Home Blog Uncategorized PR Rock Stars: A conversation with Nicki Gibbs

PR Rock Stars: A conversation with Nicki Gibbs


You only get so many chances to work with someone with the skills, personality and leadership abilities of Nicki Gibbs during the course of your professional career. For me, that opportunity came nearly three years ago when I joined the team at Beehive PR, a small agency in St. Paul. And believe me, when I tell you she’s a rock star, that’s actually an understatment.

Nicki’s one of those rare PR pros who can write, consult, plan, lead and coach–all without missing a beat. Needless to say, that’s not an easy combination to find. But, she serves her clients–and partners with her colleagues–in all those capacities on a daily basis. Flawlessly. OK, so I’m a huge Nicki Gibbs fan. For those of you who have worked with Nicki in the past, you know what I’m talking about.

Enough lavish praise from me–let’s here from this PR Rock Star herself.

Q: You’re a group director (VP for all intents and purposes) at Beehive PR in St. Paul and you have two kids that are involved in a number of activities during any given week. Juggling agency life and a small family can be demanding, but you manage to find balance in the face of chaos—what are your secrets?

I wish there was a secret recipe, but if there is, I haven’t found it yet. I think everybody has to find a plan that works with individual career and family goals.

There are three things that work for me most of the time – prioritizing commitments, managing expectations and being present and focused on what I choose to do.

It is hard to do everything and do it well, so I try to pick the things that are most important, whether it a professional or a personal commitment.

It took me a long time to get comfortable saying no to things, but if I can manage expectations (yes, I can do this, but only this much, or no, I can’t do this, here’s why), it makes my schedule more manageable and keeps me on the up and up with the people who matter most.

I also try to be very mindful of what I chose to do so that I can really focus and give it my best effort. Let’s be honest, my clients don’t want me if I am distracted by my kids sports practice any more than my kids want me if I am distracted by my Blackberry.

It also helps to work in an agency that recognizes the benefit of letting employees work where and when it is best for them, for the team and for clients. Having the technology to support that flexibility is a gift.

Q: I had the privilege to work with you a couple years ago. One of the things I valued most about you was your strong leadership skills. Instead of taking the traditional top-down tack, you seem to favor a flatter, collaborative, more team-based approach. Who were your influences from a leadership perspective as you came up through the ranks? And what about those folks made a lasting impression?

I loathe office politics. In PR we are so often working on tight deadlines and facing other outside pressures that it is fatal to waste time playing the hierarchy game. One of the best ways to avoid it is to surround yourself with smart people and recognize that good ideas come from all levels of an organization or agency.

I have been very lucky in my career to be surrounded by great leaders and great teams who are more interested in great work than silly ego games. At the risk of this sounding like an Oscar acceptance speech gone wrong, here are a few folks who really influenced me, either as leaders or teammates: Cindy Matson, Sara Gavin, Chris Werle, Joe McGrath, Jorg Pierach, Lisa Hannum, Ayme Zemke, Kelly Puspoki, Rebecca Martin, Matt Hanson and Allison Resner.

The thing I loved most about working with each of them was the exposure to different styles, different strengths, and to be candid, different weaknesses. I think it helped me realize that one of the most important leadership skills is flexibility. If you can meet people where they are and keep an open mind about how to approach any particular challenge, nine times out of ten you will come up with a stellar solution. Of course, it helps when your team expects kick-butt results and will accept nothing less, something my influencers all have in common.

Q: Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some outstanding writers. I’d put you right near the very top of that list. Since PR professionals, as a group, continue to struggle in this area (in my opinion), what tips and tools could you offer up to younger PR professionals for developing and honing this critical skill?

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice actually came from my high school English teacher, “Choose your words deliberately, but don’t love them so much that you can’t kill them.” This is a great filter for clear, concise and persuasive writing. It also helps keep things in perspective when somebody takes a red pen to your work.

Another thing that can help you develop your writing style is to read – a lot. And read all kinds of things – newspapers, trade publications, blogs, business books, novels. You get a great sense of how to tell an effective story just by knowing what you like to read.

I think the last thing is to practice writing everyday. Writing is just like any other skill, the more you do it, the better you will be. And don’t be afraid to ask somebody to take a red pen to your work. Feedback is essential, as long as you take it in stride.

Q: You’ve mentioned to me a few times that one of your dreams is to write a book/novel. I’m curious, what would be the subject and potential title of that future New York Times best seller?

There are two books I want to write. One is a cookbook. The working title is “No Reservations”. It would be a collection of my favorite family recipes and adaptations of meals I’ve enjoyed eating out. The idea is that you don’t have to go to a restaurant to enjoy a great meal. You just have to take a little risk, try something new, and if it doesn’t work out, be okay with pancakes for dinner.

The other book I want to write is some kind of historical fiction. I have not formulated the plot yet, but I know I will enjoy doing the research if I can ever pin down the storyline.

Q: Over the years, I’m sure you’ve submitted your fair share of PR award entries. I know this is the first year Beehive PR has entered the awards scene locally. Your shop has already won “best in show” (Pinnacle Award) at the MN IABC Bronze Quill awards. Now, you’re up for a handful of MN PRSA Classics Awards next week. In your opinion, what elements are essential to a winning award entry?

I think agencies have a love-hate relationship with awards. They are great to win, but it takes an incredible amount of effort to submit a strong entry. Again, if there was a secret recipe, I’d love to have it. As it is, here are a few things that have worked out well for us:

Start early – When you start a new project, start thinking about it like an award entry. Keep an electronic file of all the supporting elements an entry ne
eds, like plans, research, copies of clips, anecdotes from clients and other stakeholders. It is much easier to keep the file as you go than to try to go back and find everything at the end of a campaign. I am dating myself here, but back in the day, I used to have a whole bookshelf of three-ring binders overflowing with paper copies of everything we needed to enter an award. I killed a lot of trees. So glad there is a more efficient way to go now.

Be selective – Entering awards is time consuming, costly and sometimes stressful. You can keep it more manageable by being really critical on the front end. Is the entry really award material? If you decide to enter, are you entering in the right category? Would it fit another category better, or is there one with less competition? Doing a really great job on fewer entries can increase your winning percentage. That’s the whole point – nobody enters these things just for fun.

Tell a good story – Remember, award entries are judged by other PR people and communicators. They can see through your PR-speak and corporate jargon and frankly, it gets boring after about two entries. If you can tell a good story about your project that makes the judge think, “I wish I had worked on that program” you are half way to hardware.

Demonstrate results – We are challenged as PR people to demonstrate results. There is a difference between measuring the effort (like number of clips, circulation numbers, ad equivalency, etc.) and measuring outcomes (how did key stakeholders respond, did they answer the call to action, are there measurable business results). In my experience at Beehive and elsewhere, what sets winning entries apart is demonstrating that the work really made a difference to the client’s business.

Be memorable – Judges look at mountains of entries. If your entry stands out in tone, style and design, you are very likely to get a second look. If a judge thinks your entry looks interesting enough to read past the two-page summary, you probably just went the last half of the way to hardware.

Q: Unless things have changed drastically in the past year-and-a-half, I’m guessing you’re still doing yoga and pilates a couple times a week over the lunch hour at Beehive (one of the many perks of working at Beehive PR). Why do you continue to take time out of your busy schedule each week to do this and how does it help you stay healthier?

I love our yoga and pilates classes. I don’t get there as often as I would like, but I can tell a difference in my day when I do. I feel more relaxed and more creative when I get back to work. Since this is often the only time I get to work out, it is a benefit to my overall health – mental and physical. Around here you are likely to hear somebody say “only one workout away from a good mood,” and there is truth to that.

(Note: Photo above–the Beehive PR team accepting the Pinnacle Award at the 2009 IABC Bronze Quill Awards)



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