Looking for a textbook case of leadership? Forget the GOP politicos hamming it up in Philadelphia, and look a bit further West towards America’s heartland. Look for Mike Swenson.
Looking for a textbook case of leadership? Forget the GOP politicos
hamming it up in Philadelphia, and look a bit further West towards
America’s heartland. Look for Mike Swenson.
During his 12 years as president of the public relations division of
Barkley Evergreen & Partners, Swenson has grown the staff from two to
22, expanded the agency’s base of national clients and boosted BE&P’s
involvement in industry leadership.
Bosses, co-workers and clients rave about his ability to motivate,
listen, challenge and praise. ’He has the most impressive people
skills,’ says Bill Fromm, CEO and founder of BE&P, which got its start
as an advertising agency back in 1964. ’There are people who manage and
people who lead. Mike leads. He garners incredible loyalty from the
people he works with.’
Back in 1988, Fromm told Swenson he could do whatever it took to develop
an independent public relations division for the ad agency, Kansas
City’s largest with dollars 210 million in billings in 1999. Swenson’s
PR division is small - generating only dollars 2.2 million in PR income
last year - and it spent most of last year resigning small local
accounts in an effort to better align its PR work with BE&P’s
The move was also intended to nationalize the agency’s efforts around
larger retainer clients won in 1999, including Hill’s Pet Nutrition,
Pearle Vision and Payless Shoe Source. Right now, about half of the PR
division’s clients have some connection with BE&P’s advertising.
A good example of Swenson’s new client base is Hill’s Pet Nutrition,
which hired BE&P after a national search for an agency of record 18
months ago. Not satisfied with the New York-based agency it had been
using, Hill’s met with Swenson and found the perfect match.
’With pets, you either get it or you don’t,’ says Blake Hawley, a
veterinarian and marketing director of the Topeka, KS-based manufacturer
of premium and prescription pet food. ’They seemed to be pet people.
Mike had a cat that was something like 22 years old, which is very
Hawley says Swenson and his team immersed themselves in Hill’s business,
from spending time at headquarters and manufacturing plants to informal
chats about related and non-related topics: ’They went above and beyond
every single time with new ideas or concepts that pushed us to do or
think about things.’ Hawley even used Swenson as the focus of a paper on
business ethics for a class he’s working on for his MBA at the
University of Kansas.
Adults and partners
So what is Swenson’s secret? ’I try to keep the rules to a minimum and
treat people like adults. If you do that, people respond in kind,’ says
the 44-year-old Topeka native.
So do clients. Kathy Collins, vice president of marketing communications
for Lee Jeans, has seen those leadership traits displayed consistently
throughout her five-year association with Swenson. ’When you work with
an agency, you either feel like it is a partner or a vendor. Mike and
his team are partners,’ Collins says. Swenson and his team created the
Lee National Denim Day, a cause-marketing program that has raised
dollars 16.5 million for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation
(another client) during the last four years.
Swenson ’allows you a great deal of freedom,’ says Dean Davison, VP of
PR and communications at Employment Reinsurance, a dollars 7 billion
division of General Electric. Davison worked for Swenson at BE&P for 10
years before opting for a corporate office about a year ago. ’He pushed
and challenged me and treated me like an adult. He was very supportive,
listened and would kick my backside when I needed it,’ he recalls.
Swenson, who is married and the father of two sons and two stepchildren,
credits his background in politics and journalism for his ability to
work well with people.
As a director of the nightly news at the NBC affiliate in Topeka in the
late 1970s, Swenson learned how to manage multiple personalities, many
with egos and creative spirits, to get the job done. While press
secretary to former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, Swenson got his chops in
PR, crisis management and reputation building.
His five years with Carlin ’helped drive home to me that two things
really matter when it comes to reputation: have a clear and convincing
message and small things really do count. Sometimes you get too caught
up and forget the payoff of the little things, like returning phone
calls,’ he says.
For Swenson, the key to working with CEOs is to put PR into terms that
resonate in the boardroom. ’If I sit across the table from a chief
executive officer and talk about public relations, his eyes might glaze
over,’ Swenson says. ’But if you are talking about the reputation of the
company, its brands, products and personnel, they get it. It puts public
relations on a different level.’
Swenson’s leadership style isn’t limited to the corridors of his
He’s been recognized by the IABC and is also in the final year of a
two-year term as president of IPREX, a worldwide partnership of about 60
independent public relations agencies.
Forging unity among independents
While some debate the value of PR networks, Swenson credits the IPREX
partnership with leveling the playing ground for independents as the
industry continues to consolidate. Myra Borshoff, a founding partner of
Borshoff Johnson Company in Indianapolis and a member of IPREX since
1988, says Swenson has played a critical role in the group’s growth.
At IPREX’s most recent annual meeting, it welcomed more new members than
ever before. ’I attribute some of that to Swenson. He seems to be able
to motivate people pretty well,’ Borshoff says. ’It’s not easy to manage
the owners of 60 independent PR firms, each with their own ideas and not
given to unanimity.’
Swenson, who also teaches journalism at his alma mater, the University
of Kansas, tells students that his experiences on both sides of the
media have been indispensable in his career in public relations. ’Even
though the business of communication is big, we all have at the core the
same thing in common: to inform and persuade. You have to get the
information out the door,’ he says.
Barkley Evergreen & Partners
Political reporter and news editor
Assistant press secretary for Kansas Gov. John Carlin; rose to press
secretary in 1982
Joins Barkley Evergreen & Partners
Named president of PR division