now celebrating its 21st year of business, is one of the most successful multicultural public relations agencies in existence.
“I knew at some point in time I was going to be an entrepreneur, it was just [a matter of deciding] what the business would turn out to be,” Flowers Welch tells rolling out.
In 2011, Flowers Welch passed the torch to Rashada Whitehead, Flowers Communications Group president, and launched a sports marketing firm, Welch Consulting.
Here, D. Michelle Flowers Welch discusses her journey to realizing a stellar career in public relations.
How did you discover Public Relations?
My first career path was journalism. I was going to be a reporter, and I did internships at a newspaper and a television station in my home state of North Carolina. When I graduated from college, one of my first job offers was at a television station in North Carolina.
However, my guidance counselor had told me about public relations and it sounded very interesting, but I didn’t know what all it entailed. The deeper I got into the discipline, the more I knew about how I could be in public relations and still shape the news and work in media. That was exciting as a career opportunity.
The week before I was to start as a television reporter, I accepted a job as a communications specialist at a major corporation — and the rest is history. I’ve been in public relations since I graduated from college, Winston Salem State in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
Why did you take root in Chicago?
I have family here and I have always visited Chicago and absolutely loved it. I had two choices — Chicago or Miami. I chose Chicago because of the wonderful educational institutions here, and because I knew that in order to start the business, I really needed a master’s degree that would help me to focus and have the skill set that I knew companies would be looking for.
I went to Northwestern to get my master’s degree in advertising and it has proven to be an invaluable tool for the work that we do.
What did you expect when you launched your agency 20 years ago? What did you experience?
I thought I would start the business and hit the ground running because Burrell was out there, Mingo was out there, Bob Dale was out there, and since they were out there already paving the way, we would just come with the public relations pitch.
Well, first I have to sell you [the client] on the idea of why you need to do the PR pitch, and that was interesting. As we were walking in the door, I was selling PR as one of your valuable tools.
What is the value of the PR program for diversified audiences?
You have advertising over here, and that’s reaching our market in one way, but you really need some targeted PR initiatives and then you’ll have a more complete program out here.
For example, a [toothpaste] ad says one thing, one message in one way. That toothpaste as a brand — that is so deep — people need to know about your concern for our dental health. You can’t really communicate that in an ad. But it you have these dental trucks going out in the community, you care about us as a people and that will ultimately impact your sales, and we’re going to buy you because we like the brand.
Two decades later, what challenges remain for black public relations agencies?
The hesitance and slow nature of embracing diversity — of really seeing the need to have a diverse staff on their payroll and supporting companies that help them to reach diverse audiences — is one of the challenges the industry faces.
Today, it’s a good thing because they see it. They see the need for PR; they see the need for multicultural firms out here. So you just have to go in and sell the skill set today. You don’t have to sell that there are XYZ African Americans and there are XYZ Hispanics, because they see it.
Other notable winners at the PCC Trumpet Awards include Christina Steed and Chevonne Collins of Flowers Communications Group and Cheryl Pearson-McNeil, SVP, Nielsen.