[Reprint] Behind the promotional curtain: A chat with three of Aspenʹs PR entrepreneurs

October 17, 2011 – By Catherine Lutz, Aspen Business Journal

—In 2010, CNN Money online named being a public relations director one of the top 100 jobs in America (the 84th best job, to be precise). PR directors have a median pay of $85,000, with good opportunities for advancement and high quality of life ratings for personal satisfaction, job security and flexibility, among other criteria.

One could argue that if CNN Money had interviewed those working in the PR industry in Aspen, and working for themselves, that ranking would be even higher. Responsible for creating and maintaining a positive public image for their clients, the three doyennes of Aspen’s PR world have become experts in such things as the local ski mountains, craft beer, and luxury hotels—none too shabby of a list of products to promote.

But behind the idyllic-sounding job description of being one’s own PR boss in a resort town, Sheryl Barto, Jeannette Darnauer, and Maureen Poschman have worked hard to establish and maintain their own companies, in a valley that has its own unique set of challenges to staying in business.

Since the role of a PR director is to garner media coverage for her clients’ products and services, Aspen Business Journal has decided to turn the tables, and shine the spotlight on Aspen’s PR industry through its three main independent players. Here you’ll find the story behind Barto’s O Communications, the Darnauer Group, and Poschman’s Promo Communications, plus their founders’ thoughts on their chosen industry and its future.

Aspen’s first PR agency

Jeannette Darnauer could have easily continued down the parallel track of journalism were it not for a business deal gone sour. Moving to Aspen in 1976 with a solid journalism background in print and radio, her first job was as a video editor on Marty Stouffer’s documentary, The Man Who Loved Bears. She then turned to local media, starting with a stint as an assistant editor of the weekly Aspen Journal and then moving on to radio stations KSPN and KSNO, where she was news director. Her first local public relations job was with the Aspen Skiing Co., where she created and orchestrated the company’s 40th anniversary celebration. In 1988, after three years at Skico, she was asked to return to KSNO, this time asgeneral manager.

Darnauer sought to buy the radio station a couple years later, but the owner reneged on the agreement at the eleventh hour, and she decided to leave. Unsure of what to do next, “I looked at my skill set and my experience, and I thought, ‘I could start my own business,’” she said.

Launching the Darnauer Group in February of 1991, she started big. Her first client was the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Old Snowmass-based “think-and-do-tank” who was “the first to come up with what sustainability means in business,” she said. As well as getting that message out to national and international media, Darnauer set up their communications system and publications department, so they could continue those functions in house.

Her second and concurrent client was the developer Hines, for whom she was tasked with promoting a controversial base village proposal at Aspen Highlands. The project, which got its approvals in 1998 after four years of community relations and public affairs strategies, was “very challenging,” she said.

When Darnauer was starting out on her own in the early 1990s, there wasn’t much PR work going on in Aspen. Several firms were doing marketing and design, “but most people didn’t understand how communications could help their bottom line,” she said.

The Darnauer Group focuses on a strategic analysis of a client’s communication strategy, and how PR and community relations can benefit them in concert with their marketing efforts.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Darnauer Group is a full-service marketing and PR firm, with its roots in communications. Darnauer is also the only local PR agency focused on government and public affairs. The firm has won 50 awards for its work, and currently has three employees (Allison Miller has been with Darnauer for seven years).

ABJ: Give us a sampling of your current clients or campaigns

JD: Our two biggest projects are the (Aspen) Airport Master Plan, (which includes a lengthened runway and expanded terminal), and the Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District on their proposed recreation center. Other clients include the Hotel Aspen and Molly Gibson Lodge, Ellina Restaurant, and David Bork, a highly regarded family business consultant.

ABJ: What has changed in the PR industry in the last several years, and what hasn’t?

JD: What hasn’t changed is that relationships are the bedrocks of the PR industry, and the key to success in building media relations and publicity for clients. In my case I do a lot of outreach to the community, stakeholders, and the client’s target audience which is key to building the integrity of the business and creating success for your clients.

Certainly the economy has taken its toll, so one way we’ve changed is by using more subcontractors. We have three people on the payroll now; at one point we had five. [Clients] want more things but they don’t want to pay for more things, so there’s value in having integrated PR and marketing. Budgets are smaller so you need to do more with budgets, and provide those services in an efficient manner. There’s certainly not the waste there used to be, such as choosing the most expensive paper for your brochures. And there’s more of a need to be carefully targeting who we’re going after and how to communicate clients’ needs.

I’ve had people, when going after new business, say ‘I can’t afford to do that anymore.’ But in general that hasn’t happened. Because traditional advertising is so expensive, there is a trend to more use of PR now. So companies on the PR side are benefiting from the economy as it comes back.

One of the things that’s changed drastically is that I did a lot of real estate marketing at the beginning of the last decade. Not anymore. Fortunately I started to branch out before the crash.

There are more specialists in the industry now, people focusing on one thing, whereas agencies used to be more full service.

We don’t do hard copy of many things anymore; it’s more e-mail marketing. And it’s also not a push campaign anymore as much as it is a pull campaign—you have to have robust websites for your clients; you have to give media the information they want in the form they want it. And of course there’s the whole social media realm.

ABJ: What, if anything, is unique about Aspen’s PR industry?

JD: The cost of operations here. And we’re a tourism and hospitality-based resort community, so that defines the kind of PR we have. We don’t have large corporations, so budgets are smaller.

ABJ: Who do you consider your competition and what do you think of them?

JD: I don’t feel like I have direct competitors. Maureen (Poschman) and Sheryl (Barto) are good friends of mine, but we do different kinds of things. Maureen focuses on travel and tourism, and Sheryl has some different industries. In fact, Maureen sent me a client a couple years ago. And Sheryl and I had lunch a couple weeks ago.

ABJ: Other thoughts?

JD: Those people who are really smart are still spending money on PR and marketing in the downturn. The worst thing you can do is stop. To stop efforts to reach your audience is so shortsighted. Those people who come out of a recession best continue to focus dollars and efforts in communication and marketing efforts.

DC to Aspen to Patagonia

Maureen Poschman’s story is similar to many an Aspen transplant—she came to Aspen for a vacation, and decided to stay. But unlike the throngs of recent college grads who arrive in town and wait tables or load lifts, Poschman had a stable career in international banking in Washington DC when she decided to visit Aspen in 1991. Six months later, she was hired by the Aspen Skiing Co., where she held a number of positions of increasing responsibility, including hotel sales manager, group sales director, international marketing director, and of course, communications director.

“So I sort of shifted careers, moving into tourism,” said Poschman. “I started doing PR and enjoyed it and was good at it.”

Friends urged her to go out on her own, so when she got married (her husband is local filmmaker Greg Poschman), she did—although she continued to handle Skico’s international PR, for a total of nine years.

Promo’s first client outside of Skico was Six89 restaurant in Carbondale, and Poschman has had a lot of restaurants as clients. Hotels are another focus—past and current clients include the Viceroy in Snowmass, the St. Regis in Aspen, and the Hotel Teatro in Denver. But the firm has branched out far beyond Colorado, adding a ski area in Chile (Portillo), two hotels there, and a surf resort in Costa Rica.

“It’s Aspen based but international,” she explained. “You can work anywhere these days. We’re really lucky that way.”

What binds most of Promo’s clients together, said Poschman, is a focus on upscale lifestyle tourism. As such, business has waxed and waned with the economy, with a little more local focus now than in the past. Promo employed up to seven people at one point; now it has two (Sarah-Jane Johnson is the senior account manager).

“As in any client-based business, it ebbs and flows,” she said, “so I try not to staff up too much, but at the same time we want to be able to give the best service to our clients.”

ABJ: Give us a sampling of your current clients or campaigns.

MP: We do destination marketing for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, and that is an ongoing campaign. Currently we’re working on the “Defy Ordinary” messaging, so we’re pitching spring, summer, fall, and winter as it relates to town rather than the mountains (which is Skico’s purview).

We also have a new hotel launching in December in Patagonia, the Tierra Paragonia, which is a sister property of the Tierra Atacama (in the northern desert), and is owned by the owners of Portillo. And we recently started with Infinite Monkey Theorem, an urban winery that makes wine in Denver’s arts district using primarily Colorado grapes. They’re a very innovative company so it’s fun to unleash some PR creativity—we had a party in the Smuggler Mine for them during the Food and Wine Classic. They want to change the way people approach wine, that you can have wine anytime. They just launched wine in a can. And it’s not just a quirky story; they’re doing well.

ABJ: What has changed in the PR industry in the last several years, and what hasn’t?

MP: [With the recession,] one thing that happened was that media were looking for different types of stories, ways at looking at things more affordably. That’s shifted in the last six months; there’s a little ennui about yet another two-for-one deal. The market is over that. But,everybody still wants more for less, so that’s something everybody with a client-based business is experiencing. So we’re trying to work smarter.

Many media companies have became so lean, so it’s made PR a little more crucial, maybe amore valuable tool for them.

With social media and blogs and such, I look at it as more of an additional way to reach out. Traditional media is still crucial, and stats that have come out recently have confirmed that. They say that 95 percent of tweets reference back to traditional media. So we’re definitely embracing social media, and sometimes it makes it easier to be able to use Twitter and Facebook and blogging as a tool.

ABJ: What, if anything, is unique about Aspen’s PR industry?

MP: I think we collaborate very well. Sarah-Jane (who is British and has worked with international brands) says it’s unusual how well people work together here.

ABJ: Who do you consider your competition and what do you think of them?

MP: I’m very friendly with and have a great deal of respect for both Jeannette Darnauer and Sheryl Barto, and have referred business to both. But I tend to look further outside Aspen; I feel like my competition is as much in Denver and New York as locally.

ABJ: Other thoughts?

MP: I’ve always been lucky to have great people work for me; we’ve attracted great talent, and they’ve gone on to do great things. (Former employee Erin Lentz is currently editor of Aspen Peak magazine, and others have moved on to larger PR firms.)

Small town girl with big city experience

Armed with a journalism degree, Sheryl Barto’s second job out of college was in the Aspen Skiing Co.’s PR department, from 1988 to 1989. At the time, she knew exactly what she wanted—her boss’s job—but she knew she wasn’t going to get it so she decided to move to Denver to gain experience, always with the intent of coming back.

It worked. Barto worked for Schenkein, the largest PR firm in Colorado, for five years in the early ’90s, then was hired to be the marketing director for Aspen Glen, a golf community between Carbondale and Glenwood, and in an only-in-a-small-town coincidence had the same boss she’d had at Skico. She spent two years there, but then, when her second son was one, wanted to have a shorter work week. Jeannette Darnauer hired her, allowing her to do that. In 1998, she struck out on her own, starting O Communications.

O doesn’t focus on any single industry, having served clients in real estate, travel, retail, services, nonprofits, outdoor adventure, lifestyle, and the food and beverage industry.

“We focus on clients with an entrepreneurial spirit, because they appreciate the entrepreneurial traits that we bring to the table,” says Barto’s website.

And in that spirit, Barto, who works from home, has four contract employees, all senior level PR freelancers whom she places with the appropriate contracts.

“I’m trying to balance being a mom, wife, and business owner,” said Barto, “and I feel like I’m doing what I need to be doing to make it all work for me.”One of those things is accepting clients whom she really feels strongly about and can have a good relationship with. She doesn’t do RFPs, she says, because “that’s not based on relationships,” and has walked away from potential business if the expectations were not inline with the budget.

“I feel incredibly blessed that I can run a business here and have local, regional, and national clients,” she said.

ABJ: Give us a sampling of your current clients or campaigns

SB: I’m working with a developer, DMB/Highlands Group, which is doing a large development called Martis Camp in North Lake Tahoe. The project is tied to North Star at Tahoe (ski area) and has its own ski connection and chairlift. We’re doing a national publicity campaign, and it’s doing very well, but in the ever-changing media world there are less and less places to pitch articles, less column space for luxury lifestyle real estate. We’re still doing traditional PR, so we’ve been hosting press for experiential press trips.

I have an import beer company (Paulaner HP) and a craft beer company, Oskar Blues Brewing (whose most famous product is Dale’s Pale Ale). The import company tends to be more traditional, so I do press releases, photo releases, media events, press trips to Munich which in the past have included three camera crews and ten media outlets. That got incredible results. The craft beer company doesn’t do any of that. We are a news release machine, so I’m constantly sending releases out. And this company (they were the first to put craft beer in a can) is a media darling; the press never gets mad for sending out so many releases.

I’m also working on the book Out of the Canyon (by Aspenites Art and Alison Daily, an inspirational true story that sprung from a family tragedy). The movie rights to the book were recently purchased, which is so exciting as this project is so near and dear to my heart.

ABJ: What has changed in the PR industry in the last several years, and what hasn’t?

SB: The pace is just as busy, but what has changed dramatically is budgets: clients want more for less, which is reflective of the greater picture in the economy. I’ve always worked in the beer business (I worked for Coors at Schenkein), and the beer world is highly competitive, so PR is extremely important. And no matter what goes on in the economy people are going to drink beer. In fact people are moving over from wine to beer, so craft brewing is exploding. It feels almost as crazy as the go-go years of real estate.

My second constant is real estate, but what has dramatically changed is developers’ budgets. I got to ride the wave of real estate and beer has stayed consistent for me. In this economic climate, there was a time when I would only take retainer clients, they had to sign 12-month contracts. But now project work is welcome.

ABJ: What, if anything, is unique about Aspen’s PR industry?

SB: The Roaring Fork Valley is very small town, but the whole world has its eye on us, and what we do. Relations with local press are closer and tighter than with national press, because the people I work with are often people I ski with or have coffee with.

ABJ: Who do you consider your competition and what do you think of them?

SB: I know Jeannette Darnauer and Maureen Poschman and respect their work immensely. It’s rare that we compete against each other; I am much more consumer-markets based than they are. I do a lot of real estate work, and what makes me different is that I was in house for two developers for a while, so that gave me insight. I do community relations work; I did Willits and the Whole Foods approval; I’ve worked with Battlement Mesa and gas drilling—so I’m a generalist with some specialties.


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