Cheri Brennan • Written January 2017
Cheri Brennan started her own consulting business (dba Alliance Communications) in 1990 and has never looked back. She works with corporations, nonprofits, startups and small businesses.
Before joining the ranks of self-employed entrepreneurs, Cheri was the assistant public affairs manager at the Washington State Bar Association. Her background includes positions with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, a multi-office real estate firm, a San Francisco ad agency, a specialty retailer and a community newspaper.
Cheri credits her high school journalism teacher with sparking her interest in the communications profession. “Mrs. A” influenced her decision to forgo an opportunity to be an exchange student to Germany in her senior year, instead accepting positions as editor of the high school newspaper and chief photographer of the yearbook. Visiting Germany (beyond the Munich airport) is still on her bucket list!
Credit also is due her parents for instilling in their children a commitment to “giving back,” whether donating time, talent or treasure.
Growing up in Houghton (now part of Kirkland), Cheri witnessed her parents’ involvement in everything from Campfire Girls, youth sports and the PTA to a Children’s Hospital Guild and myriad community projects, including the volunteer- and donor-led efforts to build the first ballpark at Everest Field and Kirkland’s community swimming pool.
“Friends and family” connections led to commitments to provide pro bono PR services to various nonprofit organizations, including “Operation Iraq,” an initiative of a Kirkland merchant to send holiday gift boxes to U.S. service members, the First Tee of Greater Seattle and the Ten Grands Seattle benefit concert for music education.
This proud (and some say loud) Coug is a graduate of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU. She serves on its Professional Advisory Board and as a program mentor and also volunteers with the university’s burgeoning Viticulture and Enology programs.
She has served as president of the local chapters of the American Marketing Association, the Public Relations Society of America and Marketing Communications Executives International. She is nationally accredited by PRSA and has an MBA from Seattle U’s Albers School of Business.
Among her many accolades is the Jay Rockey Lifetime Achievement Award from PRSA and being one of three 2016 inductees into the Murrow Hall of Achievement.
Musings from a new “Immortal”
What better inspiration for a first-person commentary than to view the writings of the PR Immortals who preceded me. It is a humbling exercise!
- Like Pat Feary, I prefer to fly under the radar and behind the scenes. The spotlight is something I seek for my clients.
- Like Rita Brogan, much of what I do, especially in the pro bono arena, is grounded in applying the tools of our trade to serve the greater good.
- Like Bob Frause, I aspire to practice ethical and strategic public relations and communications.
- Like Nancy Lee, I believe our profession can inspire behavioral changes “for a better world.”
- Like Dave Sharp, I value the connections and collaborations with colleagues and clients (and family).
- Like David Marriott, my accomplishments are due in no small measure to “a whole lot of other people.”
- And like Jay Rockey, I believe in ongoing professional development.
My journey in the PR/mar-com profession began with a road trip to California over Christmas break with a couple of friends from high school (one of whom I married some 17 years later)! It was my senior semester at Washington State University and I had three weeks of courses remaining, so it was time to get serious about job-hunting.
Although our trio’s destination was Huntington Beach, I stopped over in San Francisco for a couple of “informational interviews.” A few weeks later, the president of one of the agencies where I interviewed, David W. Evans, Inc./California, offered me a job as assistant traffic/production manager.
Having spent my entire life in Kirkland, and then three-and-a-half years in Pullman, it was time to start an excellent adventure. San Francisco did not disappoint.
A few weeks into the job, my role changed rather abruptly when my supervisor had a major disagreement with her boss, stormed out of the office and never returned. For this newbie, it was a great learning opportunity on many levels.
After a few years, I decided to make a move and joined the advertising department at Williams-Sonoma, becoming the second person at that fledgling “in-house agency.” Not only did I have the good fortune of working for Chuck Williams (one of the kindest, most hard-working men I’ve ever met), I learned a lot about retailing (and cooking) – but after one non-stop Christmas season (starting in the summer), I decided retail advertising would not be my career.
My Northwest roots are deep, so I relocated back to Seattle, where I joined the staff at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
My role at “the Chamber” encompassed media relations, publications, and special events. I had the good fortune of planning, producing and promoting many civic events, including the “welcome banquets” when Seattle landed its Major League Baseball and NFL teams, when a U.S. president (Gerald Ford) and Secretary of State (Henry Kissinger) visited, and several other memorable events.
The Chamber is also where I met two consummate communications professionals, Hugh Smith (former chairman of Kraft Smith) and Jay Rockey (“the father of PR in Seattle”), who became informal mentors. Their boundless energy, high-caliber work, and commitment to giving back were impressive.
After four years at the chamber of commerce, another career opportunity presented itself, and with it, the chance to broaden my skills.
I joined a large real estate brokerage as its first marketing director. While there, I helped shepherd it through re-branding with a different franchise operation, and experienced the industry’s inevitable market cycles, which could probably best be described as a roller coaster. One economic downturn was particularly brutal, putting the company on the brink of bankruptcy. My being laid off nearly coincided with my wedding date and also threatened our ability to qualify for a home mortgage. Did I mention I was attending graduate school at night with tuition looming for the forthcoming quarter? (The marriage survived, the mortgage was paid off years ago, and I completed my MBA on time!)
That experience served me well, both personally and professionally. I remain friends with many people I met at that brokerage, and it proved to be useful in developing one niche in my current consulting business.
Nevertheless, being unemployed at age 32 was difficult in many ways.
My next stop was brief, as it proved to be a less than perfect fit, so after about six months, I accepted an offer to join the public affairs department at the Washington State Bar Association. My responsibilities included law-related education and community relations, roles I thoroughly enjoyed as I was able to apply a variety of skills, past experiences, and training. I also credit WSBA with giving me the “greener pasture syndrome,” so in 1990, I made the decision to join the ranks of entrepreneurs by launching Alliance Communications, my own consultancy.
For the past 26 years, I’ve had the honor of working with wonderful clients, ranging from well-established but ever-evolving associations to small businesses in and start-ups in various industries. Together, we’ve produced some award-winning campaigns – and changed some behaviors “for the greater good.”
Over the years, I’ve had clients that have introduced me to new interests, such as golf (thanks, Scott Oki) and aroused a curiosity to learn new skills.
As a sole practitioner, I value opportunities to network through professional associations, and I recognize the importance of continuing education. “Giving back” is also an important cog in my wheelhouse (thanks, Mom & Dad).
While I believe my accomplishments pale when compared to other “Immortals,” there are lessons I’ve learned on my journey:
- Street “cred” is important. For example, I took a real estate licensing class and sat for the salesperson’s exam so I could learn the lingo and laws and better serve clients in that arena. Taking golf lessons helped familiarize me with the jargon, rules and traditions of this “Royal and Ancient Game” – knowledge I continue to use in serving golf-industry clients.
- Be a lifelong learner. As a liberal arts major, I lacked a solid business foundation, so 10 years after completing my undergraduate degree, I enrolled in the evening MBA program at the Albers School of Business at Seattle University. (Along the way, I learned some time-management skills.) Last year, an online course on digital marketing netted much more than a certificate.
- Pro bono work can yield amazing rewards. A family member “volunteered” me for “Operation Iraq” (a grassroots project to send gift boxes to our troops), my husband, through his Rotary Club, connected me with “Ten Grands” (a fund-raising concert for music education for kids), and a client asked me to provide pro bono services to The First Tee of Greater Seattle (something I’ve continued for more than a decade). Being able to apply PR skills to “move the needle” for these causes (among others) is very gratifying. A friend and fellow Coug invited me to join her “Celebrate Washington Wine” committee to help raise money for the Viticulture & Enology Program at Washington State University (and led to my being a shamless advocate for Washington wine). A colleague “nominated” me for the Professional Advisory Board at the Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University where I’ve been able to interact with some very accomplished professionals while helping shape the future of that College, and even mentor some up-and-coming pros.
- Compromise is okay – but never on the integrity of your work or ethics.
- Be a risk-taker. Whether it’s a move to San Francisco at age 21 after only living in Kirkland and Pullman, or taking up golf in your 50s, consider the advice of Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
It Was An Era Of 'Change Or Die' – Nov./Dec. 2016