ANALYSIS: Profile - Swenson: making PR work at an ad agency. A Jayhawk with a soft spot for pets, Mike Swenson has built the PR arm of Barkley Evergreen & Partners up from scratch over the past decade. Along the way, he’s set standards for l

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.

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

advertising arm.

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


Named partner.

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