Profile: Helen Ostrowski, global chief executive, Porter Novelli

'What's kind of cool about ­being in Europe is that it feels like home,' says Helen Ostrowski, talking to PRWeek during one of her regular ­visits to Porter Novelli's London office.

The daughter of a Polish father and Swiss mother who emigrated to New Jersey, Ostrowski's ascent to lead a ­
top-ten global PR agency has a rags-to-riches air about it. After fighting in World War II, her father started a window-cleaning business, while her mother was a ‘homemaker'.

The first inkling of her indisputable drive, Ostrowski reckons, was her insistence as a child that she be the  director of an ­annual play put on by the kids in her neighbourhood.

Now in her fifth year as global CEO of ­Porter Novelli, she oversees an Omnicom-owned business with nearly 100 offices, and with revenues growing by around seven per cent. Two-fifths of her time is spent away from the New York HQ. This year she is also chair of US-based membership body The Council of PR Firms.

Ostrowski possesses remarkable poise throughout, her eyes radiating kindness.

While she has made huge strides in her life, she lives just five miles from where she was raised, but adores travel, hiking and sailing, and is married with a son preparing to start college.

After leaving high-school in 1969, Ostrowski joined the PR department of drugs company American Cyanamid, thus beginning a career devoted to the pharma industry. During her decade there, she got a humanities ­degree at night school. Then came five years at Schering-Plough, a firm that at the time ­employed just five women ­globally. Her boss, she recalls, personified ­successful women of that era by having ‘a tough exterior' - because ‘that's almost how you had to be'.

A sense that she was ‘starting to spend more time in meetings than learning about my craft' prompted a switch to agency life, working first for a couple of healthcare boutiques before joining PN in 1993 as head of healthcare.

Trust in pharma firms has plummeted in her time. She recalls 20 years ago at an international convention observing ‘doctors walking round with shopping bags of give-aways from pharma companies'. While she supports the moves by the industry to attain transparency and trust, she laments that ‘the drugs industry tends to get very defensive when under assault'.

Ostrowski characterises the UK media as ‘much more colourful' in language and tone than in her ­homeland, she says. ‘The PR brand names here are ­interesting - such as Red Door and Shine. There is more ­creative ­attention to match your ­colourful ­media environment.'

PN's healthcare practice is its second largest after tech. The US and western Europe dominate the PN landscape. It has pursued the emerging markets of central and eastern Europe, China and India through ‘network members that work like a franchise'. Its public ­affairs offering is expanding through ­acquisition in the US, but an attempt to recruit someone to start a UK lobbying arm recently fell through.

Her global role in mind, she says she wants to ‘break down traditional barriers of geography and practices... to create a culture in which the best minds can be brought together'.

‘I'd like to think companies believe PN is adaptable to, and comfortable around, change. That nimbleness is the critical factor for us.' A thought leadership programme at PN is under way to ­exploit the move to ‘horizontal communication', typified by blogs, as ­established sources of information see their influence diminish.

Ostrowksi admits she has in the past been ‘slow to act in situations where someone hasn't worked out in the job'. Despite owning a ‘boatload of mentoring books' she reads ­biographies - frequently those of US presidents - ‘to learn about leadership'.

She is unwilling to discuss what life might have in store after PN, but at one point lets slip: ‘I suspect I might do something working with ­children, I don't know exactly what.'

Whether for the PN business or for herself, one suspects Ostrowski will do the right thing.

CV - Helen Ostrowski

2002 - Partner and global CEO, Porter Novelli

1993-1996 - Head of healthcare, Porter Novelli

1987 - President, Wang Associates Health Communications

1979-1982 - Manager - internal communications, ­Schering-Plough

1969 - Public affairs executive, American Cyanamid Corporation

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