Q&A with our founder, Mary Lilja
This week we sat down with the founder of Lilja Communications, Mary Lilja, and asked her a few questions about her career in public relations and communications that spans over 40 years.
How did you get into public relations?
I graduated with an English degree and loved writing. I did some fiction writing and I took one journalism class as a junior at the University of Iowa. For my first job out of college, I was an administrative assistant for a small nonprofit that worked with seniors, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program or RSVP. I did the calculations of the reimbursement to seniors for their meals and mileage. Every month we published a one-pager in the Minneapolis senior center newsletter, and that was probably my favorite part of the job because I’d been on the high school newspaper.
Based on that experience and being on the high school newspaper, I got my next job as an advertising assistant for a growing technology company, CPT Corporation. After a year, I decided to go back to graduate school at the University of Minnesota and study writing again, but on a deeper level. I worked on English with an Emphasis on Writing, so I did all different kinds of writing, but at that point, I was still more interested in creative writing. As I was nearing the end of that, (and having had my first child), I went back to CPT. CPT’s CEO, Dean Scheff, had said, “If you ever decide you want to come back here, my door is always open.” So, I screwed up all my courage and I called him, and he said to come in. I remember going into his office and he said, “What I could really use around here is a speechwriter. Do you write speeches?” And I said, “I wrote one for myself for a presentation at the CPT dealer conference.” He said, “Do you think you could write speeches?” And I said “Yes, I think I could,” and he said, “Okay, you’re hired as my speechwriter.”
So, I went back to the university and bought a book, “Steps in Successful Speaking,” and read it, underlining like crazy. CPT had gotten a lot bigger in the two years I’d been gone. I had been there for maybe two or three months, and the director of PR left. In the whole hubbub, Dean called me into his office and asked, “Will you head up PR for us?” I said, “I don’t know much about PR,” and he said, “That’s okay, we won’t make you director, we’ll make you acting director.” So that was my baptism by fire. Fortunately, I had a really good PR counselor, John Beardsley. I knew enough from just being in the company, but I really was on a very steep learning curve. And that was my first job in PR, as the director of PR. I handled dealer and distributor communications, internal communications, external PR and media relations, as well as financial communications. It was a lot – but I am grateful to Dean for taking that chance on me. And yes, I wrote speeches, which led to my next job as a speechwriter at Dayton Hudson Corp – but that’s another story!
What was it like when you started Lilja Communications?
I’ve always said it was a moment when I jumped off a cliff, and I found I sprouted wings before I hit the ground. At the time I did that, we had three little kids under the age of 6 – and my husband, Mike, was at home with our kids and I was the breadwinner, so it really was a big leap. At the time I decided I was going to do it, Len Riggio, president of Barnes & Noble and my boss (after he had purchased B. Dalton Bookseller from Dayton Hudson) said, “You’ve been really helpful to me, I’d like to be helpful to you. The next time I’m in from New York, why don’t you present me with a proposal?” So, Len was my first client, and my second client was Ann Barkelew, Dayton Hudson’s VP of communications and my former boss. She hired me to write DHC’s management newsletter, something I’d always enjoyed when we’d worked together. And my third client was Marion Eztwiler, president of The Minneapolis Foundation. So, it was scary but pretty quickly I was able to make a living.
What is the most surprising thing you have learned about PR and/or communications?
The thing that keeps coming to mind is that it really does work. It does work to be thoughtful about your communications – that you really can make a difference. I think about a story we worked on about traumatic brain injury – this was long before it was really understood. It was about a young woman who’d had a ski accident in college, and her family was in a battle with their insurance company. We worked with Jeremy Olson, health care reporter of the Star Tribune, on the story, and it ended up on the front page of the paper. I like to think it started to turn the tables for insurance companies to understand that even though someone has completed treatment for the acute phase of their injury and they seem to be fine, they aren’t fine, and they require ongoing care. Elevating those kinds of stories can make a difference.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I like solving problems. I’m not somebody who really loves a crisis, but if there’s an issue or something that needs to be communicated, I like being thoughtful and thinking it through and then figuring it out and putting it on paper or describing it to a client. I also like working with people. We’ve been so lucky to have so many nice people to work with over the years. When they’re stressed out or they have something that they need help with, I find it very gratifying to be able to say, “It’s going to be OK. Here’s how we’re going to explain this. Here are the steps that we should take.”
What is the best advice you’ve received?
I had a wonderful mentor in Kay Sexton, a vice president at B. Dalton. Kay was a prominent book guru in the industry. She had a knack for knowing what the next big book was going to be that would strike a chord with American readers. Publishers and authors would die to get covered in Kay’s weekly “Hooked on Books,” known as the Green Sheet because it was printed on green paper. She had a steady stream of famous authors coming through her office all the time, which was fun for the rest of us. She had handled PR for B. Dalton before I did, and I remember her advice on some media crisis I was facing. I said, “They want to send a letter and a complaint to the Star Tribune about this story,” and Kay said, “That used to happen all the time, and I just had to basically almost sit on them and say, ‘No you’re not going to do that. This too shall pass.’” It was good advice to know when it was time to stand up and say no, that’s not a good idea and I don’t recommend that. She was a big supporter when I started my own business and remained interested in it – and me – until she died. I miss her.
What has been the biggest change since you started working in PR?
It’s the technology, the tools. When I started working in PR, we would FedEx drafts of copy back and forth to New York. That was a big innovation, FedEx. I still remember, right around the time Barnes & Noble bought B. Dalton, we got our first fax machine. It was this awful scrolly paper, but you could literally punch in a few buttons and fax things to New York, and they would get it right away. Then you could be in constant communication with them. We also bought our first Apple computer right around that time and produced a weekly newsletter for Barnes & Noble, BookTalk.
Email was the next big innovation. At first, we had one email address for the whole office. It was firstname.lastname@example.org, “L” as in Lilja then “ink-sters” because my original name for the business was Lilja Ink. Then I remember working on an annual report for Honeywell, we had all just gotten our own email addresses and I was able to email drafts of the annual report back and forth to my client there.
The whole advent of social media has been huge. I like to say the tools and the tactics keep changing, but the fundamentals – being clear about what you need to communicate, the whys of the communication, who you need to reach – all of those foundational building blocks of communications remain.
Where do you see the future of public relations heading?
I think communications is still so vital – it’s vital to our democracy and our society. One of the most distressing things is how many people no longer trust the news media. I have spent my entire career working with reporters and editors, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for them. Right now it’s more important than ever to support them. I have a zillion subscriptions and follow everything from the Star Tribune and Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal to the Washington Post and New York Times.
I think the challenge is just in how fragmented our world has gotten with so many different outlets and how much information and disinformation is flowing in the communications channels. And I think there’s an ongoing opportunity to figure out how to communicate clearly and effectively to your key audiences.
It’s just been such an interesting career because it keeps evolving, and I think it’s going to continue to be a fascinating career. There’s so much more – the video and graphical communications that we use now, and everything keeps getting shorter and shorter because people’s attention spans have been getting shorter and shorter. One of my favorite quotes is from a wise PR guru, Patrick Jackson, who consulted with Dayton Hudson: “Communication exists and is essential; the question is whether we manage it or not.”