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Sydney Weisman, is a veteran TV, radio, and print journalist. During her college days at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, she worked as a TV weather “girl,” and host of a children’s show on KOMU-TV, NBC in Columbia, Mo.
After graduating, Sydney joined WLS/ABC radio in Chicago, where she was part of an award winning news team. She was the first woman to work in the WLS newsroom, the first woman to work at the ABC Chicago radio news bureau and the first woman to work the overnight police beat in the Chicago Police Department’s press-room. After leaving radio, Ms. Weisman became a prominent freelance writer who opened her own PR firm where she worked on several statewide political and non-profit advocacy campaigns.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, she and her husband (David Hamlin) founded WHPR. Since then, Ms. Weisman has been a successful publicist who has earned the trust of the news media because every aspect of her work as a publicist is informed by her journalistic experience.
WHPR is an award winning, 26 year old LA based PR firm specializing in advocacy and PR/marketing campaigns for nonprofits, associations and small businesses.
MO: How have you managed to grow a successful and award winning business out an initial capital investment of just a few hundred dollars?
Sydney: Looking back, I don’t know how we did it to tell you the truth. We each worked as secretarial temps and saved the money we made from those jobs. Those dollars went into having business cards printed and getting basic supplies and a business phone line. Once we had the cards, we were able to network more effectively, we looked like we were established just by simply having cards. We were relatively new to LA, our only networks were the two political campaigns we had worked on, both losing campaigns. Those networks helped link us to some initial clients and with those initial clients, I felt confident joining networking groups. I felt it was important to be able to list some clients as examples of the kind of work we did, so I waited until we had at least two clients.
I networked assiduously and I think what set us apart, particularly in the 80s, is that we knew what our specialty would be – non-profit and law firms. Those were relatively new niches in the PR community, certainly at our level.
My husband also became the President of our apartment community, which involved him with nearby commercial enterprises, several of which were in the process of development projects. The business executives took note of him and when they needed community outreach counsel, they called on him and that led us to win some major commercial property accounts as well, one of which we’ve been with for nearly 20 successful years.
I firmly believe it is all about connecting. You hear that all the time from the networking gurus, but the important element is to pick a network that works for you and stay with it. It takes a good two years of solid networking before it usually pays off. It can pay off sooner, but the general rule is two years.
MO: After working with your husband for over 26 years, have you managed to strike a balance between work and home? What would your advice be for other couples who run a business together?
Sydney: We work at it and it started from the get go. We did not want to go into business for ourselves, well at least David didn’t. I’d had my own boutique agency in Chicago, but I also agreed a job would be more secure. After we left those losing campaigns, we couldn’t find work that equaled our experience. We could find entry level, low paying jobs, but I was in my mid-40s and didn’t want to be an assistant again. We tried for 10 months to find work and it just didn’t happen.
So when we reached the wall, working for ourselves was the only option. That decision day, we walked around our apartment community’s parks (it has several) and talked about our niche and how we would approach PR. We also knew that working out of our apartment was going to be more than a challenge, we had no money for outside office space.
David said “I will do this with you under one condition: We work 9-5, Monday through Friday. That’s it. Weekends, holidays, evenings, we never talk about work. If you promise to agree to this, I’ll do it.” I promised and that’s been our rule for 26 years. In fact, we have made it so clear to our clients that these are the rules, some are terrified to call us after hours, though of course we are always available to them as needs be.
Whenever one of us veers to work talk after hours, the other says “that’s too close to work” and we stop. I can’t tell you how important this rule has been.
I’ve also been asked “what’s the best part of working with your husband” and the answer is I get to see him at his professional best. It’s one thing to ask your mate at the end of the day “How’d it go today” and have him or her say “Fine.” But unless you’re there on the front lines with them, you don’t know how fine it must have been. I’ve seen David come up with the savviest line in a meeting, something that I would have missed if I hadn’t been in the room. Of course he could tell me he came up with this great line, but it’s not the same as seeing him do it on the spot and having others in the room go “wow.” Working with him has been a privilege and exciting.
MO: You seem to represent many clients who are community oriented and committed to making a difference. Have you ever turned a prospective client down who you felt didn’t share the ethos that WHPR seems to value?
Sydney: Yeah, I just did it last week. I had lunch with fellow chamber member whom I respected. He said he had a project he wanted us to consider. He and I sat down to lunch, did the nice talk about kids and all and then I asked “What’s the project?” And he said he wanted to run for President. I asked, jokingly, “Of the United States?” and he said “yes.” He was dead serious. I asked “When, this year?” and again he said yes (this is December, 2011 that he’s telling me this).
As gently as I could, and without blurting out in laughter, I said I thought it was dangerous, professionally, for him to consider this, others might laugh or misunderstand his passion to correct the ills he sees. I suggested if he were serious about political office, he start locally. So in my way, that was the gentlest turn down I could give but trust me when I tell you, I’d love to do a barnstorming political campaign again.
I don’t remember any turndowns in the nonprofit sector, I’m sure there may have been one or two, but the ones that do come to mind were in the commercial sector. We’ve turned down clients usually because their goals were unrealistic or, frankly, we didn’t like their style. There was one instance where we stormed out of a pitch meeting. The fellow doing the interview was just this arrogant, smug executive, who interrupted us when we started giving him feedback. We endured this for about 45 minutes and David finally slammed his day planner shut, stood and said “Enough.” This was during our earliest of days when we desperately needed an account, so I sat there a beat. David leaned across the table and said “Pal, 85% of what we do is chemistry and there ain’t enough chemistry in this room to make it worth our time. Syd, let’s go.” That was a powerful moment and taught us that we could and would accept clients on our terms, not theirs, no matter what.
I’ll tell you one more because it was also educational for us. We did a pitch meeting with a father and son who owned this software company. We did it as a favor to the son, who was in one of my networking groups. The way that father treated his kid was embarrassing, to say the least, and the guy really didn’t want the PR, the kid did. We endured the meeting and the son could tell we weren’t thrilled. He followed us out and begged us to take the account. Again, this was in our early days. We didn’t want to hurt the son, I would be with him in that networking group after this. So we decided to build in an “aggravation” factor. We would ask for an astronomical fee that the Dad would turn down, the kid would know we tried, end of discussion. The only problem was the Dad said yes and we had that account for a while. But it was another good lesson. We size up contenders and if they seem interested and we know there’s going to be a lot of aggravation, we build that into the fee. If they take it, fine, if they don’t, less aggravation.
In 26 years, we’ve been fortunate to mostly represent folks with whom we have great chemistry and realistic goals.
MO: You’ve been in the PR business for well over 2 decades, what are the most important lessons that you’ve learned? What would be your advice be to an entrepreneur looking to start their own firm?
Sydney: I think a lot of the lessons I would look to I’ve answered above. I hope that a young or new entrepreneur will abide by the lessons we’ve learned, the most important of which is to carve out a life for yourself outside of your work. If you work alone at home, make sure you go to networking meetings regularly, create errands every day to get you out of the house, take Yoga, go sing, but get outside of yourself and especially your home. And always be true to who you are and what you stand for. No one can take your integrity away from you and it will always shine behind you when you present yourself to potential clients or customers.
MO: What company accomplishment are you most proud of?
Sydney: We have several, I’m proud to say. If you’re asking me today, what company accomplishment makes me most proud, it’s our work in the affordable housing community. The payoff, besides the awareness we helped raise on the issue, is that David is being named “Volunteer of the Year” by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce for his recent strategic internal and media work on the “Home For Good Campaign” on behalf of the United Way of Los Angeles and the Chamber – it’s a combined effort to eradicate veteran and chronic homelessness in LA in five years. This in the city with the worst homeless population in the US.
We’ve been working in this arena for 20 years and to see city agencies finally working together, thanks to this campaign, has been a major achievement for us in terms of the small role we’ve played in it.
MO: You created Mastering The Media™ services specifically for advocacy and non-profit organizations. Why did you feel that it was important to concentrate on this niche market?
Sydney: We felt there was a huge vacuum in the advocacy community in Los Angeles. We came from the nitty gritty of Chicago politics, where demonstrations happened routinely – usually around serious issues. Those issues, in LA, were never addressed as vocally or effectively and we wanted to help non-profits find their voice so that serious social and public policy issues would be addressed particularly in the news media. Progress won’t happen unless the entire community is aware of the issues and the political pressure moves those in power to make change. That can only happen with the mainstream media (however you define that) shining a light on the issues. It was much easier in the days when newspapers were still at their peak, we have to be a little more strategic these days. We’re hoping the newspaper industry re-invents itself so that its power will be returned and sustained. I don’t want to sound corny here, but having that First Amendment right means something and we’re all responsible to see that we use it wisely and well. There’s a reason it’s the FIRST Amendment to the Constitution. It’s a profound tool, we dare not lose it.