CRISIS!

Mary Patrick, CEO and Managing Partner, Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications (Chicago, IL)

Mary Patrick is CEO and Managing Partner at Jasculca Terman (JT) Strategic Communications, a 40-year-old public affairs firm that provides issue education and crisis management and builds support for its clients’ controversial legislative, regulatory, and public policy issues. 

Over the past few years, crisis management has been close to 50% of the firm’s business. “Topping the list” over this past year were Covid and social issues, but the agency’s scope is broad: workforce and labor issues, leadership misconduct, immigration, environment, non-Covid healthcare, protest and rally management, and contentious leadership changes . . . anything where there is controversy or two or more sides to a story.

Organizations might engage JT at any time – when they want to plan ahead to avert potential problems, when they know something is coming and want to put the key pieces in place to manage it, or . . . when the news chopper is overhead and news media are banging on the door.

Mary believes storytelling is the most important tool in JT’s arsenal. She advises organizations to be the first to tell their stories. Even if news is “bad,” being first to talk about it provides the opportunity to better define your narrative, bring forth your mission, present your position, and paint the picture, making it “resonant and memorable.” Story “examples” showing the human-interest side of an issue are most compelling. “People remember how an issue impacts a person or a family, or I guess even the world,” she says.

JT comes with a full toolbox and creates for its clients a lot of videos (some even award-winning), infographics, animations, social posts on all platforms, vignettes, testimonials. and talking points. Stories are also communicated directly in person, through Zoom, and in written material. 

The firm’s major events division brings people together with turnkey, end-to-end solutions – from booking venues and speakers, planning breakout sessions, and providing all levels of seamless, onsite technical support. Covid and “going virtual” meant the firm had to add an additional technological layer. Does the client need their event to be interactive? How will people raise a hand, ask a question, put things in the chat? What needs to be done to keep “zoomed out” audiences interested and engaged?

The most challenging PR question? What can an organization do when things have gone catastrophically bad and the story has gotten really big? Who should the organization contact directly to help people understand its perspective, its point of view, the scope of the issue, and what the organization is doing about it? When is “strategic silence” appropriate? 

Handling this kind of crisis is where JT excels. Mary says there are times when mistakes have been made or things have gone bad for an individual or organization, and the entity (or JT on its behalf) has to own the responsibility, apologize, and tell people what will be done to correct the situation. . . if it wants to rebuild trust and credibility. “You can never say that it’ll never happen again,” Mary warns.

Mary can be reached on the Jasculca Terman website at JTPR.com.

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Mary Patrick, who is the CEO and Managing Partner at Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications based in Chicago, Illinois. Welcome to the podcast, Mary.

MARY: Thanks, Rob.

ROB: It’s good to have you here. Why don’t you start off with a little bit of an introduction of Jasculca Terman and the focus of the firm? Where do you all excel? 

MARY: Sure. Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications – and we’ll make it easy for everybody; we typically call ourselves JT – JT was founded by Rick Jasculca and Jim Terman 40 years ago this year. We’re a public affairs firm, which means we focus on issues like legislative, regulatory, public policy, areas where there might be controversy or two sides. We do a lot of educating around issues, and we do a lot of crisis management work. I would say over the last few years, crisis management has been at least 50%, maybe more, of our business.

ROB: Wow.

MARY: Big picture, to describe us, I would say what our superpower is, what we’re great at, is storytelling. That’s how we look at the world. Storytelling in all its forms and all its situations.

You can imagine, for instance, over the last year, if we are doing a lot of crisis management work, we’ve been working on COVID in all its iterations. We’ve had a lot of social justice issues that our clients are managing and trying to communicate around. Those currently top the list, but we have several crisis projects that don’t touch either of those issues – things like workforce and labor issues, maybe misconduct by a leader. We’ve done a lot of work in the immigration space, in the environment, in other aspects of healthcare besides COVID. We’ve helped people handle protests and rallies and controversial leadership changes and a whole lot more.

But storytelling is really where we excel, and we look at it, honestly, as defining the narrative on your terms. It’s about bringing your mission, your position to life and really painting a picture, making it resonant and memorable. And we think examples really make a difference, especially the human interest side of an issue or what you’re trying to do. Those are the most compelling. Those are the most connecting. Those are the things people remember: how an issue impacts a person or a family, or I guess even the world.

And we tell those stories through a variety of vehicles. We have an in-house creative director and video producer, so we produce a lot of videos – some even award-winning. We use infographics and animations. We do social posts on all different platforms. We create vignettes and testimonials and talking points. We have a major events division, and we see that as a really important companion in terms of our public affairs work bringing people together. And of course, that has pivoted to also doing actually quite a few virtual events in the last year and a half.

The other way we tell stories is directly in person or through Zoom, and of course, with the written word. We obviously put a lot of stock in what we write and those kinds of materials.

ROB: Dig in a little bit on – during normal times, and maybe coming up, what does an event that you’re involved in, that JT puts on, look like? What’s an example or a big picture, at least, of who it’s for, who comes to it, that kind of thing?

MARY: We’re working on a major event right now for a major not-for-profit that focuses on women’s issues. They’ve done this for years in person, and it draws 2,000 people. The issues around missing that level of networking and how we bring that back through a virtual lens – they have a major speaker who I can’t share yet, but they have a major speaker who we will bring in via satellite. There will be breakout rooms so people can have a little bit of that experience of networking with each other. We helped them produce some video vignettes around the women who have received grants through this organization for the amazing work they’re doing in a variety of spaces.

We’ll package that all – our team works with a variety of platforms, depending on a client’s needs. Do we need an event to be interactive? Are there places where people will be able to raise a hand, ask a question, put things in the chat? All those aspects are considered as we pull these things together.

And what we’ve discovered in the many events that we’ve been doing over the last 16 months during COVID is that interaction is important. Visuals are important. Getting a lot of variety, so you’ve got some live components and then you also have some prerecorded components. Making it as interesting as possible for people who are experiencing Zoom fatigue at best.

ROB: Got it. It really is turnkey, end-to-end. In normal times you’re talking about everything from booking a venue, booking speakers, planning for breakout sessions in reality. It sounds like a turnkey, end-to-end, and very complicated situation. And then to also have to turn around and evolve that online while you’re at it.

MARY: Exactly. I think it’s all about asking the right questions and really thinking about what it is our client is trying to accomplish with an event and managing all the logistics that go into pulling that together seamlessly, smoothly, and mainly, if we do our job right, then you’re just troubleshooting the live aspects. And putting the technology into the middle of it in the last 16 months, there’s an extra level of holding our breath a little bit. [laughs] But we’ve got some terrific people in-house who have really pivoted very well, and our event business is as strong as it’s ever been, which has been in some respects a surprise to me.

ROB: I’m sure when we dig into the crisis side a little bit, that seems like every day could be a fresh and new surprise and an opportunity to jump in. What does the life cycle of a crisis look like for you?

MARY: Everyone is different, and people bring you in at different times. We have actually worked with clients who want to plan ahead, which we think is a great idea. That’s even before the beginning of a crisis, when a client is thinking about their potential vulnerabilities and what they want to put in place so that they wouldn’t have to scramble at the last minute. We’ve come in at that time.

We’ve come in when someone knows something is coming and they’re anticipating it and they want to plan for the real event and put all the key pieces in place. We’ve been called when the news chopper is overhead or the media is already knocking on the online door, asking the client for comment or pointing out the tough issues. And we’ve also been called when a client had thought or hoped that they could manage it internally, and a couple days into it they realize that they really could use some outside expertise.

There are some wonderful, wonderful organizations, corporations, that have terrific communications staff, but a lot of the communications staff doesn’t have crisis experience. So we often work hand in hand with an in-house communications team, helping them manage the crisis with the expertise that we can bring to the table. And it starts with asking all the right questions and thinking about scope and scale and audiences and who we can try to get to, to share your story before things get really big in the media.

If things have already gotten big in the media, who do we need to reach out to directly to help make sure people understand your perspective, your point of view, the actual scope of the issue, and especially what you’re doing about it. There are absolutely times when things have gone bad for someone, or mistakes are made, and you have to step up and own them. You have to step up and apologize for them. If you want to build back trust and credibility, you have to tell people what you’re going to do. You can never say that it’ll never happen again.

ROB: [laughs] Can we highlight that and tell people that? Because some people want you to guarantee it will never happen again.

MARY: Right. We’re very careful about how we talk about that. But we do help a client put as many things in place to hopefully avoid it happening again.

ROB: I think in any firm, there’s a potential for conflicts between individual people on the team and the clients. You can imagine a marketing firm where someone’s an ethical vegetarian; they have to market for a hamburger chain. These things happen. But here in your world, where you’re talking about things where, as you say, stuff is out in the media, it seems to an extent unavoidable that your team and you – bringing your whole self to work – will have feelings about a topic that might be in tension with a client. How do you think about that / handle that? Does it impact who gets work on what client?

MARY: Generally, I think everyone who works at JT believes in this idea that everyone should have a chance to tell their story. JT is 40 years old; I’ve been there for 36 of those 40 years, and in those 36 years, I’ve only been part of probably two experiences – and it wasn’t even me – where we were working on issues that people either had a strong feeling that they could not represent a client as well, or they’d had a personal experience that made them feel they could not tell the story for the client just based on what the client was dealing with. But that’s two experiences in 36 years.

ROB: It resonates with the similar role of – not to say that someone’s charged with a crime, but the defense attorney and the public defender. There is a right to being represented fairly and accurately.

You did reference – I think it’s interesting – that you’ve been with the firm 36 out of the 40 years. It’s notable that you are not Jasculca or Terman, but you are the CEO and managing partner. How did you come to be involved? And how did you end up in charge?

MARY: When I got out of college – I studied PR and communications at Miami University, and I thought as I was studying it that what I really wanted to do is agency work. I sort of thought that was the only path. Literally maybe a month before I got out of school, I went to some presentation or lecture where someone was talking about not-for-profit PR. It opened my eyes. I started to realize that agencies aren’t the only place to practice; there are people who do PR for hospitals, for universities, for not-for-profits.

I decided that what really interested me was the not-for-profit side. So when I moved to Chicago – and this will tell you how very, very old I am – I literally went to the library to look up all the not-for-profits that had headquarters in Chicago. I sent them my letters and I pitched them and called them, and my first job was with the American Red Cross in their Midwest chapter downtown.

In my first year of being there as the Public Affairs Blood Services Specialist, the AIDS crisis hit. You can imagine what sort of baptism by fire that was for a 23-year-old fresh out of college, dealing suddenly with the safety and sanctity of the volunteer blood supply as it related to AIDS. I ended up doing lots of interviews and essentially learning, by being in it, how a crisis works.

Our job was to keep people continuing to voluntarily donate their blood, because it very, very, very much matters in terms of the health of the world. And people were afraid. AIDS was so linked to needles and so linked to blood. So that was my first taste of this issues management piece, and I really found that I liked it a lot.

So when I was thinking about a next step, I looked at agencies that were smaller and that might have some sort of political or cause-related path. I honestly, truly lucked into JT in its – I guess it wouldn’t be infancy. In its toddlership. It was four years old. It was smaller then. I really got the ability to grow and then eventually help shape the agency over the years.

And I think what keeps people there – I’m not the only one with such longevity. We have a number of people at our firm that have been there for 20 years or more. And its’ honestly because of two major things. One is the people at JT, who are incredible and brilliant and strategic and passionate and compassionate. I think that’s what really makes the firm. And secondly the variety of issues. As you said, sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing day to day. That’s been 36 years for me. I mean, I think I know some days, but there’s going to be a twist or a turn, or there’s going to be something that comes up, a new issue to manage or a new way that someone has impacted what you’re working on, and you need to address it. That variety, that adrenaline, and the people are what keeps us there.

ROB: What did that transition look like from the original partners to – it seems like they’re probably less involved now than they were initially. How did that manifest itself?

MARY: Interestingly, that’s not true. Most people assume that, and in fact, when my announcement went out when I became the CEO, we made sure that front and center, people knew that Rick and Jim weren’t going anywhere, not even partially.

They remain heavily, integrally involved. I’ve had a lot of people outside of the firm say, “Oh my God, don’t you wish you could get those guys out of there?” And I don’t wish that at all. They’re fantastic and smart and supportive, and have been very, very good to me in terms of letting me lead and stepping back from those issues, but still with a great passion and drive to do the work.

It’s been a really wonderful experience for me. I’ve worked at every level of the firm, and as – the partners would probably kill me for saying this, but once they turned 70, they really felt like they needed to take a look at what was next and how the firm should be led going forward. So I’ve been the CEO and managing partner for a little over three years.

ROB: That is excellent. Thank you for clarifying. Congratulations. It reminds me, actually, in some ways of an agency I know of in Atlanta called Nebo. These two guys started it together, and they had someone who came up through the business, and they put this awesome woman in charge as their president even though she didn’t start the thing. I think they have benefitted from it, probably much as you have. And not for nothing, I think it has also really helped their entire organization to feel like they have a little bit more balanced leadership and it’s not just two guys running the show. There’s a woman in power all the way up to the top.

MARY: I think that’s true, and I think both J and T have always been very supportive of growing people internally. And again, that’s why people stay as long as they have. I can’t honestly think of a time in the recent past where we brought someone in at a high level. Our high level people are homegrown. And even when we’re hiring an AE, it usually comes from our intern pool. When we’re adding to the team, it’s usually folks that have done some work with us.

In the past, one of our more recent hires was an intern with us, went off and did something else for a couple years, and came back. We didn’t have a job for her at the time when her internship was completed, but when we did, there she was. It’s that training and that passion and, again, working with a group of people that really support each other and have the clients’ best interest at heart.

ROB: Got it. Mary, as you reflect on that journey, your past few years particularly in charge, but certainly all along the way, I’m sure it’s been a journey of growth. What are some things you have learned in leading JT – some lessons you might’ve done differently if you were starting over today?

MARY: I’ve given that a little bit of thought. There’s so many things I’ve learned over the years – mainly, again, from my wonderful colleagues at JT, and often from clients and the issues that they entrust to us. Frankly, I say this all the time, but I actually mean it. It’s true and authentic that I’m still learning every day, because the issues we manage and the crises we work on really test our skill, can often surprise you and can certainly stretch those strategic muscles.

Obviously, over the years, social media has really changed the practice, often for the better but sometimes not so much. We’re dealing with lots of issues right now that start in social media, and it’s misinformation. In the past, you didn’t have that as much because news was supposed to be vetted. People had a news cycle to confirm or test information. Those are newer and different challenges. The shrinking traditional newsrooms play a big role in how we approach media. The whole “it bleeds, it leads” mentality and “the first to get the scandal out there” has made our jobs different and more difficult.

I guess one very key learning which is fundamental – I hope I grasped it from the beginning, but I may not have – is this idea of telling your story first. Even if it’s bad. Your ability to shape and control the narrative is very important. So whenever you can, as much as you can, playing offense rather than defense is important.

Another tried and true colloquialism around the office is that trouble fills a vacuum. We’ve learned and we’ve seen with our clients that if they put their head down and pretend something’s not there, then someone else is going to define the story for them, and it’s not going to be, generally, the way you want it to be. So again, getting out there first and defining things.

And then a mistake that I feel like I made that I learned a lot from, and I thus far have not made it again – I worked on a project once where I never met the CEO, who was ultimately going to be the main speaker at a press conference that we were pulling together. Then the press conference that we had planned got overrun by protestors. It was a fairly controversial issue that was going to be shared. The mayor of Chicago at the time was going to be part of our press conference, and these protestors really took over at our venue.

When that happened, I had no credibility with the leader because honestly, I’d never met her. So in a time of great turmoil and when there was a need for a lot of debate and conversation and decisions, she didn’t trust me because she didn’t know me. I mean, how could she, right? And so I vowed that I would never let that happen again, and it hasn’t.

ROB: That’s such a good point, too: the value of relationship with clients, the value of investing, the value of having that connection.

You do highlight something that plays very much also into the future of PR and marketing as well. I think it used to be, to an extent – and you know better than I do – most controversies that got any legs had some degree of substance to them. It almost seems like now, there are secret rooms on the internet where people just make up stuff for fun and see what sticks. Do you feel like that’s an actual trend? Is that something you think is growing or shrinking, or is maybe overblown?

MARY: Oh, absolutely. I don’t know how to judge these back room making-up-things, but I will say that we have managed a number of issues that started with literally completely false information. Just completely false. And because it struck a chord or because people wanted to believe it or something, or God help you, goes viral, it puts a company or an organization or a person in a very, very difficult place.

We’re often balancing issues of you don’t want to give something credibility by having your organization enter into the social media fray, but how far does it go before you have to do something? We actually call it strategic silence. Often, we’re going back and forth with boards of an organization, for instance, who are like, “Oh my gosh, why are we not fixing this? Why are we not correcting this?” But you can actually elevate an issue by engaging.

So we have to make sure that people understand, no, we’re not ignoring it. No, it’s not that we don’t see it. We’re actually making a decision to be strategically silent – to a point. A lot of times in those instances, we try to really think about, who are the audiences that matter most to you? Let’s make sure they know the real story.

ROB: What a tricky, tricky balance. Mary, when people want to get in touch with you and with JT PR, where should they find you?

MARY: Well, you practically almost said it. JTPR.com is our website, and that’s where you can learn more about JT and you can see case studies and clients and videos that we’ve produced and meet the team that makes up Jasculca Terman.

ROB: Wonderful. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Mary, for sharing your expertise, sharing your journey. You have really been a long hauler in building this firm up, and I congratulate you on everything that you’ve accomplished together.

MARY: Thanks so much, Rob. I appreciate it.

ROB: All right. Be well. Thanks, Mary.

Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.