With her polished, urbane persona, you'd hardly guess that Valerie Denney was a former steelworker. But this veteran of Mayor Harold Washington's administration approaches her work with a steely resolve, as her Chicago boutique does the heavy lifting for an array of underexposed nonprofits seeking the coverage they deserve.
Describe the company you work for I'm the president of a seven-person agency located in Chicago that specializes in communications strategies for nonprofit organizations.
How did you get into PR? I made a mid-life career change from being a steelworker. I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but ended up working in the press office of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor.
I felt I could do a better job of changing what the media covered as a publicist than as a journalist.
What is your greatest achievement? Starting and maintaining a profitable firm that works with ordinary people who really want to improve the world.
We know how to do communications on a budget and on message for a pretty specialized industry. Since I feel the work they do is very important, that makes me feel great.
What was your best stunt? In our early years, we did a lot of
"guerrilla" media. One time we bought 50 pounds of manure to be dumped on an empty lot slated for luxury housing because the city didn't include affordable housing in the deal. The headline was "This deal stinks!"
What was your biggest screw-up? When Starbucks first came to our area, they sought a local PR firm and called me. I said I didn't do that kind of work. Now I know there are a lot of different ways to do our work, and to, at least, always take a meeting.
What are you working on this week? I am finalizing copy on an information kit for an organization that develops housing for people with AIDS, women leaving welfare, and other special-needs people, along with marketing plans for Iowa legal aid organizations and a national organization specializing in community land trusts. I'm also meeting with the city's Department of Planning and Development to plan ways of getting more coverage in the community press, and I'm developing copy for an assessment of public housing transformation in Chicago.
What invention would make your job easier? An economic theory that demonstrates how funding nonprofits both improves quality of life for everyone and increases personal wealth.
What is the biggest item you've ever put on expenses? The kind of expenses that raise the hair on the back of our clients' necks would probably go unnoticed in a corporate setting. One of our clients had a hard time explaining to his boss how we had piled up $14,000 in fax broadcast bills.
Who would you most like to work with? James Carville. He's funny, smart, and has a great way of making complicated issues simple.
If you were an animal, what would you be? Lioness. You get to lie around a lot, but have real power when you need it.
What is the secret of your success? Stay centered, read a lot, use common sense.