ANALYSIS: Profile - Tough? You have to be in the oil business - Sondra Fowler is one of PRWeek's 50 most influential women in PR and the IR brains behind Conoco's hugely successful IPO. Sherri Deatherage Green finds out how she made it

A woman tough enough to drag a bunch of reporters to the North Slope of Alaska in December could handle just about any PR task, even publicizing a dollars 4 billion IPO.

A woman tough enough to drag a bunch of reporters to the North Slope of Alaska in December could handle just about any PR task, even publicizing a dollars 4 billion IPO.

A woman tough enough to drag a bunch of reporters to the North Slope of Alaska in December could handle just about any PR task, even publicizing a dollars 4 billion IPO.

Sondra Fowler, the most senior PR person at energy giant Conoco, attacked these projects with a zest and made the best of both events.

Fowler joined Conoco in 1983 after returning from London, where she was a PR manager for British food conglomerate Rank Hovis McDougall. The only American among Rank's 40,000 employees, Fowler cut her PR teeth in a highly competitive media environment.

At the time, 12 British national papers fought to break the most scandalous stories in the early-Thatcher era when 'profit was a dirty word,' Fowler recalls. 'It made me who I am,' she says, crediting the country not only with molding her media relations skills, but turning her into an antiques addict.

Fowler left London and landed in Houston, glad to find the American workplace had become more accepting of women with briefcases than it had been when she crossed the Atlantic five years earlier.

Zest and high standards

High-school friend Tracy Torma pointed her to a job opening at Conoco.

Fowler attacked her first assignment - publicizing a new Alaskan oil field - with fervor. 'I probably over promoted it,' she now concedes. She staged a press event near Deadhorse, AK, an outpost inside the Arctic Circle, in the depths of winter. A Hollywood film crew even tagged along to produce a documentary.

Fowler advanced steadily at Conoco, putting in a few years at one-time parent Du Pont in Wilmington, DE. She returned to Houston to write speeches for former Conoco CEO Constantine Nicandros, who, she says, boosted her abilities. 'I didn't know I could do some of the things he expected me to,' she recalls.

Soon after, Archie Dunham took over the company's leadership and Fowler moved into its top PR position. She supervises a staff of 14 who handle media relations, global philanthropy, crisis communication, video production and special projects, turning to New York's Gabbe Group for outside help.

Although she reports directly to SVP Mike Stinson, the role involves working closely with Dunham.

'She's a phenom,' says Gabbe Group partner Jill Gabbe who claims Fowler is one of her most challenging clients. According to Gabbe, Fowler has high expectations of everyone, and can best be described as demanding and inspiring. 'There's a scrappiness that exists at Conoco that is very positive,' she says.

One of Fowler's biggest challenges came in February 1998 on a business trip in New York. She was told to be in Dunham's Houston office early the next morning. Chemical giant Du Pont, which had purchased Conoco in 1981, decided to spin off its oil and gas interests, turning the 120-year-old energy company into an independent again.

Dunham had carefully pushed for separation since becoming CEO. The two companies were moving in opposite directions, with Du Pont's interest lying in life sciences. The parent company agreed to sell 20% of Conoco's stock in an IPO, then divest the rest through a stock swap with Du Pont investors.

With oil prices sinking and the stock market volatile, Conoco's timing seemed dismal. The mandatory quiet period between the IPO announcement and the stock issue proved particularly frustrating, rendering the company unable to respond to negative analyst predictions and take-over rumors.

'We concentrated our efforts on the minute we could be vocal,' Fowler recalls.

From fast learner to award-winner

Du Pont had handled most IR tasks during Fowler's tenure at Conoco, so she had to learn fast. 'I was scared to death,' she admits. Fowler began by studying other large IPOs. The staff at Lucent, an AT&T spin-off, proved particularly helpful. Conoco hired Kekst & Company for IR support, and Fowler says she also mined the New York Stock Exchange and her company's lawyers for information. 'I did a lot of reading and asked a lot of dumb questions,' she says. But Fowler wasn't alone. The stock market was new territory for almost everyone at Conoco.

Conoco instituted what Fowler called a 'drumbeat' approach to IR and PR, tapping out strategically timed messages after the IPO. The biggest crescendo came when the stock was issued in October 1998. Two groups of executives made the analyst rounds, and Fowler distributed press kits detailing the company's activities during the quiet period. Conoco draped the NYSE with banners and served coffee from antique gas pumps. The company hosted a cocktail party on the exchange floor and flew in 15 employees from around the globe who had written winning essays about independence.

The IPO blasted past all expectations, raising a record dollars 4.4 billion and encouraging Du Pont to put an additional 10% of the company on the block.

Fowler's effort scored her an Arthur Page Society award last year and put her on PRWeek's list of the top 50 most influential women in PR.

'She did a fantastic job of elevating Conoco's brand recognition and exposure within the financial community after our IPO,' Dunham says.

For other PR practitioners facing IPOs, Fowler recommends soaking up as much information as possible. 'Just try to learn as much as you can every day, and pretty soon, you're an expert,' she says.

Since gaining independence, Conoco has positioned itself as a mid-sized independent in a sea of huge oil companies and as a leader in exploration and environmental stewardship. PR people should try to be the conscience of management and get ahead of the environmental issue, says Fowler, adding that companies ought to respect the public's desire that the environment be protected.

At Conoco, Fowler was instrumental in promoting nine environmental initiatives the year after the Exxon Valdez spill. The company moved to double-hulled tankers, for example, before the government mandated them. 'We made that decision on our own because we felt like it was the right thing to do,' she says.

Torma, who now runs Torma Communications in Houston, has considered Fowler a mentor since their days as cub reporters at the Longview Morning Journal.

'There was no doubt that she would be successful,' says Torma. Weekends often finds Fowler working at her ranch house on land her great-grandfather settled near tiny Jenkins, Texas.

Perhaps Fowler hints at the true key to her success in explaining her attitude toward Conoco's IPO: 'I didn't want to look back on the whole thing and say I didn't make the most of it.'



Sondra Fowler

Corporate public affairs manager

Conoco



1975 - Earns journalism degree from East Texas State University

1975-1977 - General assignment reporter, Longview (TX) Morning Journal

1977-1978 - Employee newsletter editor/PR assistant, Southwestern Life Insurance (Dallas)

1979-1983 - PR manager, Rank Hovis McDougall (London)

1983-present

Various positions with Conoco and former parent company DuPont.



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