PROFILE: Homan finds the odd night out sharpens her PR skills

Working hard to show Chicagoans a good time is trickier than it looks - especially when it's not your only occupation. But John N. Frank finds Susanna Homan is in no hurry to give up her day job

Working hard to show Chicagoans a good time is trickier than it looks - especially when it's not your only occupation. But John N. Frank finds Susanna Homan is in no hurry to give up her day job

Dan Edelman, founder and patriarch of the Edelman PR empire, has a reputation for working hard and expecting his people to work equally hard. That's why he doesn't normally countenance an employee taking any outside jobs. "Over the 50 years we've been in business, we've been pretty consistent in saying you can't have two jobs," declares Edelman. But he made an exception for Susanna Homan, a group supervisor in the Chicago office of Edelman-owned PR21. Homan handles PR by day for such clients as the city of Louisville, KY, and Jose Cuervo. But in the evenings, she takes on her second job, as nightlife columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. For the past two years, Homan has been successfully working both sides of the PR/journalism divide, say coworkers at each job. The notoriety she's gotten from her column (which mentions her working at PR21) serves as an icebreaker with prospective clients. "It's instant credibility for us," says Bridget Brennan, PR21 SVP and a long-time colleague of Homan's. Brennan first hired Homan at cell phone company PrimeCo in 1996. Brennan left for PR21, but soon persuaded Homan to join her. "The moment I met her I knew she was going to be a star," says Brennan. Homan wasn't thinking about being a star back in 1995 when she faced graduation from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She had concentrated on newspaper reporting while in school, but "right before I graduated, I realized I would be making $14,000 a year for the rest of my life as a reporter," Homan recalls. So she decided to go into PR, and while at a Chicago shop, she worked on such accounts as Motorola and PrimeCo, through which she met and eventually went to work for Brennan. At PrimeCo, "I learned so much about how to launch a start-up," Homan recalls. She apparently learned well, because when Brennan left, Homan was offered her job. "I was 25 and I had my own office," she says. "PrimeCo really helped me figure out what I was doing as a PR person." When Homan left PrimeCo three years ago to join PR21, any thoughts of being a reporter were behind her. Rather, she was intrigued by the challenge of helping Brennan build a consumer PR practice at PR21. However, one of the accounts Homan took on at PR21, Jose Cuervo, would lead to her columnist career. While on a media tour in Mexico for the tequila maker, Homan met a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who mentioned the paper's new editor wanted to start a nightlife column and couldn't find anyone on staff willing to give it a try. "Nobody wanted to work the club scene with a bunch of 22-year-olds at two in the morning," Homan says. She decided it sounded like fun, though, and wrote to the paper. That first approach produced no response, so when Homan ran into the paper's marketing VP at a party, she lobbied for the job. That led to a test column, and Homan got the job in May 2001. "The opportunity was just so compelling," Homan says. "I was 27 and I couldn't imagine anything more exciting. Most people in their 20s on newspapers would be writing up the police blotter or doing obits." The Sun-Times gave Homan wide latitude in creating her column, Susanna's Night Out. She quickly discovered that getting news about clubs and entertainment is a bit different than just going out on the town after work. "Even if you're somebody who likes to party, studying it is very different than just meeting your friends for drinks," she says. "The first six months were very hard." Homan had to build a beat from scratch, finding appropriate contacts at Chicago night spots, music labels, and other celebrity venues. Brennan saw Homan pushing herself hard during the first six months of her column. "It was taxing on her," she notes, but adds quickly, "she found a way to be very efficient." Homan has developed a following among the young-adult market the Sun-Times is chasing as it battles its larger rival, the Chicago Tribune. "I don't think there's any doubt about it," says Richard Roeper, a veteran Sun-Times columnist. "Susanna is someone people mention to me a lot. She works a lot harder than people realize to make that an entertaining page." The effervescent Homan says she inherited her work ethic from her Greek-immigrant parents. "I remember my mom never taking a sick day," says Homan of her beautician mother. "I grew up with the mentality that you never miss a day of work." Homan's workday usually starts around 8 or 8:30am at PR21, and goes on to about 6pm. At that point, she switches to her reporter hat and looks for entertainment news. With a Thursday deadline for her Saturday column, Homan often writes late Wednesday or comes into her PR21 office at 6am Thursday morning to finish it. She'll sometimes do interviews during her lunch break and take an occasional call from PR people pitching her story ideas while she's at PR21. But for the most part, she keeps her jobs separate, feeling she doesn't want to short-change either. Last year when the Sun-Times launched Red Streak, a new paper aimed at 20-something readers, it asked her to do a three-times-a-week column. Homan tried, but found it too much and asked to scale it back. "I want to feel I am operating at 100% in everything I do," she explains. She's now doing one column a week for Red Streak and one for the Sun-Times. Homan says the discipline of writing the column has improved her PR writing skills. She also thinks she's been able to give clients better advice about how to pitch stories now that she's been on the receiving end. Says Homan, "I'm operating on a much more creative level than I ever have in my life."

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